It has been eight months since The Last Of Us was released and Left Behind marks the first (and apparently only) slice of campaign DLC, which delves into the backstory of Ellie in a quasi- prequel to the main campaign. Running at only a couple of hours in length from beginning to end, we’re pleased to report that Naughty Dog has managed to not only recapture the essence of the characters but has compressed what made us love them in the first place into a fraction of the time.
Joel barely features at all in Left Behind but the ethos behind the story very much involves him. The action crosscuts between Ellie searching for meds while Joel lies unconscious (after his fall in the second act of the main game) and Ellie’s friendship with a young girl named Riley (featured in the American Dreams graphic novel) during her time in the quarantine zone.
The latter is the more interesting of the two stories that make up the narrative divide. Here we see a rather less plaintive Ellie in the throes of her hormone-driven and carefree adolescence (or what little she has of one in this post-apocalyptic world) discovering both the secrets of a forgotten world and something about herself. While Joel often acted as a sombre counterpart to her vivacious spirit, here she’s able to share her curiosity for life with an equal, and it leads to some of the most emotionally engaging scenes in the entire saga.
More straightforward are the sections that involve Ellie searching for medical supplies to save an injured Joel. This is where the majority of the game’s action takes place, with Ellie encountering infected and other survivors across a series of claustrophobic environments within a dilapidated shopping mall. Naughty Dog doesn’t offer much time or consideration for those that haven’t delved into the main game since its initial release, throwing players into a series of tense scenarios with tough enemies before you’re given a chance to reacquaint yourself with the combat system.
Shooting can feel loose, and archery too gentle, but given Ellie lacks the physicality of Joel, it’s unsurprising that Left Behind encourages stealth when it’s clearly the more viable option when navigating through tiny pockets of this stylised apocalypse. An enhancement to the enemy AI reinforces the necessity for this approach, with infected now attacking human enemies if in close proximity. And it’s a more satisfying (if frantic) alternative: hurling a brick towards a group of patrolling survivors, attracting a horde of undead, which serves as a deadly distraction while you carefully circumvent the carnage.
These visceral, nerve-plucking jolts of action also serve as a sharp juxtaposition to Ellie’s life before she met Joel. Between the violence and bloodshed Ellie must commit to save someone she cares about, we’re shown the tender side to her personality and the lengths she will go to for the people in her life she loves.
It’s almost an odd choice on Naughty Dog’s part to include Riley. Anyone who played through the original and paid attention will know how the story will end and it’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s deft storytelling prowess – unparalleled in the medium – that, despite the inevitable conclusion, all the humour, drama and tragedy still resonates so deeply.
And it helps a surprising amount that the pair are just so much fun to spend time with. There’s an emphasis on fleshing out the supporting cast and characters only offhandedly mentioned in the main game. Notes and artefacts discovered around the environment play a large part in elaborating on the events and people crucial to the fiction, but Naughty Dog takes bold steps to tinker with the gameplay mechanics to further invest players in the story.
There’s a ten-minute stretch of gameplay that involves Ellie and Riley chasing each other around a department store in a water fight with pump-action water pistols, we watch as the two share an intimate moment inside a photo booth (which also brings one of Left Behind ’s funniest moments as the two encounter social media for the first time) and then there’s an extended sequence of Ellie reeling off puns from a book she received from Riley.
Each of these quiet character beats is interactive, essential in investing the player in the relationship between these two characters. And Left Behind is a study of relationships, those broken, the ones in need of saving and those blossoming in unexpected ways. And while the two storylines don’t have any direct relation, it’s the commitment that Ellie makes to the people she cares about that is shared across both halves of the game.
In that regard Left Behind might not be what every fan of The Last Of Us is looking for. The gameplay is overtly divided into two distinct sections: the present, which focuses on action and the past where characterisation is the driving motif. It’s easy to imagine how this will jar with some players used to a subtler blend of the two, and admittedly we found ourselves drawn much more to the inventive chapters set in the past. While the set pieces set within the present day offer an intense gameplay experience and an interesting twist on The Last Of Us’ combat, there’s a sense of obligation rather than the cohesiveness we’ve come to expect from the developer.
Left Behind doesn’t quite strike the magnificent and immersive balance of gameplay and story of the main game, but that’s nigh-on impossible. What it is, is a poignant and captivating enhancement that should satisfy those enraptured by the time spent with the characters first time around.