Left Behind is an impeccably crafted piece of content, keeping Naughty Dog’s tradition of fantastic voice acting, animation and visuals that could be mistaken for next gen from a distance. It’s unfortunate then that the narrative component of this DLC, the part I expected to truly shine, feels lacklustre and stretched out to cover the already slightly disappointing length of 2-3 hours.
NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for The Last Of Us. You have been warned.
Left Behind cuts between two time periods during it’s play length. The first begins with the stomach turning scene from the original game where Joel is impaled on an errant grating in the University. Ellie drags him away to safety and begins to look after him, at which point the DLC starts. She must investigate the decrepit mall they are holed up in for medical supplies to help an ailing Joel. The second half of the story takes place before the start of the original game, and follows Ellie and her friend Riley being slightly cliché teenagers by skipping school to go hang out at another (equally run down, but entirely separate) mall. The relationship between Ellie and Riley was hinted at during the finale of Last of Us, giving the DLC an opportunity to really explore it. An opportunity that it unfortunately does not fully capitalise on.
Before the let downs though, the good parts. Visually, Left Behind maintains Naughty Dog’s stellar level of presentation. Despite being set in two very similar looking malls, it manages to ram incredible amounts of detail into every section. The voice acting maintains it’s exceptional level of quality, and when paired with the performance capture that sits on the right side of the uncanny valley it continues to produce some of the most believable and empathetic characters that have been seen in video games so far.
The Last of Us won critical acclaim for it’s presentation and it’s narrative, but really struggled so set the world alight with it’s combat. While some set piece sections used the fragile nature of the leads to great effect, the rank and file gameplay started at incredibly unforgiving and ended approaching a 3rd person action game, not feeling comfortable at either end of the spectrum. With this in mind, it amazes me that the present day half of the game is entirely knife edge stealth sections and straight up gun play. While it does attempt to tweak the formula slightly by setting up human vs infected scenarios, Ellie is just not equipped for the kind of intense combat that she finds herself in. Visions of “that bit with your first clicker” near the start of the original came flooding back, as what was obviously intended for a slow stealthy stalk through a flooded garage became a panic driven gunfight against one hit kill infected with little to no ammo.
The finale is almost laughably unfair, pitting a bow and pistol wielding Ellie against a horde of ruthless and well armed bandits. They begin on high alert and so are impossible to sneak up behind, while cornering you in an environment that is never fully safe and provide very little ammo to fight back. Then after multiple infuriating tries Left Behind decides to repeat the encounter in an almost identical way, the only difference being a new but equally un-defendable vantage point. All of this would (almost) be worth it if we derived some form of character development from Ellie during this time. Unfortunately this is not the case, with no useful nuggets of dialogue or environmental findings to push you forward.
The flashback storyline is the most interesting half by far, with some smart design that utilises the mechanics players are familiar with from the original game in fun and unique ways that matches the playful atmosphere they are evidently trying to call on. The problem with all this is that it all just seems frivolous, with none of it really serving to further Ellie and Rileys relationship. The little new and interesting character development that is present is reserved for non-interactive cut-scenes which fail to answer the questions that felt like were being set up as the DLC progressed. The section begins with Riley appearing at Ellie’s door after a seemingly long stretch of time apart, but never resolves exactly where she went. It becomes very clear very quickly that the pair had a substantial falling out, but never say exactly why. The ending appears to start to build towards what could potentially be a very strong character moment for Ellie, then literally cuts to black. The perpetual narrative blue-balling is so ridiculous that upon seeing the credits roll I immediately had to go look up the ending again on YouTube to see the section that had obviously not played due to some bug. I was wrong, it had just ended.
I loved Last of Us, despite some of it’s gameplay flaws, and genuinely believe it is a title that should be held up as an example of what the medium we love can be. It’s because of that it really pains me to see Naughty Dog release a chunk of story based DLC for a title with such a strong narrative element, and for it to fall as flat as it did. It genuinely feels like 30 minutes of solid material stretched out to an hour and a half, with a few combat sections duct taped on to remind you that there were shooting mechanics. There are glimmers in there of the superb design and visual flair that comes from the studio, but it just seems to miss the point of what people really wanted from Left Behind. On the announcement that there would be a single piece of story DLC for Last of Us, I couldn’t fathom how they were going to do it. Now I kinda wish they hadn’t.