Sunday, March 9, 2014

MiniREVIEW - The Last of Us : Left Behind.

The Last of Us : Left Behind is a $15 piece of DLC for 2013's supernaturally-accomplished The Last of Us.  It offers some additional insight into (lead character) Ellie's backstory, if you have a hankering for it.

The Last of Us is the high-water mark for writing in video games, an unrelentingly-beautiful, bleak, hopeful and human story, combined with a fantastic blend of stealth/action gameplay that feels wholly unique.  How does Left Behind stack up to the imposing shadow that looms over it?

Not very well.  Or at least, I finished the DLC a week or two ago, and felt no pressing need to tell you about it.  The Last of Us is a twenty-hour opus of emotion, and in contrast Left Behind is...

It's meh.  Meh is what it is.  At the same time, it's still The Last of Us-caliber meh, which means this DLC is more visually impressive than any game you've played between now and The Last of Us, including any and all "next-gen" titles.  It's unbelievably gorgeous, and its production values reside somewhere high above the clouds.  In order to explain why it lacks the impact of the core game, I'm going to spoil the structure for you, but not the plot.

Left Behind takes place in two time periods.  It sees Ellie caring for (Last of Us hero/antihero) Joel when he is wounded by exploring an abandoned shopping mall while cutting away to a day she spent with her best friend, Riley, before the events of The Last of Us occurred.  The game skips back and forth, for what is arguably a good reason.

Before she met Joel, Ellie wasn't the most combat-experienced fourteen-year-old girl.  By halfway through The Last of Us, she's a full-on action hero.

Left Behind, then, could not concentrate entirely on Ellie and Riley's Crazy Day Out, as pre-TLoU Ellie isn't much fun to actually play.  With Riley by your side, you do nothing but press forward on the analog stick, exploring interactive environments and letting the story play out as she and Riley (charmingly) banter.  After a bit of gentle narrative progression with Riley, around the time you're getting bored of it, Left Behind zips back to Winter to see a slightly-older Ellie kicking the shit out of infected, clickers and hunters in pursuit of something to help Joel.

(Writer Neil) Druckmann wants us to care about Ellie and Riley's relationship to the same degree we care about Ellie and Joel's, but Left Behind drops the ball on two fronts.  Far too much of the girls' relationship is told through (oddly inelegant) exposition, and not actually experienced by the player - and all of the actually-involving gameplay takes place in Winter, when Riley is out of the picture.

The player themselves earn no real bond with Riley, and while our love for Ellie remains, it is only our compassion for her that connects us to this mini-narrative.

Constrained as it is by the presumed need to have pre-TLoU Ellie's gameplay so damned simple, the DLC drops the ball The Last of Us fired well over the fences.  By resting on its gameplay laurels and shuttling the player back and forth between time periods, it denies itself - and the player - enough time to really begin to care about Riley and her relationship with Ellie.

Left Behind would have been better-served by creating all-new gameplay designs that would see Ellie and Riley overcoming challenges together.  Instead, it feels disjointed, and far less accomplished than the game that spawned it. It has its moments - moments where it will genuinely touch your heart, and genuinely move you - but it doesn't give itself the breathing room to really make its statement.

Still, though.  Incredibly good-looking.

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