Spoilers ahead: While I don't spoil anything essential to either the main story, or the DLC, understand that this piece deals directly with events in The Last of Us. If you want to avoid spoilers of any kind, I'll save you the trouble of going any further: You need to play this.
If you listened to our GOTY podcasts, I made no secret about my feelings towards The Last of Us. My favorite game of last year, it was a tense, unforgettable experience, one that I didn't think could be duplicated, much less improved upon. Left Behind improves it. While we shouldn't be surprised by Naughty Dog's ability to weave a gripping narrative, this piece of story DLC transcends being simply extra. It becomes essential.
Left Behind is an Ellie story, dropping us into two defining moments of her journey. The first is a prequel, taking place in the weeks leading up to her meeting Joel, and dealing specifically with her best friend Riley. The second is the time directly after when Joel and Ellie leave the university, with the onset of winter directly upon them.
Naughty Dog hops back and forth between the two time periods, using the different experiences to both highlight the changes that have occurred in Ellie, and cement the parts of her that remain the same. To help make these changes more apparent, the setting of each section is a mall, each torn and broken by both the ravages of time and the horrid nature of the Cordyceps fungus. Both tell a similar tale, though they run opposite as opposed to parallel to one another.
The Riley portion is unique as the better portion of it is a quiet look at kids being kids. The pair explore the mall and its riches, making their way deeper into its heart while examining their own. It's filled with light moments of laughter and fun, with highlights like a halloween store and a photo booth. The two teenage girls actually get to be teenage girls, and in doing so, we get to see Ellie shirk the responsibility that comes with simply living in this new, dark world.
There are laughter and tears, and few deeply personal moments, which makes the danger hanging over head feel like a thousand pound weight. It's not spoiling things to tell you that things go wrong. Horribly wrong. Terribly, horribly, heart-breakingly wrong. It's The Last of Us; wrong is the only place things have to go. And yet even with this knowledge, knowing exactly where it's going to go, the act of getting there makes us think, even hope, that maybe, maybe there's a chance it won't get that bad.
The Joel portion runs that emotional journey in reverse. Recapping the events at the end of the Autumn section of the main game, Ellie spends this part alone, serving as a build up to the powerful Winter chapter. She explores the mall looking for first aid supplies, and her journey through this center of old world commerce is tense rather then whimsical and fun. Where the first part loomed with danger in the distance, it makes no bones about the tense situation that Ellie is in.
I immediately found myself crouching and searching, scavenging for bits and pieces in silence, waiting for the inevitable click to shatter the tense quiet. It happens, somewhat quicker then expected, and then slows again to a crawl. Naughty Dog weaves the pacing like a spider, deftly manipulating the mood into a fine web, keeping you on the edge of your seat, even as you know the inevitable outcome should you succeed.
The inclusion of combat scenarios was inevitable, but in doing so, Naughty Dog makes a move that was never done during the campaign. Ellie faces off against both infected and human opponents, but they are presented side by side, rather then separate. Multiple times I was able to use a well placed bottle to spring a "trap,” creating a web of chaos as I used waiting infected in the same way an experienced general would use a flanking attack. It was brilliant and exciting and empowering, all of which is echoed by Ellie, calling out to tiding of woe to any future assailants as she makes her way back to Joel.
As exciting as those encounters were, this section also marks the return of the oh too familiar “Generator alarm.” Shorter then the few that Joel ran into, it still involves a small group of infected charging you. As a small change, the expected second wave ends in rather spectacular fashion, but it's something I both expected and audibly sighed over upon seeing. Add to that a rather silly asset bug where the gas can I was using disappeared and you have what amounts to the lowest sequence the DLC offers. Given the highs of the rest, this is nothing more then a blip that merited mentioning.
Left Behind is a symbolic statement in as many ways as it is a physical one. It highlights Ellie Unsure and Ellie Triumphant, show us darkness while giving us hope with the smallest shafts of light. It is loss, heartbreak, harrowing sadness, but more then anything, it's a deeper look at a character that refuses to leave herself behind, no matter what hardships lie in front of her. Left Behind is how story DLC should be done.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!