The end of the world is utterly miserable, but there are bright spots if you look close enough. That was the message I took away from The Last of Us Part II – though perhaps not the one developer Naughty Dog was looking to convey.
The first game, released in 2013, introduces us to Joel and Ellie, two survivors in a world ravaged by a parasitic fungus that turns people into zombies or worse. Teenage Ellie is immune to the fungus, and Joel/the player is tasked with escorting her across the ruined US to doctors working on a vaccine.
The growing bond between Joel and Ellie as you fight off zombie hordes and hostile survivors is a big part of the appeal of the game, and sets up an explosive ending (big spoilers next, if you haven’t played it) when Joel learns that developing the vaccine would mean removing part of Ellie’s brain, killing her. Unable to let her go, he shoots the doctors as they prepare to operate on an unconscious Ellie, and he squirrels her away, later telling her it proved impossible to make a cure.
Playing the game when it was released, I struggled with Joel’s decision – sure, I’d grown fond of Ellie, but was saving her really worth dooming the whole of humanity? It’s a question that has grown ever more relevant in a world where scientists are considering deliberately infecting healthy people with the coronavirus in an attempt to develop a vaccine, so it’s apt that Part II is devoted to exploring the consequences of his choice.
Picking up four years later, Joel and Ellie are living in a settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. Life is far from ideal – people in the village are sent out on regular zombie patrols – but as post-apocalypses go, it’s not bad. Unfortunately, a visit from outsiders disrupts everything, and sends Ellie on her own cross-country mission in an effort to seek revenge.
What follows is a bloody and overly-long tale in which the characters make one bad choice after another. A mid-game twist attempts to re-frame everything that came before, but the execution is off. Developer Naughty Dog seems to want to rub the player’s nose in the violence. “Why are you killing people? Don’t you know killing people is bad? Maybe revenge isn’t a good idea?!” it seems to ask. To which the answer can only be “well, you made the game that way”. I am unable to stop Ellie’s mistakes, only able to be complicit in them.
The game is both gorgeous – an early level sees you exploring a ruined Seattle, now covered in luscious greenery as “nature is healing” – and grim, with far too many brutal injuries rendered in high definition. If you read my recent review of Doom Eternal, in which I espoused the joy to be found in gory virtual death, that might sound hypocritical, but there is a big difference in playing as a space marine cutting down demon hordes compared to desperate people smashing each others’ heads in.
The absolute highlight of the game for me was nothing to do with death and destruction. Instead, it was a flashback (mild spoiler coming up) that sees Joel and a young Ellie exploring a ruined museum on her birthday, taking in dinosaur skeletons and replica space capsule. Joel gives Ellie something that must have been almost impossible to find in this devastated world, and her moment of happiness will stay with me for a good while.
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