If you read any of the The Last of Us Part 2 reviews that dropped a couple weeks ago, you may have noticed that one name was notably absent. That would be Abby, who is now at the center of the many heated discussions currently swirling around The Last of Us Part 2.
Sony Interactive Entertainment explicitly forbade discussion of the sections of The Last of Us Part 2 featuring Abby, which obviously made reviewing it a challenge. After all, understanding Abby's role in The Last of Us Part 2 is pretty key to understanding what the story is trying to accomplish. Her section also happens to be where The Last of Us Part 2 drags the hardest.
Now that the Last of Us Part 2 is available worldwide though, it's possible to talk about Abby in a little more depth. So let's do that, shall we?
Spoiler Warning: We're going to talk about Abby and in the process spoil a fair amount of the second half, including some of what happens in the theater. We won't spoil the end, though.
When it comes to Abby, it's as if Naughty Dog had some kind of internal bet going with The Last of Us Part 2. "We're going to have a new character brutally murder Joel, one of the most popular video game characters of the past several years, and we're going to make players like her."
It feels like the narrative equivalent of showboating, or perhaps nailing a difficult trick shot. If it works, everyone involuntarily gasps in appreciation; if it doesn't, the story ends with a disappointing "clang." For some, especially big fans of the original game, the clang of The Last of Us Part 2 is apt to be very loud indeed.
Abby's introduction by itself creates an emotional deficit that is immensely difficult to overcome. Our first glimpse of Abby comes as she slowly makes her way to Jackson with Owen, which is juxtaposed with Ellie's own introduction, culminating in a tense chase by a horde of Infected. Abby is eventually rescued by Joel and Tommy, but instead of expressing gratitude, she abruptly turns on them; a betrayal that culminates in maybe the most brutal video game scene of 2020: Joel getting beaten to death with a golf club as Ellie is forced to watch.
If you were invested at all in Joel and Ellie's relationship, the scene is a body blow, dispatching the original game's hero in cold-blooded and gruesome fashion. It naturally gets you rooting for Ellie as she sets out for Seattle to take revenge, where she is pitted against a violent militia and crazy cultists. Add in Ellie having a full game of character development behind her, and it's difficult—if not impossible—to get the audience's sympathies to shift anywhere else.
Still, Naughty Dog is determined to try. When Abby reemerges around the story's midpoint, she's caught in a tense standoff with Ellie. The Last of Us Part 2 is never more intense than this moment, with Ellie seemingly caught, the bodies of her friends lying at her feet. But then suddenly everything shifts, and we're back to Seattle Day 1, only now we're seeing everything from Abby's perspective.
I'm sure I'm not alone in immediately thinking of Metal Gear Solid 2, specifically the famous twist where Raiden is revealed to be the true hero of the story. It's here that we learn that Abby isn't necessarily the story's antagonist—she's the co-star. What's more, her own story is intimately connected to Ellie's, as her father was the surgeon Joel killed at the end of the first game.
Another comparison that popped into my head at this moment: Nier. The original Nier is frequently lauded for its clever New Game Plus, in which it's suddenly possible to understand the shadowy monsters that have been the antagonists to this point. In The Last of Us Part 2, Abby takes a stroll through Seattle's famous NFL stadium—the Washington Liberation Front (WLF)'s home base in The Last of Us Part 2—and chats with many of the characters who meet a bitter end at Ellie's hands in the first half. Vita Girl returns, as does Nora, who functions as the WLF's version of James Bond's Q.
It's all in service of getting you to view both Abby and the WLF in a more positive light—no mean feat given that you've just spent 10 hours killing them. Given about half a game to establish Abby as someone you should like—and already operating from a huge deficit—Naughty Dog pulls out all the narrative stops. Abby is given a sympathetic backstory; her own version of the famous giraffe scene from the original game, and a character to protect. She even goes on a ridealong with one of the WLF's many German Shepherds—the same dogs that Ellie so brutally kills in the first half of the game. Teaming up with a dog will make anyone seem more likable, I guess.
In an interview with Indiewire, writer Halley Gross talked about the need to "build empathy" for Abby from the first moment she appeared. "We wanted the opportunity to build empathy for her from the start, and the most effective way we can do that is to have you walking in her shoes, spending time with her, seeing what makes her vulnerable, seeing what makes her scared. We get that she's scared of heights, we get that she has a soft spot for Owen and is upset about his romantic life, we get that there are intense stakes that might drive those two people apart. We wanted to inform all of that without you understanding that she's the prototypical 'antagonist.'"
Naughty Dog's efforts aren't always successful, at points feeling sweaty and even a little desperate. I didn't care about her fraught romance with Owen, nor the war between WLF and the Seraphites, also called Scars, happening in the background. There are points where Abby's story starts to feel like one long digression—a feeling amplified by the gigantic cliffhanger that ends Ellie's section.
It's at this point that The Last of Us Part 2 begins to drag. Abby's section isn't nearly as focused as Ellie's, preoccupied as it is with Owen, the Scars conflict, and her relationship with Yara and Lev—a pair of Seraphite refugees. It's a stretch that involves a lot of narrative heavy lifting in a comparatively short amount of time, and The Last of Us Part 2's story can't help buckling a bit under its weight.
To compensate, The Last of Us Part 2 saves several of the absolute best setpieces for Abby's section. Her trip to a creepy hospital—abandoned since Outbreak Day—is a major highlight, featuring a chase with a twisted Infected straight out of Resident Evil. Abby herself plays somewhat differently from Ellie, toting a crossbow instead of a bow and arrow, and relying on crafted shivs like Joel instead of the indestructible switchblade of Ellie's. Abby's unique weapons and traps help to differentiate her from Ellie, shaking up the gameplay just enough to keep things fresh.
Abby's story finally comes together when she bonds with Lev and strikes off on her own, eventually coming full circle when she discovers Ellie's lost map. The scene that follows is cast almost like the reveal in a horror movie, with Abby's slow dawning realization that Ellie has come for revenge. And finally, we're back to the confrontation that we left hours before, with our two heroes facing off.
It was at this point that I realized that I had to put the controller down and go take a walk. Having spent the previous 10 or so hours viewing Seattle through Abby's eyes, it felt like a bit much to have Ellie fulfill her quest for revenge. On the flipside, I had no desire to kill Ellie. That's The Last of Us Part 2's big trick: leading you in one direction for hours, getting you to root for Ellie to avenge Joel, then abruptly turning the tables in an effort to make you feel bad about wanting revenge in the first place.
That it works at all is mostly down to Abby's relationship with Lev, who embodies her guilt over murdering Joel and her desire to make amends. Lev is an innocent; an adopted younger brother who softens Abby and makes her more sympathetic by extension. Her protective relationship with Lev is by far the most meaningful part of her arc—carrying with it far more emotional heft than her relatively bland interest in Owen—deepening both her motivations and personalizing the WLF-Seraphite conflict as a whole. Without Lev, it's hard to imagine caring very much about Abby, which maybe betrays a certain weakness in the writing around her character.
After all, in many ways Abby is just Ellie again. Her protective relationship with Lev is reminiscent of Joel's relationship with Ellie; her journey with Owen through the aquarium is a direct mirror of Ellie's own experience in Wyoming's natural history museum, and her desire to avenge her father's death is the flipside of Ellie's quest to avenge Joel. She's the personification of the old cliched line, "We're not so different, you and I."
With Lev's help though, The Last of Us Part 2 manages to just barely carry off its big trick, leading to a high stakes finale in which it seems entirely plausible that either Ellie, Abby, or both will end up dying. That in turns allows it to fully drive home its biggest theme: that revenge and violence are never-ending cycles of death and sadness; not the most profound or original message, but one nevertheless worth repeating.
The Last of Us Part 2 does not have an easy time getting to this point. Indeed, Abby's section was perhaps the single biggest reason I decided not to give The Last of Us Part 2 a higher score. Its ambition is laudable, but it loses too much of the plot in the second half, and it works a touch too hard to make Abby sympathetic in the wake of Joel's murder. Naughty Dog's shot ultimately goes in, but not before bouncing on the rim a few times.
The single best thing that can be said for Abby's story, and I do mean this as a genuine compliment, is that it makes me want to play through The Last of Us Part 2 one more time, if only for the added perspective its unique structure brings to Ellie's section. That's more than I can say for almost any game these days, and maybe proof that Naughty Dog's big twist was a success.