Reviewed by John Hussey
Naughty Dog continued to step into new territories by producing their very first Downloadable Content, following the success of their fourth franchise The Last of Us. The one thing they knew for sure when developing this project was they wanted to concentrate the expansion on Ellie. They carefully listened to fan requests about what they wanted to see expanded upon – with some wanting to explore Ellie’s past, whilst others wanted to see more of the events between the Fall and Winter segments.
They decided to combine these two elements, creating a unique tale that concentrated on these two key moments in Ellie’s life. On one hand you have a tale about Ellie’s desperation to protect Joel, whilst on the other hand you have a tale about Ellie’s friendship with Riley Abel. The two completely contrast the other in terms of substance and tone, and yet both sections compliment one another, resulting in a perfect mirroring.
The Last of Us: Left Behind is set just after the events where Joel was injured in the university. It’s up to Ellie, all by herself for the first time within the story, to save him. The DLC plays out similarly to the Winter segment of the main game in which you control Ellie and attempt to scavenge for supplies in order to heal Joel. However, there is more story here as we play for Ellie for a lot longer and she has to endure through a lot more whilst time plays against her.
It’s fair to say though that the location of this game can feel a little dull. Not to mention a shopping centre setting has been done to death within the zombie genre. But to give Left Behind credit it does utilise it well and tries to make it more interesting. Plus the cold atmosphere gives the environment an edge in helping to enhance the dangers and grimness of the world around Ellie.
What’s clearly better about Left Behind, compared to Ellie’s small section in The Last of Us, is the focus. Ellie is clearly given more time to develop as a playable character, expanding on her unique character that we get to invest in whilst playing as Joel in the main story. It feels good to able to play as her for a longer period of time and try and master her survival style, which is clearly different to Joel’s.
Yes, you can build the same items, use similar weapons, but Joel is much older, wiser, and clearly stronger. Ellie is more vulnerable to the world around her and because of this you have to be more careful. So, like with the Winter segment, you have a different play-through experience despite the fact it is exactly the same as when you play as Joel. But it is better here because of the expansion and the clear room for full focus on Ellie. This is essentially her game – it’s all dedicated to her, and her alone.
If you like you could call Left Behind “The Ellie Show”. It’s interesting how well-received her character was. I mean, I certainly love her. Her youthfulness gives her an edge for starters. Combine that with her confidence, her emotional depth, her admittance to being truly scared of the world around her whilst keeping a cool head with her playful personality, and you have a fantastic character on your hands.
In many ways she acts like a typical teenager and yet does things, and says things, that are clearly beyond her years of understanding and can go toe-to-toe with the dark, gritty world that wants to kill her at every single turn. Without a doubt Ellie is a strong female character. And not just that but a well developed female character. She is a perfect role model (minus her foul mouth – which is another of her fantastic traits) and can teach other mediums of entertainment that female characters can be written and directed correctly without having to delve into painful stereotypes.
For the most part the main segment of the game is quite basic and follows the structure and formula of Joel’s gameplay. There are obvious encounter sections, stealth sections, along with the returned puzzle sections where you must find a way to get around a certain obstacle. But Ellie carry’s it and continues to show-off her depth and how determined she is. It also shows how, even in the grimmest of situations, that she remains calm, despite being scared, and tackles the task at hand.
There is one neat addition to the gameplay which I wished had appeared in The Last of Us (hopefully it’s carried over to The Last of Us Part II). We have for the first time encounters that features both human enemies and Infected enemies. This led to a clever tactic where you could alert the Infected and use them to your advantage, whilst kicking back and watching as the Infected do the work for you.
One thing I have to kick myself for concerning my review for The Last of Us is the lack of content about the conversation system. There was just so much to talk about that I couldn’t fit it in without feeling like the review was overly stuffed with information. So allow me to rectify that here.
The conversation system really compliments the character focus of The Last of Us‘ storytelling. Usually within video games character interactions are at fixed moments in the narrative, normally reserved for cut-scenes. But in this franchise Naughty Dog wanted the characters to feel more organic by having conversations with one another during the actual gameplay, which often would expand upon the current situation or give us needed backstory.
The most interesting conversations come about via triggered events which can be an object or a response to a current conversation. These feel even more personal because you have to look out for them and do things with either Ellie or Joel in order to activate them and expand upon the dynamic. A lot of these triggered conversations would help define the characters more as they shared their feelings on certain matters, as well as help indicate the slow development of the relationships onscreen determined by their tone and attitude.
Left Behind then takes the tone and style of the series into a completely different direction during the Riley segments. Here we have a narrative following two close friends that are trying to rekindle after a series of unfortunate incidences. Riley left Ellie on a sore note, and in her absence joined the Fireflies, before finally returning to Ellie to make things up. Ellie is apprehensive to begin with as her old friend takes her for a tour around the shopping centre, a place they used to hang out.
Eventually Riley turns the power back on and their tour becomes a fun journey into discovering their friendship. This includes them riding a carousel, taking pictures in a photo-booth, and playing in an arcade. It feels completely different to the rest of the game, adding to the fantastic contrast. For the most part there is no apparent danger. No threats to deal with. It is literally you travelling through this brightly lit shopping centre and hanging out with an old friend.
These segments grant us some of the best storytelling and character development I have ever seen, coming close to beating the one we already received in The Last of Us. I think it just feels so special because you can relate to the innocence of it all. It’s so beautifully crafted because you are following two young girls who were born and raised within this apocalyptic world and in the moment of it all just find themselves actually having fun.
It’s actually really inventive when you watch them explore the shopping centre and come across items of entertainment which seem strange to them but common for us, almost making you wonder whether we take everything for granted. There are so many moments where Ellie and Riley communicate through their activities and showcase their complicated relationship. You quickly learn they are more than just friends. Their understanding of each other, how they perfectly bounce off one another, and deeply care for the other, all points towards love.
This became a powerful revelation when Ellie eventually kisses Riley. It was clear that they both missed each other and wanted to have a chance at making up for that, with Riley constantly giving Ellie happiness via things that she knows she likes. By the end of it you have a fantastic love story on your hands, filled with so much emotion. It’s made perfect because of its execution, feeling completely natural and organic.
Sadly, we all knew how it had to end because Ellie had already explained it at the conclusion of The Last of Us. Their happiness is taken away after their actions lure a horde of Infected into the shopping centre and their escape attempt leaves them beaten. Riley states her famous line, “Let’s just wait it out. You know, we can be all poetic and just lose our minds together.” The title of the DLC then becomes much clearer, pointing out the tragedy of Ellie’s existence – that she would live on whilst those around her perished, ultimately meaning Ellie is “left behind”.
It is amazing how by the end the contrast between the two segments came together flawlessly. In one ending Ellie has to begin her traumatic journey, whereas in the other she has come to terms with it, almost as if defined by it. Then there’s the obvious contrast of the loss of loved ones, with the past showing she couldn’t save Riley but in the present she had a chance to save Joel and used every ounce of strength and determination to ensure she wasn’t left behind again.
Then there’s the simple nods of filling in the gaps brought up within The Last of Us. References and nods to Ellie’s past were now finally realised and giving us a realisation of their meaning when stated in the main game. We finally got to see where the pun book came from (with it now having more personal meaning because it belonged to Riley and was something they both enjoyed). Then there was the arcade game “The Turning” and the character of Angel Knives, which Ellie got to play (sort-of) with Riley.
On top of this we got some subtle references to Naughty Dog’s other brands, similar to what they did in The Last of Us, when we saw plushy versions of Jak, Daxter and Nathan Drake in a children’s room, along with a Jak and Daxter board-game in the toy shop. This time we saw Ellie pretending to play Jak X: Combat Racing within the arcade, later commenting on how stupid the concept was (not sure whether this was an in-joke from Naughty Dog or them actually declaring the game was a silly idea on their part).
Overall Left Behind is a solid DLC which has just enough content to warrant its existence. Though it’s not very long, which is slightly disappointing, and doesn’t really add much to The Last of Us gameplay-wise it certainly holds up in terms of expanding the characters. I love how Naughty Dog continued to push their passion for character driven stories and really expanded upon Ellie’s character and made her an even more likable character than she already was. Finally, a big round of applause to Ashely Johnson and Yaani King on their terrific performance.