This is a slightly-edited version of a review I wrote of The Last of Us: Left Behind around a year and a half ago. Thought it would be helpful to collect it here.
Although this is under the non-spoiler part of the review, there will be mild spoilers for the The Last of Us – but you really shouldn’t be playing Left Behind if you haven’t already played the original game anyhow. So if you know nothing of the series, go out and buy it right now because it’s the best game on the PS3, and the Remastered edition is available on the PS4.
Left Behind is add-on content to the main game of The Last of Us, it’s available to download for the PS3 version but included on the Remastered edition. It flits between two perspectives, the previously unexplored section between Joel’s injury and Ellie’s meeting with David, and events that happened to Ellie a year before the events of the original game. This contrasts the way she has changed throughout the game in a nice way, she’s more capable, intelligent and mature with Joel, but she’s still recognisable as the same character. I mean this both in her personality and in her model – subtle changes to the way she looks makes her look a little younger and I appreciate the effort they made just for that. Juxtaposing the two mall settings also brings the sense of melancholy that The Last of Us so expertly crafted the previous year. Even though both are post-apocalyptic it really does feel like time has passed, in one there is a sense of foreboding of an inevitable tragedy, and in the other that trauma still resonates – not explicitly in dialogue but in the way Ellie acts. It’s wonderful characterization, and part of the reason why Naughty Dog can prove the impossible by following up a game that felt complete in itself.
The game is fairly short at around 2 hours, so on my first playthrough I had to stop myself after an hour and a half because I wanted to savour the experience – not to make the most of my money but to spend as much time with these characters as possible. It’s not that it feels too short either, if it were up to me I would’ve had a little more to the game, but I suppose it wasn’t necessary to continue the story further.
The gameplay, score and visuals are fantastic as expected, and I will get into them later, but the key thing that makes this story work is the relationship between Ellie and Riley.
It’s very difficult showing characters with history, especially when it’s involving best friends. These two don’t come together like Joel and Ellie, but instead we are introduced to their relationship further down the line. Yet there is a no forced exposition, instead we are only given passing details of their past when it feels right for the character to bring it up, and leaving the rest implied or unsaid. What is held back ends up being the best way to communicate it, and as the studios note-to-reviewers read:
“Negative space is very important to the game”
The interactions between Riley and Ellie themselves are utterly believable, funny and sweet. The voice-acting for Riley came across as strange at first, as it sounded to me very much like a woman’s voice coming from a 14-year-old girl, but soon after I got used to it and appreciated it. And how wonderful is it to have a game where the protagonists (let’s leave Joel out, he’s the damsel in distress here) are two adolescent girls, and one of them isn’t white!
With the majority of the Ellie/Riley sections being non-action, I can see how some players wouldn’t be satisfied, but those kind of gamers are the kind that shouldn’t whine when someone next says video games aren’t art. Left Behind removes the one criticism I had of The Last of Us‘ narrative – that every emotional/story revelation is immediately interrupted by action as an excuse to transition to the next scene, without characters having the time to properly delve into the situation. In Left Behind these interruptions come in rarely, and when they do it’s a switch to an older Ellie, in a refreshing way that doesn’t detract from the experience. It’s not all climbing and jumping though, the interactions with the environment are entertaining and some of the gameplay is damn imaginative – one quick-time section is fantastic, and livens up the game, while a play-fight with Riley is fun as hell. I won’t spoil exactly what they are, but you’ll know them when you see them.
The action gameplay works as well as ever, if not better. I always preferred playing as Ellie rather than Joel in the original game, she was quicker and lighter on her feet. You have to make the most of that here, with stealth being pretty much your only option the majority of the time. There are points where I was forced to be clever with the way I fought, more so even than in the later levels of The Last of Us – attracting infected to attack human enemies, stunning foes with smoke bombs and bricks. I was on hard mode, as I felt that was best after completing the original twice, second time being on hard; I can’t wait to play through on Survivor mode. The environments are beautiful and feel vast even when you are following a limited path. I also came across no glitches, which there were a few of last time around.
I can’t wait for Naughty Dog’s next release, and I simultaneously hope for something new and hope for a return to these characters and this richly drawn world. This DLC shows that they can make an engaging story that doesn’t detract from the original, and in fact re-contextualises it, in ways I can’t spoil. It’s a must-buy for Last of Us fans, and a reminder to all those that didn’t play it what they’re missing out on.
The gameplay knocked it up a notch this time round. The sections of unique gameplay with Riley were fun – the throwing bricks at cars game was a fun precursor but the water gun fight was exciting in only the way games like this are when you’re a kid. There is a magnificent scene in which Ellie is disappointed that the fighting game arcade machine she attempts to play is busted. Riley convinces her to close her eyes and imagine playing, as she describes from memory it in loving detail. It’s a slight breaking of the fourth wall, but just reminds us that for all the story in this series, Naughty Dog have a love for the sheer visceral fun of video games. The action scenes are interesting too. I found myself trying out new methods that I hadn’t in the few Ellie sections of The Last of Us. My favourite back-up move was to throw a bottle in someone’s face to stun them before running up to them and knifing them, or I would throw bottles or bricks by human enemies so nearby infected would swarm them and thin out their ranks for me; I would desperately search around rooms when guards passed by for materials to make a molotov cocktail.
There are similarities to be drawn between some of Riley’s dialogue at the end and Joel’s at the end of The Last of Us. Riley says, in the final scene:
“There are a million ways we should’ve died before today, and a million ways we can die before tomorrow. But we fight, for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up. I don’t want to give that up.”
Mirroring Joel’s line from The Last of Us:
“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you… no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for”
They use the same language, but in many ways they are different sides of the same coin. Joel lies to Ellie to keep her with him, finding in her a reason to survive; Riley, on the other hand, lets herself fall victim to the infection to spend even just a few minutes more with Ellie. Although one is more altruistic than the other, both are informed by character and character relationships, so both work extremely well in the narrative.
For anyone who doesn’t know, but is reading this spoiler section anyway out of curiosity – Ellie and Riley’s relationship is more than just a friendship. At one point, presumably for the first time, at a sweet and perfect moment, Ellie kisses Riley, briefly, before pulling back and saying “Sorry”; Riley smiles and says “What for?”
Throughout the game I felt a slight undercurrent of something between them, a deliberate implication that wouldn’t go any further, and I appreciated that. So when it came to that moment in question, I felt that moment, just before they kiss, like it was a real moment, though I thought it would be left unsaid. When they actually went through with it, I would have embarrassed myself had anyone been around, squealing with joy.
It’s not just wonderful because it’s a moving depiction of young romance, but because this is the first depiction of a lesbian relationship in video games (with the exception of the Indie game Gone Home, which is less direct in its approach). It’s really astounding that this made it into a mainstream release, a lot of people are going to play this game and be exposed to a wonderful slice of reality. The writers make it feel natural too, it’s not overtly sexualised in any way, it’s sweet and driven by love. I hope this is sending out ripples in the game industry, showing that games can be received well by fans and critics with protagonists such as these. This revelation makes Ellie’s brief re-telling of it in The Last of Us all the more heartbreaking, she didn’t just lose a friend, but the girl she loved.