The Duality of Woman

Where to start, where to start indeed. As a big fan of Naughty Dog, I left my just over thirty hour play through of The Last of Us 2 simultaneously happy it was over, and a bit slighted like what I had just played left an impact that needed no discussion really. Sort of- here you go, now it’s over, see you down the road sort of feeling. Was it a good game? Well, everything was up to the usual Naughty Dog(ND)standards here. Was the story bad? Depends on your own personal opinion. And since you are here to inquire about my opinion, let’s start out simple.

The Last of Us 2 is absolutely too long. Even for a game of this caliber, it is just too much to endure. I understand that not all forms of entertainment are meant to be solely happy, or even fun, so there is no lengthy part here about me just not “getting it”. What I did get was a feeling of dread when I scour for items and such, or despair when I have to go on a mindless killing spree, whether it be human or infected. When you have a heavily story driven narrative, adding this kind of length can easily backfire due to you controlling said character, see the developments, only to fall right back into the same routine of sneaking and killing. As it goes on for so long, you tend to lose any momentum you just witnessed and sort of get desensitized to your character having any rage or guilt at slitting another throat, or setting them on fire with a molotov cocktail. This was sort of the point as you see Ellie go from a survivor out to get revenge to full on deranged murderer.

So I will let you know, normally I do spoiler free reviews. I just can’t round out what I want to say making it spoiler free. But what I can do is discuss spoiler free for the time being. At which point I will wildly flag for spoilers, as to not ruin this game for anyone. That will never be my intent. So for now, allow me to discuss a few things about Naughty Dog.

As someone who has played pretty much all of their games, yes, I am a big fan. I still thank ND for Way of the Warrior on the 3DO, because that’s how I learned of the band White Zombie. Yes, the game wasn’t great, but I played it just to hear those tunes. Then you fast forward and we are seeing this build up to Uncharted. It has a little bit of Jak and Daxter, but takes on a more cinematic approach for a nice Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider feel. The characters were fun, witty, and generally a blast to play the game to see how they develop along with the plot to drive the story. While not perfect, Uncharted sort of set the new standard for videogames. Top notch graphics, with a highly motion capped performance that allowed for some realistic animations. Then Uncharted 2 released, and took that base formula, and blew everything out of the water. I think about that game often, as it really left an impression that Naughty Dog is out there trying to blur the lines between movies and games. Letting you play out this fantasy with Nathan Drake and company made me feel like these set pieces created were on par or better than one I could physically touch. But at the end of the day, it was still just that lighthearted romp around treasure hunting-save your buddies from the bad guys-win it all-the end that just sort of worked without needing to explain why the complete package is there.

That changed with The Last of Us. Naughty Dog, or should I say Amy Hennig and Neil Druckmann could work magic, and this was the top of the mountain for many people. To be fair, Hennig was the Uncharted side of things, as I thought she had helped with the original script of The Last of Us a bit(Thanks Hank). Now, I don’t need to go into great detail about what The Last of Us has achieved. But to me, it was the little things I enjoyed about it the most. The fluid animations, Joel putting his hands on things while he sneaks around. When there is incoming danger, Joel puts his arm over Ellie to help shield her. The pacing was near perfect, and you truly see a change in both Joel and Ellie by the end, for better or worse. This world had a story to tell, and it poured out into the set pieces, cutscenes, and even the heart pounding action segments between you, the infected, and very little ammo. While Uncharted 2 is still my favorite ND game, The Last of Us gained my respect by letting ND go beyond a lighthearted romp with friendly characters. And by the end, you were with these characters, and whether you agreed with the ending or not, you felt the reasoning behind it. It was done, and this was over. Until it wasn’t.

After playing through The Last of Us 2, I can definitely see the huge gap made by Amy Hennig leaving Naughty Dog. This game, while trying to convey the old tried and true who is the real villain here?-and just how far will one person go?- comes off as just forced. Yes, the graphics are the best I have seen on a console. The mo-cap, the voice actors and actresses are top notch. The animation is stellar, which checks a lot of boxes for the usual ND level of quality. The soundtrack was wonderful.  So why do I sound like I hated it? The fact is, I didn’t hate it, but I think that this game is a big step backwards for the company, which breaks my heart considering the unbelievable streak they were on. Hey, it happens to the best of them. Without going into spoilers(yet), I can tell you that pretty much every character now feels like a throwaway cliché. I no longer care about Ellie due to the decisions she has made. I no longer care about Joel due to the decisions that the game made. Dina honestly is the only character I still care about, because of the journey she went through, and the hard choices she made the entire game, especially the end. Well, her and one other which will be in the spoiler section. So if the goal from Neil Druckmann was out with the old, and in with the new, then mission accomplished I guess?

Of course a lot of people saw the very early leaks, and had already made up their minds. Which I will never understand. If you haven’t played a game, or watched a certain movie, or read a certain book, etc, how can you say it is good or bad? You can have an opinion on whether or not you think it will be good or bad, sure, but in my own opinion, it is invalidated. Did I see some of the leaks? Sadly, the great people on Twitter made sure that about everyone saw them, which takes away all the hard work the people at Naughty Dog poured into this game. But I didn’t let that stop me. I was determined to take a walk in this desolate world overgrown by vegetation and despair even more than the first part. I wanted those damned leaks to be justified. But mostly, they were the means to a game that slogged through the desolate buildings and vegetation, one after another, only to turn around and slog through more buildings and vegetation, with the occasional change up here and there. With some new enemy types, and new characters with their own parts to play, I thought the game was doing an alright job at first. There are some huge areas to explore, which I enjoyed for a while. But the pacing felt off. Like, some of the parts you play and the cutscenes were meant for a different part of the game almost. I wonder if Druckmann decided to change a few things up to help combat the leaks?

Either way, I will leave you with this before going into the spoiler section. It was their own story to tell, whether I liked it or not. It was by Naughty Dog’s design that The Last of Us has come this far. So, like the game, for better or worse, this is what we got. And what we got just seems like it fell short, with some of the dev team and even the voice actors speaking out against the bad reviews. But, having created the game, I feel Druckmann and his team had to understand that this game wasn’t going to win everyone over. Maybe they were going for that. But from my experience, it was a solid game, and nothing more. We can’t keep patting Naughty Dog on the head for amazing graphics, mo-cap, and voice acting while delivering very similar experiences while really adding nothing new. They have sort of become a one trick pony that was everybody’s favorite thing. From a dev standpoint, ND knows how to utilize Sony’s hardware like no other, and they always push the limits of what a console can do. I will never let anyone take that away from them. But it might be time to hit the road, and hope that maybe we see a return to Jak and Daxter, or something that focuses on mainly fun for a change, and let the devs enjoy their creation without having to kill themselves every minute of every day on these high budget games-meet-movies experiences.

Now, I will briefly go into spoilers. So here are some warnings.

Hello! Spoilers! There will be massive spoilers below!

Read at your own risk!

So Joel being an alien was a really big plot twi- I’m just kidding. Last warning.

Right. Here we are. Now I purposefully didn’t mention Abby or Lev because those are big spoilers. Yes, I know the trailers have shown Abby, but not all people watch trailers, so I didn’t want to upset anyone. If I recall, in the early trailers it made it look like Dina, or another love interest was going to get killed, and Ellie wanted revenge. So Joel helps her. Now, I will say that could very well be what ND wanted to do at the beginning. And it very well could become dlc later as a flashback. So we briefly play as Abby. Which felt odd to me, already setting up that angle. We then see a very stupid Joel and Tommy following a complete stranger back to her camp. Even if Joel had become a bit softer living at Jackson, this absolutely would not fly with him or Tommy. So we have lazy writing here. Or like I stated above, a last minute change to the pacing of the game to throw off the leaked spoilers. Either way, bad move. Ellie busts in with a gun, and gets her ass kicked. If she busted in guns blazing first, she would have been killed, so that makes a small amount of sense. What doesn’t make sense is Abby letting Ellie and Tommy go. Even if she or her friends were not okay with it, Abby of all people should know anyone can hold a grudge, and want revenge. But no, let’s continue with the lazy writing. Ellie has her world shattered, even though via flashbacks it shows her and Joel haven’t been getting along too well. Let’s fast forward to Seattle, with her and Dina together.

I really did enjoy this at first. Except for the back and forth banter between the two while roaming around. I can forgive the cheesy Dina jokes, but the rest once again felt forced and flat. Seeing Dina and Ellie grow together while in the midst of the loss of Joel, and being in an area where death is around every corner felt comforting, like they could make it even if they were the last two alive. But we know now that’s not the case, as after finding out Dina is pregnant, killing everyone Abby cares about in cold blood, and seeing most of the people she cares about also die, Ellie just can’t let it go. We see the life they have together in the future, with the farm and baby. Honestly, I thought it was a dream, and Ellie would wake back up in the theater. But a somehow alive Tommy comes and drives a complete wedge between Ellie and Dina, with a location of Abby years later. So leaving a crying Dina and the baby, Ellie departs years later to do the same thing you wanted to do at the beginning of the game. So on that note, let’s change things up.

You play through this entire game as Ellie, only to go back to day one as Abby right before you hope to see the conclusion of their showdown in the theater. You learn more about her friends, what she has been up to, and so on. Right off the bat, using Abby was just not fun. How is a trained soldier weaker than Ellie? Her take downs go on forever, her weapons sway really bad, and she has no knife(shiv crafting time), it’s complete lack of true character development via bad game design. Leveling up Abby was meant to draw out the game. Sure, there can be some upgrades, but she should already be a fighting force given her nonstop training with the Wolves. Also, while I’m being completely honest, I never cared about Abby. She made an awesome villain(from Ellie’s perspective), being the daughter of the surgeon Joel killed at the end of the first game, but going way beyond that, and even playing through the entire game again to show her side because she’s not the villain just doesn’t work here at all. We could have played the flashback segments with Abby and her dad, sure, add some depth here, but she never felt right to me. And poor Lev. Lev seems like he was thrown in as an afterthought. Almost like ND decided to change the Seraphites at the last minute, or decided to cut parts from the game. If you’re going to go into super depth about Abby, then why not a bit more about Lev, or the Prophet? I would have rather had more time with Lev and his sister than Abby’s friends. These are small gripes, but I have them regardless. Short story is the Seraphites and the Wolves are at war with each other. The Wolves were able to overthrow the Seattle government, and establish themselves there. The Seraphites live on a small island near Seattle, and are more of a cult, wanting to live off the land, and not use technology. Lev and his sister are forced to leave, and while on the run Lev’s sister is captured by the Seraphites. Well, at this time, Abby is also held hostage by the Seraphites, and Lev rescues them, then Abby returns the favor, and they are all on the run. Lev’s sister dies, but they have to go on. This shows a change in Abby. For the first time, I got to see an Abby who maybe wants to change. Fast forward a bit more, and this leads to almost a deja vu moment with Abby leading a small boy around, similar to Joel and Ellie in part one.

So again we are searching for supplies, and mindlessly killing our way through everything. Which includes the Wolves later on. So Abby has abandoned the Wolves for Lev and her friends. She possibly wants to search for the remnants of the Fireflies from the first game, that her and head surgeon dad were a part of. Okay, so we see a shift here. But the sad part is, due to all the boring set pieces and killing, it doesn’t really get the reaction that it should. So we fast forward to Abby seeing all of her friends murdered, she tracks down Tommy, Ellie, and company, and begins to hand out death and beatings yet again. Then Ellie begs her to not kill Tommy. One thing leads to another, Tommy is shot and Ellie runs. Now, Ellie had time to grab a gun, she has multiple guns. But what does she do? Tries to hit a trained soldier with a wooden board. After all of this survival Ellie has been through, that’s it? That’s the big plan against the person that killed Joel? Then this game has the audacity to make you play a cat and mouse game as Abby against Ellie. At this point I was yelling at my television. In my rage, I felt that Abby hasn’t earned this amount of screen(play) time to warrant this showdown from her perspective. Which brings me back to the out with the old, in with the new thought I mentioned above. Dina jumps in, gets beat down, and Lev begs Abby to let them live and leave. Like I said, Abby is trying to change, but she hasn’t known Lev that long, and once again, Abby should know that Ellie won’t stop. So just another poor plot twist to keep the game going.

Then we fast forward in time to see the farm scene, and older Ellie leaving her love, her life, her kid for some point of revenge when she has been beaten down twice now by Abby and company. Which like I said, was Tommy’s fault for pushing her over the edge, effectively making me hate Tommy now. Then guess what? Back to Abby and Lev. It’s getting absurd at this point. They are trying to track down the Fireflies, and get captured by some random people. Back to Ellie. Ellie gets hurt really bad, but still decides to push forward, single-handedly taking out the entire camp, which now makes this part laughable. Ellie is now an unstoppable killing machine. You find Abby tied to a post in the ocean, cut her down. Abby is tiny, has been tortured, malnourished, and broken. Abby cuts a near dead Lev down and tells Ellie there are boats in this direction. So you stumble to them, but Ellie STILL can’t let it go! Yelling at the television continues. She throws Abby down, but Abby is done with all of this, and refuses to fight. Ellie puts her knife to Lev’s throat, forcing Abby to fight. After all of the other bullshit, it was at this point that I realized this was it. Ellie had come full circle to be the villain now. In what would go on to be a flat out terrible decision by Druckmann. Sometimes things aren’t so clear, and there are no happy endings-blah-blah-blah been there, done that with much better examples. This was just pitiful. I really hated Ellie, but I still hated Abby, so this was just a terrible way to end this. So with a Metal Gear Solid 4 style showdown between Abby and Ellie, we see Abby bite some fingers off of Ellie’s hand, and Ellie finally getting the upper hand and drowning Abby. Some vengeance, perhaps? Nah, a flash of Joel playing guitar and smiling caused Ellie to stop. Just like that. Done. Abby takes Lev and leaves. Ellie comes home to an empty farmhouse. Dina and the baby left. No happy ending, no average ending, no nothing. She tries to play guitar, but can’t, due to the lack of fingers. Walks out, and leaves. Credits roll. I don’t know what to think. But I do know that the only characters I care about now are Dina and Lev. And the parts that were most enjoyable were the flashbacks of Ellie and Joel. Because that’s who I had time invested in. That’s who made the first game so good.

Look, I have never been so conflicted on a game. So maybe Druckmann has done what he set out to do. But I can’t just give him a thumbs up and say this game is where it’s at. Because it’s not. Bad characters with even worse development. Bad pacing and plot, with even worse plot decisions to let the story continue. Mostly boring but gorgeous set pieces with too many things to kill and barely any puzzles. And possibly the worst ending to a game I have seen in many years. If that’s your sort of thing, then I hope you got what you wanted out of The Last of Us 2. For me, it feels like the industry in general has become a little too high and mighty. Constantly cheering each other on as the games seem to keep falling short. And if we don’t like it, then we are just wrong. So put me in the “wrong” column while I happily wait for Ghost of Tsushima and Paper Mario: The Origami King.

7.9

Good

  • The graphics are outstanding. It made me stop to look more than once
  • Per usual Naughty Dog, the mo-cap, voice acting, and animations are top notch
  • The soundtrack! Once again, it was a full realization that worked with this world

Bad

  • The long, boring segments really made it hard to keep the story moving forward
  • There is really nothing new offered in the way of game play, outside of a few enemy types
  • This story did nothing for this universe, making me wish it was all a dream
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