Releasing story DLC for a game whose narrative arc and delivery are pretty-much pitch-perfect is a gutsy move. Any drop in quality will outrage fans, discrepancies will be glaring, and there is also a risk that the additional material will simply feel superfluous. The first and likely only story DLC for last year’s brilliant action-adventure The Last of Us, Left Behind generally avoids these pitfalls with elegance. However, its prequel nature does sap some of the drama from its slow-burning story.
An origin story of sorts, Left Behind mainly concerns itself with the friendship between pre-Joel-era Ellie and her best friend Riley, but simultaneously tells a tale from another period in her timeline, drawing parallels between the two to good effect.
Ellie is abruptly awoken in her dilapidated Boston military training school dorm by Riley, returning more than six weeks after she mysteriously vanished from the facility. Her homecoming is a bittersweet one, as extenuating circumstances could soon force the girls apart once again.
Ellie is upset with Riley for leaving unannounced in the first place, but also ecstatic to see her, and as is the case throughout Left Behind, these nuanced emotions are handled with deftness and delicacy by Naughty Dog.
The naturalistic dialogue, excellent voice acting, and restrained direction combine as beautifully as they did in The Last of Us.
Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann’s writing is once again wonderfully understated, and makes the interplay between the two young girls as they head out into the night feel credible and authentic.
The pair make a beeline for the nearby Liberty Gardens mall, long since shuttered after the fungus outbreak that has left humanity face down in the dirt. Rain pours through holes in the darkened building’s roof while far below, escalators and tiled floors are slowly disappearing as the wilderness reclaims yet more land.
Liberty is a place at once wondrous, trivial, and alien to the girls; an interactive museum that provides a window to a recent but unrecognisable past just beyond the reach of their lifetimes. The new environments therein are gorgeous, but the stars are the two backpack-toting teenagers gawping at the broken arcade machines and carnival rides they never had the opportunity to play.
Here, Ellie is still spirited and feisty, but with a naïveté absent when we meet her later in The Last of Us. Around the slightly older and more outgoing Riley she is fawning, excitable, and forthcoming. Riley enjoys both the attention and camaraderie, and her adventurous nature have them as two peas in a pod.
As its parent game did, Left Behind takes its time getting going, and lingers on small moments and mundane conversations to reveal its characters’ machinations.
There are many optional audio cues and notes that flesh out the backstory, and conversations between the two protagonists may be extended by the player far beyond what’s necessary to know purely from a plot standpoint.
Nonetheless, many will find themselves clicking through to the end of each, just to hear passing details of side characters, or simply to get a better understanding of the girls' relationship, and what it's like growing up in what's essentially the apocalypse.
A series of simple and occasionally almost-dull minigames that crop up as the girls play and explore the mall serve a similar purpose.
Of course, there are also some gripping encounters with others both infected and merely desperate, and a couple of simple traversal puzzles to solve as well. Ellie may be only 14, but she’s a beast when it comes to dispatching enemies, pouncing on backs to slit throats, or rapidly and repeatedly stabbing assailants in the guts with her small blade. She gains access to firearms and other weapons later, and wields them all with similar skill.
Although many of the strengths of The Last of Us including its mastery of atmosphere, pacing, and tone are present, Left Behind suffers somewhat because the conclusions of both its stories are known from the outset. That aside, the largest revelation its has for players is both fairly minor and telegraphed early on, leaving the package as a whole feeling less essential than it might otherwise have done.
So while Left Behind provides more The Last of Us content, its low-key nature will disappoint some after the roller-coaster that was the main game. While it's clear once again why Druckmann won the Writers Guild Award this year for The Last of Us, and its great to be back in that game's world, it all feels slightly low-stakes and same-old. The destination is known, and the ride there merely good.