How do you even begin to follow a masterpiece like The Last of Us? When you manage to raise the bar so high you should probably just stop and leave it where it is, the chance of further success is so unlikely that any addition will be seen as a half-baked effort. But while that may be true for the majority of developers, you would never bet against the folks over at Naughty Dog and rightly so as their Last of Us DLC, Left Behind, is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Left Behind takes place in the never explored time within The Last of Us between the point Joel is injured and the beginning of the ‘Winter’ section. While this time period frames the narrative, with Ellie trying to find medical aid for Joel, each challenge reminds her of a previous time, a time before she ever met Joel. In these sections we explore the story of Ellie and her best friend Riley, a story that we know the fateful outcome of from the main game but one that is never fully explored. It is very much a game of two elements; the contemporary Ellie embroiled in a fight for her life as she tries to secure medical aid for Joel while the flashbacks serve as a set of near combat-free, purely story focussed sections. While it should utterly jar that you have heavy combat in one section and none in the other, they actually serve to inform one another and in many ways you are playing two very different versions of Ellie. And where a lot of games may use flashbacks as a narrative frame that feels cheap, filled with nod and winks to the wider game there is no such element of that here. These sections are informative in fleshing out the game-world and making meaningful and positive additions to both the character of Ellie and in providing us a new way of looking at the original game.
The Ellie that we are introduced to from the past is not quite the Ellie we know, she is not as confident and very much more of a child than she is in her travels with Joel. She is also hurting, her best friend Riley left without a proper goodbye and has returned to set things straight as best she can. The dichotomy of the Ellie we know and this proto-Ellie is wonderful. In a game that only lasts around two hours it’s difficult to discuss it without giving anything away, especially when there is nothing of excess on show.
The combat is improved and evolved to that seen in The Last of Us, with changes that are subtle, noticeable, but for the better. First up is the addition of a new enemy type, the Stalker, similar to the standard proto-clicker infected. The Stalkers lurk behind cover and wait for you to avert your gaze before moving forward, and while they aren’t hard to spot their reliance on cover means that you have to choose whether you want to possibly waste a round in lieu of landing a shot. When you have two Stalkers on screen things get tense, if you lose sight of one you can guarantee that it is making its way towards you. It is another fantastically subtle addition by Naughty Dog that serves to make combat both more interesting and more dynamic.
The second major improvement to the combat is one that fundamentally changes the way in which you engage in combat, and that is that now you can have infected and survivors in the same firefight. What this allows for is that you can now draw the two groups together and let them fight it out, leaving you to mop up whoever is left. This really does expand the scope of the combat and there is so much happening dynamically that you will rarely encounter the same result twice. It speaks highly of the original game’s combat that the lack of this feature wasn’t something that players thought that should have been included, but now you will wonder what the main game would have been like if this element was included.
But for whatever steps forward Left Behind takes with the mechanics of the game, when it comes to the story it moves on leaps and bounds. That’s not to say the original story was lacking as it is truly one of the most exceptional pieces of storytelling across any medium, but here, they surpass themselves. The main conceit of the story is that Riley and Ellie spend a night together working out their differences and exploring the city. It serves as more of an interactive novel in many ways, but the quality of the writing is so strong that you will want nothing more than to listen to the two girls talk the night away. And that is in large part a product of some simply superb voice-acting from Ashley Johnson as Ellie and newcomer Yanni King as Riley. Their relationship feels warm and natural, there is nothing contrived and in these honest performances you will find yourself helplessly and effortlessly becoming swept up in their short, bittersweet story.
There are small moments packed into this short play-time that will stay with you long after the end, and to discuss them here would do you the disservice of stealing those moments from you. What you will have by the end though is a greater understanding of one the best videogame characters in memory, and you if you start a new game of The Last of Us you will not look at Ellie in the same way again. It cannot be stressed enough that this is gaming at its most essential and the genuine emotional power that it carries is exceptional. Do yourself a favour and turn off your phone for a few hours and get lost in the best gaming relationship you’ll likely ever have. Stunning.