'The Last of Us: Left Behind' review: Flashbacks make for captivating game

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The Last of Us was a moody masterpiece, a big-budget blockbuster video game that told a surprisingly affecting story of love and loss. Grizzled smuggler Joel and tempestuous teenager Ellie are two of the most fully realized characters in gaming, beautifully brought to life by actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Its morally ambiguous ending felt unresolved yet somehow perfectly complete. As much as I love the world Naughty Dog has created, I’m conflicted as to whether I want to know what happens next, worried that a sequel could sully the poignant journey I experienced.

For its first single-player downloadable content, Naughty Dog has wisely avoided following up the story, instead fleshing out a key sequence in the main game and flashing back to one of Ellie’s most formative experiences. At the end of The Last of Us, Ellie is struggling with survivor’s guilt and tells Joel about when she was bitten, and how her best friend was there. “Her name was Riley, and she was the first to die.” Left Behind lets you live through this experience, but knowing the outcome does little to diminish the impact—it may even heighten the heartache, as you know what’s coming and constantly hope that somehow it won’t.

The narrative structure is thoughtfully divided: A hardened Ellie desperately struggles to find medication for injured Joel in the present, which is starkly contrasted with flashbacks to goofing around with Riley in an abandoned shopping mall. The former is loaded with tense standoffs with the Infected and human survivors; the latter eschews combat entirely (other than a water gun fight) and is simply two teenagers hanging out at the mall, just like any other girls in the world if there hadn’t been an apocalypse.

Left Behind is a short, roughly three-hour experience, and the combat still isn’t the game’s strongest aspect. Clicker enemies that can kill you with one carotid-severing bite are certainly intimidating, but they also can seriously disrupt the narrative flow of the game. But the game speaks volumes in its quieter moments. Rarely has two video game characters walking around talking about friendship, love and hope for the hopeless future been so utterly captivating—and ultimately devastating. I’m no longer reticent about a sequel to The Last of Us. If Naughty Dog has further tales to tell in this beautifully bleak world, I want to experience them.

GRADE: A-

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