Developer: Naughty Dog | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment | Played On: PlayStation 3 | Price: $14.99 | Release Date: February 14, 2014 | ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Sexual Themes, Drug Reference, Use of Tobacco, Intense Violence]
The Last of Us has become quite the force in the industry: By taking the exhausted trope of an apocalypse and shifting the focus to the dynamics of human relationships amid catastrophes, Naughty Dog captured everyone’s attention. Ten DICE awards and four million sold copies later The Last of Us has enjoyed success on both the commercial and accolade fronts.
At this stage it’s common for popular games to ride that success into additional downloadable content, but for Naughty Dog it was new territory: Left Behind is the first single-player DLC they’ve ever developed, and it’ll be the only single-player DLC fans of The Last of Us will see. This raises the question: Can Naughty Dog deliver the same great experience in a smaller dosage?
Left Behind initially takes place narratively about three-quarters of the way through the main plot line; so if you haven’t finished the single-player yet, it’s best to complete the story before jumping into the DLC. It provides a quick rundown of what’s occurred up to this point, showing a fatigued Joel succumbing to an injury he sustained in a previous struggle. Ellie is forced to stop, find shelter, and look for medical supplies on her own. As she makes her way around an abandoned mall, the timeline shifts to a period before Ellie met Joel, a year ago when she was still housed in a military boarding school. There she reunites with her friend Riley (a familiar face for those who have read the The Last of Us: American Dreams comic), a girl who was also at the school before running away months prior. Despite an awkward reunion, Ellie agrees to spend some time with Riley.
Ellie proved to be one of 2013’s most compelling characters, and voice actress Ashley Johnson does a wonderful job reprising her role as the tenacious teenager. At this point in Ellie’s life she wears her childlike innocence on her sleeve; she hasn’t found out about her immunity yet. She’s mad at Riley for just reappearing out of the blue but she’s willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for a chance to hang out again. Riley is just as headstrong, actually more so, than Ellie, setting the groundwork for a fascinating friendship—one that voice actress Yaani King plays expertly.
As the story weaves back to present day, Ellie finds she’s not alone in the mall. She has to stay as alert as Joel would about her surroundings, making sure to keep her ear to the ground to listen for any dangers nearby. That ominous stressful feeling that comes over you once you hear your first Clicker—the shuffling and haunting screeches that make the enemy so menacing—is just as strong in the DLC. It doesn’t matter if it’s five Clickers or one Stalker, the torment of knowing one false move equals immediate death, especially given how relentless the Infected can be, constantly hovers over Ellie on her excursion. She’s able to craft and use the same weapons as Joel, with light puzzle solving in between, but since Ellie carries her mother’s knife she’s able to approach Clickers from behind without the need to craft shivs, though it’s up to you to decide if fighting is the best approach.
In the Riley portion of the game, there are no enemies to kill or puzzles to solve. There are several minigames to complete, but the focus of these flashbacks is to glimpse into Riley and Ellie’s bond. The innocent nature as the teens take photos and ride a carousel is heartwarming, as is the development of their friendship, but its placement with Ellie’s present day troubles felt a bit unbalanced. I understand the underlying theme the interweaving stories share, but it wasn’t thematically strong enough to have the timelines flow interchangeably.
As a nitpicking side note, another aspect I was at odds with is the idea that Ellie was trying to find a medkit for Joel when the game allowed me to carry up to three for gameplay purposes. Understandably it’s to give Ellie a purpose for wandering around the infested mall, but it was still a moment of internal conflict between the narrative and mechanics.
The DLC redeems itself by introducing the option of pitting foes against one another. Ultimately Ellie is forced to encounter the survivors hunting her down, and sometimes they’d show up while the Infected lay in wait close by. Create a distraction or plant a well-placed trap, and humans would find themselves face-to-face with six Clickers suddenly rushing them. These sections were gratifying, yet challenging, as it was still crucial to stay alert to avoid getting caught in the middle. It was never clear who would win between the two groups, making it all that more suspenseful and unpredictable. These moments made up a good portion of the DLC’s two-hour length.
Left Behind is a touching account of two young girls struggling to make sense of a world stripped of its humanity, and it is a tale worth exploring. Nevertheless there are moments the gameplay feels disjointed from the narrative, potentially pitting the overlapping stories at odds with one another. Admittedly, it’s wonderful to spend more time with Ellie, especially before her involvement with the Fireflies. It’s up to you if further character development is enough to bring you back to a fungus-infested America.