Originally published on CultNoise Magazine (now closed) | February 21, 2014
I played The Last of Us: Left Behind in one sitting. When I finished, I turned straight to the keyboard and tried to put my thoughts down, but I stopped there. I found I wasn’t sure what to write, because in truth Left Behind is every bit the masterpiece that the game’s main campaign is. The story left me emotionally drained, and most surprisingly left me wanting more. If this is the direction in which the games industry is moving in, then DLC will become much more than a simple add-on. Left Behind proves that DLC can be prologue and epilogue, adding a new dimension to the main game.
Spoiler warning – the following review contains spoilers for The Last of Us. If you haven’t finished it, don’t read any further.
Left Behind is the first and only piece of story-related DLC for The Last of Us. We follow Ellie in the weeks leading up to her meeting with Joel, in a series of events that fans will be familiar with. This is the story of how Ellie and her best friend Riley became infected. It’s a story of love and friendship, and what it takes to survive in this cordyceps-ravaged world.
The majority of the DLC takes place during a trip to a mall, on the outskirts of the Boston Quarantine Zone. The mall has been abandoned since the infection hit some 20 years earlier, and is now used largely as a thoroughfare for those looking to sneak into the QZ. This act of defiance is a regular one for Ellie and Riley; we’ve seen them do it before in the comic tie-in, American Dreams, but this time something is different. Riley has been gone for a while, has joined the rebel group known as the Fireflies, and she has something to tell Ellie. Ellie can sense it too; there’s a subtle discomfort between the girls that fades away as the story goes on, and we begin to see how close these two really are.
Newcomer Yaani King does a great job at voicing Riley, keeping up with the ever-brilliant Ashley Johnson, voice of Ellie. I was surprised at how much I grew to like Riley over the course of Left Behind’s three-hour story. Through the lens of Ellie’s attachment to her, I grew to care about her too. It’s a testimony to how great Naughty Dog’s writing is.
There’s a beauty in Left Behind’s confidence to tell a story that doesn’t necessarily involve combat. The girls wander through the ruins of the mall, chatting and joking, breaking into now-deserted stores. I said in my main review that Ellie is a kid who has never been allowed to be one, but I’m happy to say that I was wrong. This pre-infection Ellie is more carefree, and as she walks through the mall there is a intriguing parallel to real life friends just hanging out.
With gameplay that is largely centric on this idea, I honestly wondered why Left Behind needed combat at all. What combat is here is excellent, of course, and well explained in the frame of the story. Where Joel has some 20 years survival experience Ellie is decidedly less deadly. She can stealth kill the infected with her switchblade, she can shoot a gun or a bow, but she can’t melee an enemy that’s spotted her or escape from a grapple. In a masterful move, however, Left Behind adds a new combat mechanic that should’ve been in the game’s main campaign. When faced with both infected and other survivors, Ellie can use thrown bottles or bricks to lure them towards each other, letting the two sides fight amongst themselves. The AI here plays wonderfully, and though it was only possible a handful of times it never got old. Should the game get its rumoured sequel, let’s hope we’ll see this mechanic reappear.
However, while the combat is there for players that want it, the real experience lies in Ellie and Riley’s friendship, in the things both said and unsaid to each other. There are a few great surprises in here, which I won’t spoil, but I came away from Left Behind with a better sense of not only who Ellie is, but of who Joel is also. Where Joel uses those he cares about as fuel to carry on surviving, Ellie and Riley survive so that they may spend more time with each other. It’s two sides of the same coin. In this way, the DLC compliments the main game more than any other DLC I’ve seen.
It’s tough to talk about Left Behind’s story whilst avoiding spoilers. This, as in The Last of Us’ main campaign, is something that must be experienced for yourself, and only in the shadow of the game’s ending. Left Behind demonstrates Naughty Dog’s ongoing ability to craft a complex, emotional narrative, free from the tropes of a medium that is often looked down upon for its lack of emotional maturity. Those looking for a three-hour gorefest beware; there’s something much deeper to be found here, and it’s something that fans of the main game should not miss. Ignore what others have said; at a price of £11.99, or free with the game’s Season Pass, it’s worth every penny.
For the full The Last of Us review, click here.
All images courtesy of Naughty Dog.