I do not like The Last Of Us 2. I didn’t like the first one either (it kinda fell apart for me in the final act) and everything I’d heard about its sequel made it sound like a carnival of violence I’d feel okay about abstaining from. And yet, despite the foul taste left from others’ reviews, Naughty Dog’s childish response, and my own experience chugging through what is indeed a carnival of violence, I… still don’t like this game. Sorry.
I hate the main characters. I hate the story. I hate the combat and its visceral “so lifelike you can hear enemies choking on their own blood” sense of realism. I hate the zombies—they trigger the hell outta my trypophobia. And the Wolves. And the Seraphites—“everybody in this game is morally gray... except those religious zealots, fuck those guys amirite?” It’s easier to ask me what I didn’t hate, which is, ironically, literally everything else. This game is good, it’s a masterpiece, if not for every single element that makes it the game it is.
But that doesn’t mean The Last Of Us 2 is a total loss. With just a few (radical) changes, I imagine we could salvage it into something that doesn’t wring out the last drops of happiness my dried-out sponge of a soul can hold nowadays.
Were it in my power, I’d take a little digital melon baller and scoop everything out. Scoop out all the guts and leave me with the bones—a world depopulated of characters and story beats and filled with quiet and beautiful empty spaces crafted with so much loving detail they evoke the same feeling of nostalgia the characters feel whenever they discover something from the old world. Abby and her quarters, Ellie with her cards. Give me nothing but the towering shelves of the hardware store and the pet shop complete with moss- and rust-covered grooming tables. Let me creep along the floor of a crumbling bubble tea shop thinking, with fond pre-quarantine nostalgia: “God, remember boba?”
Beyond picking over bones of the world itself, I enjoyed the game the most when riding my horse through the wilderness. Instead of a misery simulator, The Last of Us 2 should be a post-apocalyptic Pony Express meets Oregon Trail adventure game. You and your trusty steed navigate ruined infrastructure while dodging the occasional fungus zombie, combat being optional in this fantasy of mine, all to deliver some small innocuous package from one bombed-out part of the country to the other. No life-or-death stakes, no moral quandaries about right and wrong and vengeance the characters never seem to grow beyond. Just you, your horse, and the open road.
My vehement dislike of The Last Of Us 2 doesn’t preclude me from appreciating its artistry or its writing, particularly with some of the characters. Jesse, Manny, Nora, Dina, Lev, and Yara—in my fantasy game, they can come too. My little exodus leading these beautiful people to a place where everything is fine and nothing hurts. I want to save them from being caught up in a blood feud between two women who’ve never heard a Black auntie tell them “peace be still.” And likely never will because in this game everybody who is named, Black, and has a speaking role is guaranteed to die. But hey, progress right?
The Last of Us 2 is like laudanum—best enjoyed in small doses. But as former colleagues have expressed, it’s too bleeding long. The last act is completely unnecessary. I cried when Ellie left Dina and J.J. behind not only because Dina, girl, you deserve better, but also because I knew I’d be in for at least another hour or more of straight torture porn. My game would be finished in a handful of hours and produced under ethical, crunch-less conditions.
I know people won’t want to play my version of TLOU2, and I don’t fault those who enjoyed the real one. It’s a beautiful game for many of the reasons I’ve already discussed. But playing it makes me feel the same way I did slogging through BioShock Infinite, “this is your king?” Nobody wins, everyone hurts, and the main characters—the driving force behind everything you see—are so incapable of thinking, for just one second, outside their own selves.
There’s already enough callousness and cruelty in my own waking world, I see no merit in reproducing that in a digital one. That’s not to say every game I play needs to be sunshine and rainbows, but at some point, if realism is the goal, wouldn’t either Abby or Ellie stop, look at the pile of friends’ bodies, and say “enough”?
I know I’ve had enough. Too much even, which is why I’ll be shopping around my alternate idea for studios to pick up. Get at me Devolver Digital. But if Naughty Dog wants to improve its game, I’m open to consulting. Hell, with photo modes all the rage and the wealth of accessibility options and difficulty settings that greatly reduce combat encounters, a mode where all you do is ride through the game doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Hollow out the game to its basic components, and it becomes playable… enjoyable to me. Make The Last of Us 2 a lavishly rendered, post-apocalyptic horse-riding adventure and then you might have yourself a GOTY.