The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC Review: Growing Characters
Ellie’s just as sneaky as Joel and just as lethal. The body count in her wake during the DLC winds up proportionally high, too. The point is that “This is Ellie’s story” is something that struggles under the surface of the game playing like Reskinned Joel.
Left Behind does do some fun things with these moments, though, often putting Ellie on one side of a room with hunters on the other and infected in between. A well-placed brick sets off a chain reaction that send the infected into a rage, the hunters answering with gunfire. Watching these moments play out and then sneaking through the chaos (or mopping up after) are pretty delightful.
But it’s Riley’s half of the story that’s much, much more interesting. This one sees Ellie’s friend returning after 40-odd days missing, during which Riley was attempting to join the Fireflies (that pseudo-revolutionary band of soldiers whose ideas are never really explained outside the concept that they fight the remains of the U.S. military). Her sudden return leads to a night of the pair wandering an abandoned mall, first glimpsed in “American Dreams,” with callbacks to the events shown there.
Riley’s disappearance was immediately preceded by a fight between the two friends, so that entire portion of the story is predicated on a tense sadness, an awkwardness of the friends potentially reconnecting — and potentially not. And Naughty Dog does its really special work here, rejiggering gameplay mechanics to become story elements, as Ellie and Riley take turns chucking bricks at the windows of cars and sneaking up on one another in mock battle.
Naughty Dog goes all out in these portions with what could potentially be considered boring gameplay choices. There’s no real conflict except the interpersonal one, and there’s certainly no one to maim and murder. When the two girls discover an old Halloween store, you can spend 10 minutes just trying on masks and playing with a skull-themed Magic 8 Ball.
At another point, Ellie and Riley read Ellie’s pun book at serious length. The conversation is optional but taps of the triangle button allow it to go on for quite a long time. It’s just two characters, standing in an empty mall, reading bad puns to each other. And it’s the best moment of the DLC.
Kudos are due to Naughty Dog for a willingness to bet that its characters are strong enough and its story interesting enough that players will just want to stand around and listen to them talk. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the DLC is doing an exceptional job of telling story through gameplay — sometimes it does okay, but not on the whole — but to see a triple-A game this willing to leave off the killing in favor of intimate character moments feels like a big step.
If only the DLC as a whole managed to deliver a greater portion of its story in a way that feels more intrinsic to the video game medium. As far as cutscenes-per-hour, Left Behind felt like it outpaced The Last of Us, and much of the DLC is spent watching what’s happening rather than participating in it. The optional conversations, only made available by exploring, are nice, but they aren’t about you playing — they’re about you being willing to check every stupid empty corner in case there’s something there, when most often there isn’t. All that wasted search effort was a major irritation in The Last of Us, and it remains so here.