Joel and Ellie, two of the most iconic video game creations of all time since their incredible journey in The Last of Us become one of the most highly acclaimed games of 2013. But developers Naughty Dog have one final gift for fans, a slice of story-driven DLC called Left Behind.
It’s a story that’s additive rather than entirely new, putting you in the shoes of Ellie at two time periods – one a couple of weeks before she ever meets Joel and another at a critical moment during the actual timeline of The Last of Us.
You’ll flit back and forth between these two strands, giving us a chance to better understand what turned Ellie into the survivor she becomes and also teasing out the lengths she’ll go to help those she cares about.
The two stories are so finely woven together that they complement each other perfectly. The events of the early story in Left Behind give us insight into the horrors Ellie has suffered before and her determination to persevere.
I’m going to keep my notes on the story vague so you can discover it for yourself but the basic structure sees Ellie team up with an older girl called Riley for a night time adventure in a place that’s less bleak than most of The Last of Us. At least to begin with.
So we get to see these people for what they truly are – just kids. Riley can be seen balancing on railings and simply at play, doing all she can to regain Ellie’s trust and favour. Later you’ll actually get the chance to mess around as kids – playing in a joke store (there’s also a pun book) and engaging in mini-games for no more reason than you can.
It may sound gimmicky but what it’s a refreshing change of pace. There are long scenes in Left Behind where there’s no hint of peril, just a growing ease between two young people trying to make the most of a brief moment of respite. The highlight is a peerless piece of design, writing and performance – with Riley’s utter commitment to creating a magical memory for Ellie writ large via QTE’s and camaraderie.
These calm scenes are contrasted with the later timeline where Ellie is very much in harm’s way. Trapped in a sprawling mall, she has to secure some items and get back to Joel as soon as possible. Here, familiar elements like Clickers and some human enemies surface but they’re dealt with in mostly refreshing ways.
Ellie is much weaker than Joel, wilting under any melee attack. So there’s a focus on some limited stealth options and even environmental puzzles – which all feels new to this game, if far from innovative. Gunplay and bow-work are sometimes necessary but most encounters also give you the chance to set opposing enemies at each other’s throats. Which is always fun.
There are only a handful of set pieces in Left Behind and none are particularly memorable but they’re also free of the feeling of repetition and AI baiting which quickly set in with The Last of Us. As ever, it’s more about the story and the moments of interaction rarely break up the narrative progression much.
Instead you’ll spend more time chatting to Riley, finding out about the world and what she’s been up to. There’s also plenty of crossover with the American Dreams comics. It might be worth giving them a read but they’re hardly essential – you can scan our catch up article instead.
Again, Ashley Johnson brings a huge amount of life to Ellie – managing to be both childish and learned beyond her years and cracking wise in a style that feels engagingly adlibbed. And as new character Riley, Yanni King is a person between childhood and adulthood. Facing the loss of her best friend forces the pair into some heartfelt and tender moments, and just as many sarcastic stand offs. They’re two beautiful performances, ably captured by Naughty Dog’s remarkable tech.
This experience is many things – emotional, engaging and revelatory – but it isn’t long. On normal difficulty my play time came to just over two hours 30 minutes. The experience is fiercely linear so that’s not going to vary a lot for players but push the difficulty up a notch and take your time with the playthrough to add an extra half hour or so. There’s plenty of background to discover in the environments and a good number of talking points to give you a better sense of Riley and Ellie’s world – all of which is worth the effort.
Is a three hour game worth 15 of your hard earned quid? That’s a tougher question. Left Behind is finely crafted thing, with strong pacing from one revelation to the next that would be ruined by more padding. But its linearity and lack of significant collectibles means it’s possibly only good for one playthrough, and there’s no additional content afterwards. But for fans of the original game it genuinely offers not only a fresh perspective but also a new understanding which helps to further explain the fierce relationship explored in The Last of Us.
Left Behind isn’t really like The Last of Us, and that’s fine with me. It’s an altogether more intimate and contemplative piece – the kind of material you might find in a languorous director’s cut of a movie. Ellie and Riley’s relationship is complex and believable and leads up to a point that’s both inevitable and heart-breaking. If you can’t quite let go of The Last of Us yet, this DLC is the perfect way to explore this despairing dystopia one last time, and to discover that tiny moments of magic are still possible in this terrible future.