The following review contains minor spoilers for The Last of Us
Prequels must pass one of two criteria in order to be effective: they must either A) provide new context that enhances the quality of the original work, or B) provide character development that wasn’t present in the original. Most prequels fail to meet either of these marks, usually falling somewhere between “unnecessary” and “a waste of time.” However, The Last of Us: Left Behind, a story-driven piece of downloadable content that serves as a prequel to Naughty Dog's excellent apocalyptic zombie survival tale, passes both marks with flying colors.
Although it’s not actually quite a prequel, as a large chunk of the game takes place between the Fall and Winter chapters of The Last of Us. Left Behind follows 14-year old Ellie as she goes out to find medicine to tend the wounds of Joel, who served as the main playable protagonist for the main game. Periodically, Left Behind will flash back to Ellie's life three weeks prior to meeting Joel. This is where Left Behind’s main focus is, following the relationship between Ellie and her best friend Riley. It's a refreshing scenario, as at its core Left Behind is simply the tale of the friendship between two teenage girls, providing stark contrast to the machismo that dominates current gaming (including parts of The Last of Us). Naughty Dog has long been praised for their narrative prowess, and Left Behind sees them at their very peak.
Ellie and Riley are at a crossroads in their friendship, as Ellie is in the middle of training for the authoritarian military of The Last of Us' setting, while Riley has decided to join the Fireflies, a rebel group who are at odds with the military's methods. Riley has returned to try to mend her friendship with Ellie, and the two embark on an outing together to an abandoned mall to reconnect. Left Behind smartly eschews combat during this scenario, instead focusing on the relationship between Ellie and Riley. Combat is instead relegated to the present sections, as Ellie must navigate between hunters, infected, and basic environmental puzzles in order to find the medicine for Joel.
One of my biggest complaints about the The Last of Us’ combat was that there was rarely crossover between fighting humans and fighting the infected; it was always one or the other. This is remedied in Left Behind, with most combat scenarios finding you in the middle of a struggle between the two. You can stay in the back and let them finish each other off before going in to pick off the stragglers, or use your own tactics to push the odds towards one side or the other. It gives you even more options to put the already excellent stealth and survival-based gameplay to the test, providing some of the most tense encounters in the Last of Us saga.
Combat plays a rather minimal part of the already fairly short experience, which is roughly two and a half hours in length. When you’re not fighting off the infected, you’ll spend most of your time roaming with Ellie and Riley, and it’s these moments where Left Behind really shines. Be it trading puns from a joke book, engaging in water gun fights, or trying to scare each other with silly Halloween masks, it's the moments where the characters are allowed to breathe and interact with each other that gives this story weight and significance. One character moment in particular, however, elevates Left Behind above the sum of its parts, and in years to come will likely be seen as a turning point in the evolution of storytelling in games (this is the part of the review where I complain about not being able to spoil stuff *grumble grumble*).
When The Last of Us’ credits first rolled for me last year, I argued that it was the perfect ending, and any continuation of the story would ruin its effectiveness. With Left Behind, Naughty Dog has proven me wrong, delivering a story that is powerful and gives the main game’s narrative greater resonance. At fifteen dollars, some may decry Left Behind’s relatively short length, but it’s a small price to pay for a story that is both perfectly paced and emotionally draining, as well as an excuse to revisit one of the best games of this generation.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Last of Us: Left Behind for the PS3