For a game ostensibly about hate, The Last of Us Part II revolves around the complexities of love. It shows love at its most positive, between two people whose love is rarely normalized in media; as the driving force behind a powerful, overwhelming, all-consuming quest of anger, murder and retribution; as a means of defining identity and community, where we belong and where we are dehumanized. It conveys how love — in its equal potential to be merciful and violent — is intrinsically tied with survival.
It’s hard for me to talk about The Last of Us Part II partly because of love — it’s difficult to discuss something I adore as intensely as this game. But it’s also difficult being as honest to my experience as possible considering the extremely tight restrictions for this game imposed by its review guidelines. I’m basically not allowed to talk about everything that transformed this game from one I was extremely skeptical of, especially as a queer woman of color, into one of my favorite games of all time. But I’ll try anyway in hopes I can convey a fraction of what makes this game so special to me.
Written by Halley Gross and Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us Part II follows Ellie on her mission for revenge after an event shatters the peace she and her father figure Joel had known for the last few years in a thriving Wyoming settlement. There’s genuinely not much more I am able to say about the plot. What I can say is that it has been marketed as something vastly different from what it actually is in order to protect its most powerful moments. It’s considerate and thoughtful in ways the first game wasn’t, handling a wide variety of subjects with a level of care and grace that is both poignant and palpable — and that kept surprising me even until the very last minute of what is a 25 to 30-hour long experience. It’s not gratuitous with its violence any more than with its heart.
And it’s impossible to not think of that violence in all its forms, especially in the time period this game is being released in. The Last of Us Part II is a story about warring factions, the breakdown of society following a deadly pandemic, and people who rely on violence to feel heard. I was anxious about a game focusing on hate, for those kinds of stories tend to veer into territory involving respectability politics and the importance of forgiveness, especially towards oppressors. But it avoids believing it has the authority to condemn violence just because it doesn’t adhere to a specific notion of peace. Peace is differently defined for every person; sometimes it requires letting go and leaving people or systems that have left one disillusioned, and at other times, it can only be found through screaming and breaking and destroying what must be rebuilt.
It’s a story about — among many things — a young woman who screams and breaks and destroys, who is fucked up and has to deal with the painful consequences of ruining things and lives, and having her own ruined in turn. It’s a story about powerless, ruined people who think they can fix themselves by ruining each other. There are no villains, but there are also no heroes, and The Last of Us Part II is intelligent enough to not pretend it can decide who fits in which category.
I want to say that Ellie and her girlfriend Dina are the best part of this game; that their relationship — which communicates as much depth through the smallest of glances and the barest of comforting touches as the moments in which they plunge knives and fire bullets into the skulls of those who would tear them apart — is the core of this story. That the healthy queer love, intimacy, sexual tension and friendship between these two women is beautiful and moving in ways I desperately needed when I was younger and in ways I still need now—in ways I wish were normalized in the AAA industry much more.
But that wouldn’t ring true because, as revolutionary as they are, there is so much more to this story that is just as wonderful. The Last of Us Part II accomplishes making me care about Joel to a degree I never did in the first game, but its writing especially shines through new additions to the cast like Abby, a member of the Washington Liberation Front; Lev and Yara, two siblings belonging to the religious cult known as The Seraphites; and Jesse, Dina’s ex-boyfriend. In addition to Ellie and Dina, Abby and Lev are two of the most well-written characters I have known, not least of all because they’re all characters we don’t usually see at the forefront of gaming. There’s a lot here that feels like it’s not usually seen — something that, while I felt the first game lacked in comparison to the fanfare it received, the sequel is much more deserving of recognition for.
However, it doesn’t always succeed, particularly in regards to race. For example, the only Latinx character, Manny, is othered through his accent in ways no other person is. He gets the typical treatment many Latinx characters in games do — the injection of random Spanish words, a stereotypical and ambiguously Latinx accent. It’s a shame because he’s otherwise a fantastic character.
I’d also feel irresponsible if I didn’t take time in this review to acknowledge a distressing quote by director Neil Druckmann. He links lynching, an unjustifiable act that has a specifically racist history in America, where this game takes place, to the inception of the game’s narrative. It has understandably put off many people, especially Black people and other people of color, from playing this game. I don’t think it’s my place to lead discussions on this quote, and while I saw it only after I finished playing the game, it’s one that’s hard to ignore. I hope to see critics with the authority to do so in games journalism, which is much more diverse than what it was in 2013 when The Last of Us was released, explore why this framing is not only dangerous, but also doesn’t feel like it lines up with the actual text.
The Last of Us Part II is not perfect. Encounters feel infinitely more terrifying than in the first game due to how this entry leans into horror, but at one point, I felt exhausted. While the combat in the sequel has been improved and is perpetually dynamic and difficult, a few sections feel padded with fighting and bits of story in between. That I only felt exhausted after too many consecutive encounters rather than by the emotionally taxing story makes me feel like it would have benefited from tighter editing. One of my main concerns prior to playing this game was its fetishization of violence, but this — to my simultaneous relief and exhaustion — happens mechanically more than emotionally.
Subsequently, while the idea behind giving every NPC a unique name is interesting, its execution is shallow considering there is so much time spent relentlessly taking out bodies upon bodies. It feels like a superfluous detail that only added to the reportedly arduous crunching it took to make this game, which is still on my mind. NPCs feel much more humanized through the notes you find on nightstands, kitchen tables of abandoned homes, and bodies long decomposed, especially because they compliment Ellie’s own frequent journaling of her journey. Finally, at times, The Last of Us Part II unnecessarily struggles to strike the balance between linearity and an open world even though it’s always better in its most tightly focused sections.
Despite those flaws, I considered giving The Last of Us Part II a perfect score because it is a brilliant story that will stay with me forever. I am in genuine disbelief it has affected me as much as it has; that it has turned a game I was once ambivalent about into a franchise that has so much meaning to me going forward. Despite the proudly gritty image the marketing of this game has presented, it’s The Last of Us Part II’s quiet moments, always accompanied by a spectacular soundtrack, I can’t stop thinking about.
It’s Dina listening to Ellie play her guitar; Joel’s lingering glances filled with regret towards Ellie in the dead of the night; Abby being told she’s a good person despite living in a world that has broken the illusion of good and bad people as much as it has been broken itself. It’s the normalized celebration of queerness; the validation of fury and how we wield it in our yearning for justice; and the exploration of women who are, in many ways, beyond redemption — and how they are so molded by tragedy that they might be deserving of it anyway.
It’s the many ways in which it shows the resilience of love even in a story framed as being about hate. I wish I could say something more eloquent than that I have an already immeasurable amount of love for The Last of Us Part II. But, ultimately, love — the most simple yet complicated feeling human beings can possess — is what defines this unforgettable story.
The Last of Us Part II was developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.