‘Powerful, dramatic and emotional’ were the three headline-grabbing adjectives that we used to sum up The Last of Us back in June last year. Yes, it’s been a long wait for the release of the first and only piece of single-player DLC for Naughty Dog’s memorable survival horror adventure, but such was the impact of Joel and Ellie’s journey that it only feels like yesterday we were anxiously creeping around the post-apocalyptic world, stabbing Clickers in between the eyes, listening intently to emotionally charged dialogue between characters, and hearing our hearts pound like drums as we reached the story’s powerful climax.
The Last of Us: Left Behind takes a step back from these events with a prologue to the main campaign, which leans more toward the character building, story-telling side of Naughty Dog’s repertoire of talents rather than the twists, turns, and stand-out moments that were so frequent in the main campaign. Lifted from the stories in the American Dreams comic books, Left Behind focuses on Ellie during her time in the Boston quarantine zone; specifically, when she meets up and explores the confines of a shopping mall with her close friend, Riley.
While the main narrative and dialogue focuses entirely on the interaction between these two characters, gameplay also switches to Ellie’s search for medicine for a heavily-injured Joel. Though we learn nothing new during these particular sections, we do once again see what lengths Ellie goes to in order to look after Joel and just how far the relationship has matured since the day they first met, when trust was a major issue. Including Joel in the DLC was definitely a clever move as it leaves you desperate for a proper sequel by the time curtains fall on Left Behind.
The main focus, though, is Ellie and Riley’s relationship, which gives us an insight into another side of Ellie’s character. Fans of The Last of Us know all too well that Ellie is very capable of taking care of herself and is vicious in her no-nonsense approach to killing in a world where survival instincts are paramount. She seems much older than her years suggest in The Last of Us, but in Left Behind, we get introduced to her fun side and see her teenage demeanor–a glimpse of what Ellie used to be like before being affected so harshly by the pandemic and the events in the main campaign.
A good chunk of the two-plus-hour DLC is taken up with slow-paced exploration through a Boston mall and the tight relationship that Ellie has with Riley. Here we see Ellie acting like a teenager, dancing, playing arcade games, laughing, having fun, and even exploring her own sexuality. It’s a stark reminder that Ellie is just a young girl stuck in a world full of unspeakable horror, but it also relates to the main campaign well and gives you further evidence of why Ellie has ended up being so tough-skinned.
Both actresses do a commendable job at building up the relationship with heartfelt dialogue and, just like the main campaign, facial animations capture every moment of emotion, leaving you glued to the screen. Naughty Dog builds up that bond superbly between the two throughout the journey, before throwing in an emotional curve ball that we won’t spoil here. Nevertheless, Left Behind finishes rather flat, leaving you guessing at what might have happened next, when it would have been far bolder–and more exciting–to have ended it properly and leave us reeling at the conclusion.
In terms of gameplay, Left Behind is a mixed bag. Slow-paced, dialogue-heavy exploration takes precedence, building up the relationship between the two girls extremely well, but there are times when it’s overplayed a little too much and we were left desperate for something more interesting to happen. In terms of standout moments, however, the unique mini-game in an abandoned arcade is excellent and a stand-out chase scene near its conclusion ramps up the pace nicely.
In all fairness, Naughty Dog does cram a lot into two hours, with bouts of combat and environmental puzzle-solving also taking up some of your time. The latter is fairly standard stuff, with the obligatory ‘push a crate’ and ‘switch on a generator’ side tasks, while combat will be instantly familiar for those who have played the main campaign, with pistols, bows, and shotguns being the main weapons of choice against the Infected and human enemies.
Once again, there are lots of items to scavenge, like rags, alcohol, and blades that can be crafted into the likes of Molotov cocktails, health kits, and nail bombs. And you’ll need them–humans and Infected swarm you on more than a few instances. It’s good fun trying to draw the Infected over to the humans and watch them attack or just setting a bunch of them alight and watching them run around screeching, but we found ourselves dying more in this DLC than the main game because some areas are particularly overcrowded with enemies. When supplies are so scarce, this certainly led to some frustration and multiple restarts.
Though the ending of Left Behind could definitely have had even more impact, and the slower-paced sections could have been a little less long-winded, Left Behind is once again a glorious production, with the finely detailed Boston shopping mall an absolute delight to explore. Though the two hours flew by and we were left wishing there was another hour or two of gameplay, the slick animation, great voice acting, and emotive storytelling alone are sure to win over any fan of The Last of Us. If you were already looking forward to The Last of Us 2, Left Behind will leave you even more desperate to get your hands on a potential second installment of Naughty Dog’s award-winning new IP.