This will contain spoilers for both games in the series. These games are solidly focused on their narratives, so I didn’t see a way I could write in a spoiler-free way that wasn't just two sentences saying the gameplay is the same. This is essentially a combination of review and recap for people not interested in the games, or have already played and need a review of what just happened. Continue at your own risk.
Labeling a narrative as predictable isn’t the useful criticism it seems to be. If an audience walked into a Bond movie and was asked to guess what was going to happen, they would probably be closer to 70% correct than to 30%. The movies follow a formula, and while audiences can be fairly secure in the fact that everything’s going to be ok, they stay excited and tense anyway. It’s hard to avoid having a sense of empathy for the hero’s struggle, and this connection makes the story enjoyable regardless of its predictability. In the case of The Last of Us, this principle was used to the game’s advantage. The game opens with Joel losing his daughter in the first days of the zombie outbreak, and one timeskip later, you see him meet Ellie, a girl of the same age. It’s easy for audiences to draw the parallel and extrapolate where this story is heading. The relationship between Joel and Ellie may start out pretty cold, but they’ll grow together, Joel will begin to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, and there will be a moment at the end of the journey where Joel has to decide if he can give her up. This predictable trajectory lets audiences appreciate the little moments that build the relationship, and steep in the dread of their separation.
In contrast to the first game’s clear structure, The Last of Us 2 struggles to communicate what the story is about. The best way to demonstrate is to give a rundown of its introduction. You start out playing as Joel, shortly after the events of the first game. He and Ellie have moved into Jackson, the town Joel’s brother, Tommy, established in the last game. Joel talks with Ellie, but their relationship has gotten noticeably colder, and it’s obvious something between them has changed. It then skips to the game’s present-day, four years later. You play as Ellie, and are introduced to the friends she’s made over the years, most notably her new girlfriend Dina. After getting acquainted, riding around the town, and discussing news with the locals, you play as Abby, a new character who is searching for somebody outside the town. You then go back to Ellie, spending time on patrol with Dina, and you learn a little more about their history. As a blizzard rolls in, they stop their patrol and hitch up in a mountain cabin. You switch back to Abby, who was attacked by an infected horde when she broke from her group in a reckless search for the mysterious individual. She’s rescued by Joel and Tommy, and they all retreat to the cabin where Abby’s group was staying. As it turns out, Joel was the man they were looking for, and they start torturing him. You switch back to Ellie, and she’s informed that Joel has gone missing. She races to the cabin with Tommy, charges in, and is restrained by the group as she watches Abby kill Joel. Ellie and Tommy are spared, and time skips forward to the point where they are discussing what to do next. Tommy convinces Ellie that she should wait before chasing after the killer, and she agrees to wait for a day. He uses that time to head out before her, and a day later, Ellie and Dina leave town to find Tommy and learn about the group that killed Joel.
While I went into a much higher level of detail for the second game, and I could have made the first game sound worse, it’s not strictly due to bias. Even with some fluff of its own, its plot thread is singular and consistent. The pre-outbreak sequence establishes Joel as a character, a post-outbreak sequence establishes the setting, Joel meets Ellie, and the game begins in earnest within the space of an hour. The second game establishes three characters with their own motivations in multiple hours of non-linear events, and after all that, it’s hard to tell what exactly the point of it was. It's worth keeping in mind that my summary even leaves out plot threads that don't end up mattering (LGBT intolerance in the town, townspeople not knowing Ellie is immune, hordes have been approaching the city, Tommy knows Ellie's secret, general romantic drama, etc) so the amount pointless baggage being placed on the audience is even higher than I'm making it sound. If the point of all this exposition is to make you want to go after Joel’s killer, why is so much time spent in flashbacks, learning about a setting where the game won’t be taking place, talking to people who don't matter, and playing as the killer herself? The audience has to assume that all these moments factor into the greater narrative, but coming up with a line of best fit for it all is impossible. Mystery in a story can be a good thing, but mysteries are exciting when the audience understands the central conflict, not because the conflict is confusingly established. The only arc the audience has a grip on is that Ellie will go after Abby, they’ll fight, and she’ll probably realize that revenge won’t bring Joel back. It’s enough to get the ball rolling, but the narrative would be better served with a presentation that establishes itself in a more concise and focused manner. Regardless, this is the point where the journey begins, so now’s a good enough time to quickly address the gameplay.
It’s almost exactly the same as the first game. This is another case where I’m not trying to sound dismissive, but the enemy roster has a grand total of one addition. The human enemies work without any notable differences, except that they seem a little keener this time around. With your new ability to go prone, stealth is slower than before, and crawling from bush to bush to avoid detection is common. You also have some new things to craft and new skills to buy, but there’s no way of getting around the fact that 80% of your time will be exploring empty buildings, pulling open drawers, avoiding Clickers, and doing stealth takedowns just like before. The biggest difference is how little it’s tied to the story this time around. The first game was broken into seasons, which served as episodes with unique settings and conflicts. With the intro, four seasonal episodes, and a fifteen hour run time, the story developments were coming at a steady pace every few hours. The relationship growing between episodes provided a constant through-line, and the slow moments highlighted how Ellie and Joel are changing. The Last of Us 2 doesn’t follow this structure, and you don’t even have a consistent companion to help guide the story in this way. Instead of pivotal moments between seasons, you occasionally get flashback sequences showing vignettes of Ellie and Joel’s interaction between games. The idea may have been to have the flashbacks show the lessons Ellie learned from Joel in the past as she applies them in the present, but I struggled to find any such connection. A flashback of visiting a museum happens around the time Ellie catches up to one of Abby’s collaborators and tortures information out of her, and I’m still trying to reconcile the two scenes. Was the point to show a loss of innocence? If so, that was already one of the major themes of the last game, and there’s no reason to rehash it here in a clumsier way. Was it to show Ellie had a strong bond with Joel, that motivated her to avenge his death? That’s something we already established, given the fact we’re on this adventure in the first place. The flashbacks just further confuse what this story is really about, hinting at a development in Ellie and Joel’s relationship that informs the current plot, but they only vaguely tie together. You just fall into a pattern between the non-sequitur flashbacks of collecting materials, crawling, killing another one of Abby’s friends, and hoping it starts clicking eventually.
So, after cutting through all of Abby’s collaborators, Ellie and Abby finally confront each other. Abby kills one of Ellie’s new friends (he’s only mentioned one time in the rest of the game, so no big loss), shoots Tommy, and threatens to kill him. She makes Ellie drop her weapon, and it seems like the bad guy has won, when…
You spend the next ten hours in an extended flashback as Abby, going over what she’s been up to the last few days. You hang out with all the characters you have been systematically hunting thus far, and she has her own flashback sequences similar to Ellie’s within her own giant flashback. To put it mildly, this is a neck-breaking lurch in pacing. You go from having a fully upgraded character and customized weapons to one with absolutely nothing, and from the conclusion of a story to another long intro sequence where you meet new characters, visit their home, and get re-tutorialized. It’s not hard to see the idea behind this, with the parallels between the two characters being highlighted to a painful degree. Each had loved ones taken by the other, both are out for revenge, both had caring father figures that they lost, both loved going into flashbacks about visiting museums, the amount of similarities makes the direction unmistakable. While this is as blatant as you can get, we previously established that predictability can be a good thing, and this type of storytelling has potential. The issue with it comes down to the aforementioned lurch in pacing. It could have been presented as two stories running in parallel, building suspense as two unstoppable forces scream towards an unavoidable collision. It could have been presented just from Abby’s point of view, letting us judge Ellie’s actions in a more objective way. Even without any story reorganization, it could have let us analyze Joel in this way, given that Abby’s father was the surgeon Joel killed when rescuing Ellie at the end of the last game. Out of all the ways this story could have fleshed out the characters, we’re left with the one that’s simultaneously the least interesting, the most jarring, and the way that comes across as treating the audience as idiots by dumping 10 hours of explanation on them. I think this will be a deal breaker for a lot of players, who will find it hard to engage with the story through the eyes of someone who killed a beloved character, especially after being ripped away from their hero before the journey is complete. Even players who are more receptive to the idea will start her campaign not realizing this isn’t just another quick flashback, and excitedly rush through it to see the conclusion of Abby and Ellie’s confrontation. However, there’s a lot of story to go before you can get to that point, and it’s a frustrating process to realize what exactly you’re in for. You spend hours on patrol, hours walking across town to visit an old friend, and the rest of it saving the lives of two runaways from a militant luddite society. The details aren’t worth going into, the takeaway is the parallel to Ellie’s story. She has complicated relationships with her friends, she risks her life for the benefit of others, she brutalizes her enemies.
So, after hours of buildup and just as many hours of waiting, the confrontation finally begins. Abby is immediately disarmed, and the two begin a punchup. One horrible boss fight later, Abby wins the fight, spares Ellie a second time, and says she doesn’t want to see Ellie ever again.
Then, we reach the end of the game. About a year passes, Ellie and Dina move onto a farm and Dina has a child, fathered by that guy who existed exclusively to get shot earlier. They live a happy life raising their child and their sheep.
Not really though. Ellie is haunted by the fact Joel still hasn’t been properly avenged, and Tommy is trying to get her to see it through. Despite the fact that Abby has beaten her twice already, killed her father figure/mentor, killed the father of her child, crippled Tommy’s leg and shot his eye out, and only decided at the last moment to not slit Dina’s throat, Ellie chases after Abby once more, abandoning her peaceful life. Abby meanwhile has abandoned her militaristic ways, searching for members of her late father’s (slightly) more peaceful organization. However, she gets kidnapped by slavers, and Ellie races to catch up. She finds Abby near death, rescues her, and it looks like she’s going to show mercy, but instead demands a fight to the death to settle the score. This time Ellie is about to win, but she has another flashback of Joel just before the kill, and decides not to kill Abby. Abby rides off, Ellie returns to an empty home, the end.
So, at the end of all that complicated story presentation, we somehow ended up back at the story we had guessed after pushing aside all the extraneous details: Ellie went after Abby, they fought, and she realized that revenge won’t bring Joel back. The question I’m left with at this point is why we had to spend so much time laboriously defining a message the audience would have understood just fine without the extra work. A personal arc like in the first game could have carried the experience, but the extra hours of exposition don’t actually establish one, and Ellie is single-minded in her quest for revenge until the last 10 minutes of the game, abandoning her wife and child for the sake of revenge about an hour before the game ends. The setup could have worked just like it did before, with a predictable and straightforward framework that lets the audience appreciate Ellie’s personal journey. Instead, we end up with a confused mix of subplots that don’t end up mattering, themes that were discussed in the first game, and an overloaded cast of characters presented in an unpredictable structure that jumps perspectives and time frames constantly. It’s not that The Last of Us 2’s story is outrageously bad as people have made it sound, it’s just told in the most confused way possible. With how much more streamlined the game could have been by focusing on Abby instead of Ellie, I’m wondering why her campaign wasn’t the focus rather than a pace-breaking distraction. The answer may be obvious when you consider how much controversy the game generated when you only play as her for half the game, and I’m going to go over the controversy as a fun way to wrap this up, and make the horrible comments I’ve read serve a purpose somehow:
1) Killing Joel was disrespectful to fans of the series, and it throws the previous game's development in the trash
It’s easy to see where this complaint is coming from, no one likes to see their favorite characters die, but Joel is a product of his environment. The reason why he’s so beloved is because of the ways he’s been formed by his apocalyptic existence, and to put him off-limits to the harsh justice of the setting is to do a disservice to the character. It would be wrong to say the game would be strictly worse if he survived, but arguing his death is disrespectful is equally incorrect. I also don't understand how his death could somehow invalidate his character arc, when his death is a direct consequence of how he bonded with Ellie so much he couldn't let her go. His fate is certainly tragic, but it's entirely consistent with how the world was established in the first game.
2) Joel never would have let his guard down, he trusts no one, and he would never enter the house of someone he didn’t know, or tell them his name
I think people who say this are forgetting the details of the last game. Joel started out fairly guarded, but he worked with a partner. He worked as a smuggler, brokering deals between people he may not know and trusting it’s not a setup. He trusted the leader of the Fireflies enough to travel across an entire country to bring Ellie to their facility. Between games, he settled in with a community of people, and lived a peaceful life with them for four years. He mentions how he has a good relationship with the traders and migrants who pass through, and he was close to the town when this incident went down. You also have to consider the lack of alternatives he had at the time, running away from a massive horde of infected in a blizzard with minimal survival supplies. If people were arguing that the blizzard and horde were contrived, that’s something I could understand, given that severe weather is never a gameplay element after that point, and there is never another horde attack. I just think people are looking at how Joel’s a dangerous guy and treating him like Batman, a super-survivor who never makes mistakes and is justified in all his actions. The perspective that he’s an amazing guy may lead to the next controversy, saying...
3) It's horrible to make people play as Joel's killer
Again, this seems to be an odd complaint for the setting. It’s repeatedly emphasized just how horrible Joel’s actions were towards others, including ambushing and killing civilians. Being unable to empathise with Abby is natural, but declaring her as more horrible than the other protagonists is an overreaction. If you reject the idea that Joel could be at the receiving end of his own brutal style of justice, you’ve turned him from an interesting character into Batman.
4) It uses violence to a depraved extreme
For a third time, people are either misremembering the first game or ignoring it for the purpose of piling on criticism. Cutting people’s throats open with broken glass was a full-on game mechanic (shivs) and you see a guy literally shoot himself in the head after killing his kid brother. Meanwhile, I've seen an incredible amount of criticism surrounding the fact you have to kill a dog in this game, with people saying it's just too much. I don't follow the logic saying the latter is more excessive than the former.
5) It’s misery porn
6) The game is agenda-pushing
LGBT people do not need to justify their existence. Similarly, I’ve seen a load of dog-whistle hatred directed towards Dina, who is Jewish. I believe a large part of the outrage surrounding the game comes from the loathsome cunts who stir shit like this.
So, I guess that’s pretty much it. If I had to say whether I liked it or not, I wouldn’t feel too strongly either way. Even though I’ve criticised it for about five pages, there are plenty of things to appreciate. I didn’t experience a single bug, the animation is incredible, and the gameplay is extremely polished even if it’s extremely samey. It also reinforces the themes in a couple elegant ways, like naming all the enemies and giving them relationships with each other, and it’s not presented as a big dramatic sacrifice when main characters die. They’re just talking one second, then they get shot and fall over. Abby’s story in particular does this well, where you spend hours watching her risk her life to save a former enemy, betraying her organization, and going into the ground-zero for the zombie plague just to get them some medical supplies, only for the rescue-ee to wordlessly take a bullet and die soon after. It’s not a belabored point, Abby never comments on how this reflects the futility of violence, she never mentions regretting spending all that time on something pointless, it just happens and she’s forced to keep it together and stay alive. That’s why I find it hard to get angry about this game even when it has so many issues. It does have a good story and great impactful moments like this, there are just way too many stories and way too many pointless moments for the quality ones to ring true. I would still be willing to play The Last of Us 3, but I hope they’re willing to reign in the scope next time.