What a ride. Brutal, bleak and uncompromising in its determination to make you feel every twist of the knife and to question your part in how far Eillie is willing to go for revenge.
It’s significantly longer than I was expecting, which at first I thought was a fault, but the back half actually contains and surpasses much of the emotion and spectacle of the first, and of the original game, and I found its bolder choices always backed up its thesis statement that violence begets violence.
This is an unpleasant lesson, of course, and Naughty Dog’s stubborn refusal to sway from making you truly feel that these are almost exclusively terrible people while investing significant time and effort into making you empathise with them is a large part of what will make this game stand out long after the naysayers have gotten over the fact that this is not a fanservice sequel but rather a direct continuation of the consequence of the choices that very flawed people made in the first game.
Yes, it is at times tropey. Yes, it is at time quite ham-fisted in what it is trying to convey. Yes, it seems like it could have ended cleanly in more than a few places. But ultimately it’s unafraid to shy from the sort of harshness that makes something like The Road both miserable and incredible at once, and that lingers long after the credits.
It is staggeringly well crafted, beautiful and horrifying to look at, emotionally draining and tense throughout.
Ignore the hate, make up your own damn mind. There’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind journey into darkness to be found here.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.
First of all, I think that the majority of the criticisms are coming from the game asking a herculean amount of empathy from the player, and in not delivering an easily digestible sequel. To those criticisms I say: you missed the point of the first game.
In the original you were very much loaded up with reasons to feel for Joel right out of the gate — to understand his hurt and nevermind that you were consistently told he had done bad things. By the time you yourself were asked, as his actor, to be a selfish monster in the final act and to save Ellie’s life you feel justified in doing so, even if that decision is incredibly questionable. You can let those scientists go, but I murdered every single one of them. They were going to kill my surrogate daughter. I was going to protect her, godsdammit.
But Joel was never a “good” person, which was easier to forget when that story was about his redemption, and Part 2 is all about the consequence of that redemption falling apart in the moment he chose to save Ellie and lie to her about it. Moreso, it’s about his legacy consuming the one he chose to save. Ellie is lost. Joel removed her choice to die for something meaningful, and now she had a chance to rectify that even if that thing is bloody vengeance. The first game was about survival until those final moments. This is the fallout of Joel’s choices.
So then, I can see to some extent why people were enraged by Joel’s death first, but then doubly wounded by being forced to play the back half of the game as his killer and asked to understand her. I hated Abby. You’re supposed to hate Abby. But then, in time, you realise that you are playing as Joel in those years we never saw, when he was a miserable bastard and a killer in a cruel world, before he found a way to heal and to care again with Ellie. Abby is, in many ways, far more justified in her vengeance than Ellie. Not only that, but she is successful. She is what Ellie might become next, when all the violence is done.
And that violence is horrible. Even while it’s fun to skillfully carve your way through a platoon of people trying to murder you or to turn fungus zombies into gory chunks, there’s a visceral cruelty to it. Enemies scream in agony and die slowly. Their friends cry out their names when they find the bodies you have made. You know you are killing parents and children, you see how they live. Killing dogs is awful every single time but your survival depends on it. You are required to be a monster.
Sure, one could easily get the gist of the message that there are no heroes in this world quite plainly from any single part of the game, but I still respect Naughty Dog’s commitment to making you sit in the mess you make and dwell there. To live it and to not get reprieve. There is no glory in this. Revenge is not justice. Violence begets violence forever. This isn’t some cool, disaffected guy single-handedly solving the zombie apocalypse one bullet at a time. This is broken people trying to make something from broken pieces and cutting themselves and everyone near them in the process.
By the end you just wanted them to stop. Even after you fought Ellie as a boss in Abby’s campaign the cycle of violence comes around again and costs Ellie the only thing she had left connecting her to Joel — two fingers on her left hand that she needs to chord the guitar he had taught her to play. Nevermind the deaths and permanent injuries done to those lucky enough to survive proximity to their feud.
Abby’s sequences are among the greatest Naughty Dog has produced for any of its titles. Sprinting through Pacific NorthWest forest at night in the rain pursued by screaming creatures is nerve-shredding. Going into Seattle hospital’s Ground Zero, the very place where the city’s infection started 20 years beforehand and reading the accounts of people that were so tragically unaware of just how insanely awful the world was about to become is something the first game never really needed to touch on because of the smaller scope of its story, but the opportunity to expand on the apocalypse while providing an utterly terrifying creep through the worst part of the worst place in the world was fantastic. And oh boy, THE RAT KING. What an awesome, horrifying design.
Sure, the gameplay loop usually falls back on the Sweep An Area For Enemies Then Scavenge or Walk And Talk, but there’s also enough creativity to it that the devs are able to count on your expectations and throw a random curveball at you at any moment. The Bloater encounters were adrenaline pumping and the addition of Stalker type enemies added a new horror to creeping through post-apocalyptic Seattle while the skittering silent bastards ducked around corners or waited to ambush in long grass.
Overall, this is the sort of title that marks high-water in the late stage of a console’s life cycle, and if this is the PS4’s swan song then damn did they ever go out with a bang.