The Last of Us 'Left Behind' review: Memories and motivations

The Last of Us "Left Behind" DLC refers to important moments in the main game's story. As such, this review may contain SPOILERS for The Last of Us.

"Left Behind," the first and only piece of narrative downloadable content for The Last of Us, has a strange task ahead of itself. It attempts to tell an impactful story with an ending every player is assuredly already aware of, reaching into the past to tell the story of Ellie and her best friend Riley. Despite the knowledge of Riley's fate – we learned of her death in The Last of Us – I still found myself becoming hopeful for her future, wishing something magical would happen, that I could avert the tragedy.

No such luck.

Left Behind begins in the present with a familiar scene from The Last of Us, Joel injured after an encounter with other human survivors. Dragging him into an abandoned store, Ellie patches him up as best she can but quickly realizes his wounds are far more serious than she anticipated. In the past, Ellie is surprised to be stirred out of her slumber one night by her friend. In an exposition-laden recounting of their last meeting, Ellie questions where Riley has been for the last few weeks. "I thought you were dead," Ellie tells Riley, foreshadowing what we already know.

Left Behind jumps between these two times in Ellie's life, beginning with Joel before transitioning to Riley, hopping back and forth between climactic moments. Though it's never explicitly stated, the leap to her time with Riley seems almost as though players are scrubbing through her recollection of that day long ago, the day that ended with Ellie losing her best friend. In the present, staring at a dying Joel, she vows to save him: the last living friend she has.

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Joel's timeline focuses on scavenging and combat. Ellie leaves Joel and begins investigating her surroundings for medical supplies. As she treks through the environment, her calm begins to dissipate. She becomes frustrated by hopeful bottles of medicine that turn up empty, and she lashes out, tossing the objects aside and decrying those that left them behind to be disappointingly discovered. When Ellie does happen upon other survivors, she learns that she and Joel are being hunted.

In the majority of Left Behind's combat encounters, players are presented with two groups: survivors and infected. Yes, you can stealthily dismantle enemy lines with Ellie's indestructible pocket knife, a crafted molotov, or the sparse ammo strewn about the world; but it's more insidious to throw a brick in the direction of a group of humans and watch as Clickers attack. The two packs will square off, often leaving a single straggler for Ellie to contend with. It felt far more strategic than much of the combat found in the main campaign.

Riley's timeline, meanwhile, delves deeper into the narrative. Riley convinces Ellie to go exploring, and eventually the pair find themselves in a deserted mall after sneaking away from their camp. Despite their quarrel, the two women quickly revert back to being best friends, finding humor and comfort in each other. From trying on masks in a spooky Halloween store to snapping photos in a miraculously-still-functional photo booth, their new objective is one of distraction. It's a reprieve, one The Last of Us' main campaign rarely offered. You accomplish simple things, but each new objective reveals a piece of their closeness and builds tension for the unavoidable conclusion to their day. You can spam a button to read multiple jokes out of Ellie's book of awful puns. (A pirate's favorite letter? 'Tis the sea.) You excitedly jump on a carousel. There's a moment in an arcade that is so wonderful I wouldn't dare spoil it, and urge you to discover it for yourself.

Actor Yaani King was given no small challenge in taking on the role of young Riley Abel, somehow expected to impact players in a three-hour campaign, in a universe that gave the characteristics of its leads much more time to develop. Riley's success as a character largely hinges on actor Ashley Johnson, who reprises her role as Ellie. It's her adoration and the small moments where the pair find elation in this awful world that sold me on Riley.

Individually, it's difficult to understand their motivations, but together they represent everything the world of The Last of Us lacks: hope, faith, compassion, fun.

There's a reason those qualities are rarely to be found in The Last of Us' protagonists. Just as they were ripped from Joel in the early moments of the main campaign, Left Behind does the same with Ellie. The Last of Us: "Left Behind" isn't a grand piece of content that alters your perception of Naughty Dog's game, but it enhances your understanding of what Joel and Ellie fought so hard to preserve. It's easier to believe how far Ellie goes to save Joel, her unwillingness to allow anything else to be taken from her, when contrasted against the insurmountable loss of Riley. Ellie's previous experience seems to amplify her affection for Joel, perhaps giving her a fuller appreciation of how precious it is to really care about someone in this horrible world. Ellie shows elements of innocence and hope in Left Behind that seldom surface in The Last of Us, and it can be heartwarming – until you remember the inevitable.

This review is based on review code of "Left Behind", provided by Sony.

Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews, with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release; See our review of The Last of Us.