Naughty Dog has been flexing its storytelling muscles again. The Last of Us: Left Behind has been billed as a prequel to the main game but, while it does serve that purpose, there's more to it than that.
Focusing on Ellie, it runs dual narratives that alternate between the days before she hit the road with Joel and (MILD SPOILERS!) a point in the game at which Joel's critically injured and Ellie must locate medical supplies to help him.
So, yeah - although this has been billed as a prequel and a significant chunk of it is
prequel, there are spoilers for the main game, both in Left Behind
and this review. You've been warned…
While there's most certainly action in Left Behind, the DLC has a heavy narrative focus. I heaped praise on The Last of Us' storytelling
and, similarly, the strong narrative bent is most welcome here.
The part of the game you may well have read about is the slice set in Boston before Ellie and Joel met. Ellie's absent friend Riley shows up unexpectedly and they do the teenage thing and go to the mall. The mall is a broken down, dilapidated mess, of course. But they get a photobooth going and generally manage to have a nice time for a bit.
In the other half of the game, we have Ellie trying desperately to survive long enough to get medical kit she needs to save Joel after a fall. Throwing up a mirror to the prequel segment, this part's also set in a mall. A mall that's decidedly more likely to kill you. Honestly, it's more a character study and poke around some of the game's themes than it is a plotty chunk of narrative. The spoilers here are mild. But, why wouldn't you just finish the main game before starting on Left Behind
The two sections are presented to counter-balance each other. In the prequel sections we see Ellie exploring what passes for her youth, trying to understand what it means to live in a post-collapse world (or, perhaps any
world). The more action-focused section in which Ellie hunts for supplies shows us the Ellie who has, in part, been formed by those earlier events.
The Ellie/Riley section is much gentler than what we'll call the solo Ellie section. While you move through the environment and there are things to be done, there's not much by way of danger and that enables the player to proceed at a slower pace than in the main game. Really, this section is a vehicle to showcase the relationship between Ellie and Riley and it's deftly handled. We get to see what being a teenage girl is like, post-collapse.
There's a playful feel to the action. It really is a tenderly-executed piece of narrative. There's little melodrama and much of what passes between them takes the form of body language and facial expressions - something the animation does a laudable job of carrying off. Which is not to diminish the role of the voice talent.
Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Yaani King (Riley) bring a youthfulness and a closeness to their parts that's easy to buy into. The characters are really given a chance to breathe in a way that's rare in blockbuster games. It's possible some players will find these sections too slow, but to be honest I doubt they're the sort of gamers who enjoyed The Last of Us
enough to come back for seconds.
The solo Ellie sections are where the action happens, though there's still a slow start and a strong focus on character here. The bleak, ravaged mall that you must make your way through sits in contrast to the warmer (but still ravaged) mall of the Ellie/Riley section, and the sense of mood and isolation this establishes is powerful.
Infected and, later, other humans are introduced slowly, as is ammo. The player's gently encouraged to use stealth rather than force as Ellie. Her size makes her less effective if it comes down to a melee struggle, and she certainly won't be scaring off any opponents by charging them down. Simply surviving a conflict feels like more of a challenge than it did as Joel. Where there's an option to stay out of the way, you probably will.
While most of the gameplay you'll find in Left Behind
is a different slant on what we've already seen, one nice feature is the way human enemies and infected co-exist.
They'll attack each other, and throwing a bottle to draw one group's attention to the other lot is gleeful. Getting to where you need to be then becomes a matter of slipping through the chaos rather than avoiding an out-and-out chase.
Naughty Dog has done an excellent job of making Left Behind
relevant and enriching to what's been established so far with The Last of Us
. With the content dancing between the raindrops of both the game and the excellent comic tie-in by Faith Erin Hicks (which is where we first met Riley) it could easily have felt disposable, filling in gaps that didn't need to be filled.
While Left Behind
doesn't blow the plot open, it does do a great job of fleshing out Ellie and bringing insight into her character. It complements what came before without being an absolutely necessary piece of the puzzle.
Brilliant character interaction
Stealthier Ellie gameplay
Could, possibly, maybe be a bit slow for some
SPOnG Score: 5/5