Can you think of a game less in need of more story than The Last of Us? I can't. Joel and Ellie's journey across the ruined American landscape was so tightly paced and satisfyingly concluded, its characters so thoroughly developed, that in a perfect world the game would be allowed to stand alone, a singular testament to Naughty Dog's storytelling talents. That the game didn't need any DLC makes Left Behind's elegant addition to its narrative arc all the more impressive. This is an essential add-on for anyone who treasured the intensely character-driven style of The Last of Us, and wants to spend just a few more moments in its world.
Left Behind doesn't offer any profound revelations about cordyceps, the Fireflies, or other background elements of The Last of Us' grim reality. True to the spirit of the base game, it merely gives form and adds texture to characters and themes that were hinted at in the original story. As such, it's deeply intertwined with the events of The Last of Us, so if you don't know what happens in that game and want to keep it that way, stop reading now.
The DLC opens by revisiting that horrific moment when Joel is impaled on a metal rod, and then deftly shifts between the "present," in which Ellie desperately makes her way through a shopping mall in search of medical supplies to stitch him up, and flashbacks to the time before Ellie was bitten, before she realized she was immune, when she shared a teenager's tumultuous but abiding affection with her best friend Riley. The filmic sensibilities that so enhanced the original game's presentation again work to great effect here, with hard cuts from one time period to the other coming at just the right moments, when the drama is at its height, to keep you intensely engaged in moving the plot forward.
Ellie's present-day struggle through the Colorado mall is where all the fighting is. Left Behind wisely avoids laying on the combat too thick just to pad out its length; there are only a handful of enemy encounters spread evenly through the story, and what light puzzle-solving there is doesn't impede your progress for long (and you don't push any wooden pallets around in the water, thankfully). The game adds the neat twist of mixing human and infected enemies into the same scenarios, allowing you to pit them against each other with just a little creativity. This portion of the DLC is fairly straightforward, but even here Naughty Dog takes the opportunity to tell a short found story, similar to the Ish business in the original game, that resonates with Ellie and Joel's predicament.
It's the flashbacks to a relatively more innocent time that give Left Behind its spark. After disappearing without explanation weeks earlier, Riley returns to drop in on Ellie and takes her on a heartfelt day trip through another shopping mall. Cue a bounty of wonderful character-building scenes and exchanges between the two, as they briefly get the mall's power up and running and then get a wistful glimpse of what life might have been like before the world ended. Thankfuly there's no combat in the flashback portion, just a lot of great talking and exploring through a costume shop, a music store, and a merry-go-round, among others. On several occasions, Left Behind makes fantastic, offbeat use of the game's existing mechanics that put a big, goofy grin on my face (and those moments are better experienced for yourself than described in a review). The flashback scenes are mostly playful, but there's an undercurrent of sadness and finality to it all that continually reminds you where this reunion must inevitably end up.
Having finished The Last of Us, you'll be somewhat familiar with who Riley was, but Left Behind solidifies her importance to the game's greater storyline and makes it clear how much she meant to Ellie, and the effect she had on Ellie's formative years. Their relationship is developed well enough during their short jaunt through the mall that you'll dread the conclusion that you know is coming. And telling Riley's story is what allows Left Behind to justify its other half, set in the present. It's not a mystery that Ellie had to strike out on her own to fix Joel up, but seeing firsthand what she's been through and lost makes you appreciate why she fights so hard to hang on to what she has left.
Some may knock Left Behind for its relative brevity, at two to three hours, but this is one of those clear cases of quality over quantity, and I for one appreciate an add-on that imparts a lot of narrative value to a game like this without overstaying its welcome. It's delightfully ironic that the one game which really didn't need any DLC has received one of the best pieces of DLC in recent memory. Left Behind is a fine blueprint that details the right way to thoughtfully and meaningfully expand on the arc of a story-driven game.