(A note about spoilers: by the time I write a review of a game, you the audience have had ample time to play the game in question, if you had a mind to do so. So anything spoiled is your fault, bucko.)
Last of Us 2 is a game full of revenge and the consequences of trauma. Sounds fun, huh? Despite the crushing weight of the narrative themes, it does manage to be a “fun” game when you can put the grim reality of the story out of your mind for a bit. Complicated.
There was a fungal outbreak 30 years ago or so. The fungus turns people into murderous mushrooms. The remnants of humanity have huddled together to rebuild new societies to survive the ongoing mushroom threat. 4 years ago (AKA the events in The Last of Us), our hero Ellie was escorted by gruff ol’ Joel to a group called the Fireflies. Ellie is immune to the fungus, and the Fireflies were working on a cure. Easy peasy, right? Except that the Fireflies would have needed to kill Ellie to investigate her immunity. Ol’ Joel didn’t like the idea of his proxy daughter getting killed for science, and he did some bad bad things to stop it. Now they live in Wyoming town, trying to move on. Until one of the few remaining Fireflies finds Joel and extracts their bloody revenge for his bad bad deeds. And since they kill Joel in front of Ellie, Ellie swears revenge on the killers. Revenge leads to revenge leads to revenge.
Over the course of the game, our hero Ellie gets her revenge. Each time she kills one of the Firefly murder squad, it is a visceral and unappealing encounter. There is no joy in the revenge killing, only a nauseating hollowness. This is great for supporting the story’s theme, less great for the player’s enjoyment. I felt bad after each encounter. By the time I was 2/3rds of the way through the game, I just wanted to “press X to abandon revenge quest and grow beans with Dina instead”. I was not given that option.
And you can’t tell her to walk away because Ellie cannot walk away from her trauma. It haunts her. She’s compelled to keep seeking revenge because the accumulated trauma of her past and watching replacement dad get killed keeps her from functioning. She can’t sleep, can’t really eat, and is pretending to be normal for the sake of her girlfriend. Layer this on top of the constant psychological stress of fending off murderous used-to-be-humans, and fighting murderous actual humans, and it is a wonder that anyone can have a healthy human relationship. As the story unfolds, you learn that she knew about the bad bad things Joel had done. She knew that her chance to give her life purpose and meaning by being sacrificed for a potential cure was taken from her. And she had just decided to try to forgive Joel and build a new life, right before the revenge squad rolled in and killed him. The darkest truth is that there isn’t much life left inside Ellie. The need for revenge is the only identity that feels real to her anymore. Keep the fun coming!
The real monsters
The murder mushrooms are scary, sure. And the threat the fungal spores pose, an infection that has spread widely through the population like an, oh let’s say, a pandemic, is poignant for some reason right now. But they are monsters, and left on their own they will eat humans, so I don’t feel bad stabbing a murder mushroom in its weird spore-neck. The human factions are a different story. Townsfolk, Fireflies, Washington Liberation Front, Seraphites, Rattlers. All humans, all fighting each other over territory and ideology. No matter how awful and violent a particular faction was (and most of them were truly awful), I felt tremendous guilt when I stabbed one of them. The game also took special care to show the blood and gore from my murdering, enhancing my unhappiness. I wanted to save human lives, not end them. In a post-apocalypse, human life should be precious.
Is this still going on?
The game had pacing issues. Multiple flashback scenes for the pair of main characters. Playing through a section of the game, only to replay the same time period from the other character’s perspective. A neat trick the first time, but by the third or fourth time (I lost count) I was exhausted. I knew all the awful things that were to come, I knew that both Ellie and the other main character (Abby, the one who actually killed Joel because he killed her Firefly dad. REVENNNNNNNGE) were dark, flawed people. Pretending to be these people stopped feeling good by the end.
File Not Found: Redemption Arc
I am a sucker for a qualified happy ending. I know there’s no magic anti-murder mushroom solution. I know the things Ellie has gone through has damaged her fundamentally. But give me some hope that even the broken can find peace. And if they move towards peace, please stop inflicting awful things on them. I get the point, the world is cruel and humans are wicked. You don’t need to hammer it home again and again and again.
Final score: B
I did enjoy playing this game. It is gory, it presents violence in the most unflattering light possible, it made me feel bad for humanity, but I think that was the goal. It was fun to negotiate the unpredictable landscape of a partially collapsed Seattle, skulking through ruined buildings looking for salvage and seeing the sad tableaus left by the previous occupants. I only wish it gave me a little less despair.