When Naughty Dog released The Last of Us in June 2013 it felt like the perfect way to close out this last generation, in which the industry made such amazing leaps in storytelling being fused with gameplay. I reviewed the game, and as evidence by the score, I found it hard to imagine the game being improved in any way, but with the release of the only planned piece of story-based DLC, the developer has once again proven to me that the impossible is easily within their reach.
The Last of Us: Left Behind does a lot to improve what was already an incredibly fulfilling experience from the Playstation 3 exclusive title. It takes a page directly out of Hollywood’s playbook by splitting the duration of the over 2 hour campaign over two different, albeit eerily similar settings. While Left Behind is mostly a prequel, which tells the story of Ellie and her best friend Riley prior to the events of the Last of Us’ story, it is told in a series of flashbacks during the games infamous winter chapter. While I will avoid revealing what happens during the winter it helps to give even more narrative substance to one of the only remotely vague parts of The Last of Us’ initial impression on it’s players.
The focus of Left Behind is solely on Ellie, with players never once taking control of Joel, who is controlled throughout the main game. There is great juxtaposition in the way the DLC plays out, with the winter segments being a journey of Ellie realizing her own strength on her own, giving players a chance to really experience The Last of Us’ combat and stealth gameplay without an AI controlled companion. This was rarely seen in the Last of Us the first time around, and it helps to address one of the few complaints most commonly lodged with the combat, which was the need to make those characters virtually invisible to enemy characters, even if they are standing in plain sight. When Ellie is on her own, sneaking through abandoned stores and hallways, the player becomes completely immersed in the stealth action of the game, and navigating some of the larger enemy-controlled areas not only becomes slightly easier than before, but also more fun, staying hidden in the shadows without the constant reminder that this is still a video game being played, and some compromises had to be made to properly present the vision of Naughty Dog.
The combat itself remains largely unchanged, but Naughty Dog shows a new level of brilliance in the way they tweaked some of the gameplay conventions in Left Behind to create a unique experience while still feeling similar in many ways to what we’ve already played. Most notably, there are sections of the Winter story that see Ellie having to face the Infected enemies at the same time as the human Hunters, and even being able to play the two sides against each other while remaining hidden herself. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is, hiding in the top floor of a department store and throwing bottles and bricks at the feet of Hunters to attract a pack of Infected in that direction and just watching the bloodbath ensue. It also becomes truly helpful in those situations, as you can use the fight to your advantage and pick off the stragglers with relative ease.
But the “current day” side of the story is really the B-side of Left Behind. Where the game truly shines is in the past, when Riley and Ellie come meet for the first time in months and go on a small adventure. We are introduced to Riley when she wakes Ellie up from her slumber in her strict military school back in the Boston quarantine zone. We learn that Riley and Ellie had some sort of falling out months prior and that Riley has since joined the infamous Fireflies, the underground militant resistance movement that plays an integral role in the main story. Riley instantly seems more assertive than Ellie, and quickly convinces Ellie that they need to go on a late night adventure, as Riley has something important she needs to show Ellie.
Where the two girls go, naturally, is a mall. In a nice bit of symmetry to the current world, you can see the threat of a normal life for the two young women together as they happily explore the dilapidated and destroyed mall, almost as they would had the infection never occurred in the first place. That the winter story and Riley and Ellie’s stories are both told in a mall is an obviously intentional and welcome note that is played, as the two stories are woven together nicely. As Ellie reaches a certain barrier on her own, the game flashes back to certain moments in her time with Riley, giving insight to the strength that Ellie has within her to survive these trying times. As I said, it plays out similar to the story you’d see in a Hollywood film of self discovery against all odds, and does so in a powerful way.
One of the most talked about moments of The Last of Us takes place about an hour before the game ends, and is the one emotional high in a game filled with crushing lows and endless despair. When it seems like things couldn’t have possibly gotten worse for Joel and Ellie, a strikingly serene moment comes along and completely takes the two out of their run-down world, if only for a minute or two. It’s an incredibly powerful scene that everyone who played it will instantly talk about, because it stands alone in it’s optimistic tone. However, I think the reason I feel Left Behind packs a larger emotional punch overall than Last of Us is because there are multiple moments that feel optimistic throughout the story with Ellie and Riley. There is little-to-no combat in the flashbacks, as the two girls are alone in the mall. Littered throughout their adventures, Riley and Ellie come across stores and amusements that hit incredibly hard when set against the backdrop of our lost society and tortuous violence in a post apocalyptic world.
But Left Behind isn’t perfect, even if it comes remarkably close to it. For all of the strides made in the combat and in tweaking familiar gameplay mechanics from The Last of Us, the ending devolves just a bit into a more frustrating reminder of some of the old conventions. I personally loved the large-scale combat moments of the main game, but in this intimate story, after having played for nearly 3 hours in both timelines and being able to see what the smaller scale of combat could be in Last of Us, that the final action beat is such a stark reminder of the large scale sections of the original game is frustrating. With too many enemies and nearly no way to stay hidden for too long to try and take out each enemy in the same satisfying manner as you’d just done for the entirety of the story, it was a sad, slightly sour note to end on, at least from a combat perspective.
The Last of Us: Left Behind shows us what DLC has the potential to be. It fleshes out the story of the original game without stepping on the cannon of the main story in the slightest, it changes up the gameplay to keep things fresh, and deals an incredibly heavy emotional blow throughout. Possibly the best thing I can say about Left Behind is that, while the ending is known to players immediately, anyone who has played the main story to completion knows the outcome of Ellie and Riley already, it still leaves you incredibly affected by it when everything plays out. I challenge anyone to find a developer firing on all cylinders more than Naughty Dog right now, as I don’t think they exist. With the fourth Uncharted game on the horizon for Playstation 4 and the Last of Us team surely working on something new as well, the future is hopelessly bright, even though the games are potentially grim.