Left Behind uses the best elements from The Last of Us, to tell an essential short story about Ellie’s transition into adulthood. Left Behind tells two intertwining stories, split across time, but tied together in both setting (shopping malls) and characters with a deep connection to Ellie (Joel and Riley).
The first story is an excerpt from The Last of Us, taking place immediately after Joel is critically injured at the campus. After taking refuge in the Colorado Mountain Plaza, a shopping mall ravaged by snow and time, Ellie must scavenge medical supplies to keep Joel alive.
The game play in these parts of the story are identical to The Last of Us. You’ll navigate the environment using stealth and take on enemies, both human and infected, with limited ammo and Ellie’s knife. For players who had issues with the combat mechanics, particularly the brutal one-hit Clicker kills, combat has been toned down in favour of exploration and smaller encounters.
In Left Behind, you can now approach combat strategically by pitting human hunters and the infected against each other. With a well placed bottle or brick, you can send a horde of infected to fight the hunters who are after you, only stepping out of cover to take opportunistic kills. Evening up the odds in this manner feels like a natural extension of the combat, but in practice the effect is more subdued than it is a sweeping change.
The second story is told in a series of flashbacks focusing on Ellie’s unexpected reunion with Riley. Despite being close friends, their relationship strained when Riley lashed out and stormed off. Reluctantly, Ellie agrees to sneak out with Riley to explore the shopping mall, the Liberty Gardens Boston. By intercutting the action in Colorado with the exploration in Boston, Naughty Dog gives the DLC’s plot a strong rhythm and pace. Left Behind never feels indulgent in its running time opting for tight and deliberate choreography.
In these flashbacks the mall is transformed into a decrepit playground for Ellie and Riley to explore. Their journey through the deserted shopping mall gives the girls an opportunity to mess around in various shops while slowly repairing their fraught relationship. The interactions between Riley and Ellie feels authentic, they’ll stumble clumsily through difficult conversations to moments of silliness that break the heavy tension.
By precluding combat from these flashbacks, Ellie and Riley’s relationship has room to develop convincingly. Creating a believable history is made easier with Ashley Johnson returning as Ellie and Yanni King as Riley. The two actors share a warm, easy-going chemistry that resonates into touching and restrained performances. Within the limited running time, Riley establishes herself as a sympathetic person worth caring about. The journey shared between Riley and Ellie culminates into a touching and tender third act that underlines the person Ellie becomes.
The strong writing and the heartfelt performances combine to steer Riley and Ellie away from being easy stereotypes. While the goal of any teenager is to try and decide where they fit in, Riley and Ellie’s decisions are being made against a theatre of unpredictable violence and a crumbling cityscape. Their decisions are not only surprisingly mature, but deeply intimate as well.
Left Behind is taut and focused, delivering a rich emotional bookend. The DLC adds more depth to Ellie by exploring her relationship with Riley and how it influences her motivation. Naughty Dog has succeeded in expanding its apocalyptic fable, imbuing this game with iconic moments punctuated by emotion rather than spectacle. Left Behind is an unmissable experience.
Review score: 8.5 (Highly Recommended)
The Last of Us – Left Behind is rated R18+ and available for download on the PlayStation 3.