Friday, February 14, 2014
The Last of Us isn't about a post-apocalyptic dystopia, it isn't about the zombie-like horror of the 'Infected' and it's not about choosing between open combat or stealth. It's a game about a relationship between a young orphan girl and a man who has lost his daughter. Everything that is happening around these two protagonists is secondary to the story of Joel and Ellie and how their relationship changes as a result of the trials and traumas they experience as the narrative unfolds.
Left Behind takes the same theme but approaches it in a very different way, changing the characters involved and altering greatly the way in which its central relationship is told. Ellie remains a core focus, but her companion this time is newcomer Riley - a girl that shares Ellie's age but harbours very different goals and views of the world.
What ensues over the course of Left Behind's two hour-ish running time is a story of anguish, confusion and revelation as the two initially struggle to find common ground within the ravaged and challenging environment they inhabit. Crafting any kind of believable and engaging relationship through the language of an interactive medium is difficult, doubly so when you're dealing with the unpredictability of youth.
While there are combat and stealth sequences of the type that The Last of Us had in relative abundance, they're much less common here. In their place are what could be described unflatteringly as mini-games, as much of your time is spent exploring a decrepit shopping mall slowly being consumed by the local flora as a result of abandonment.
The master stroke to these mini-games (and the reason such a loaded description is unflattering) is the way that their meaning and outcomes stack upon one other, each consecutive interaction leading to a greater understanding and appreciation of the girls' differences and commonalities and how these ultimately define their view of each other.
We'll leave out the details on just what form these mini-games take, as we're not in the business of spoiling a game's greatest achievement for you, but it's safe to say that they're the kind of activities that any young person would derive genuine entertainment from. As such, Left Behind is a much less consistently gloomy game than The Last of Us.
Naughty Dog has allowed Left Behind's lead characters to express themselves and let their guards down as they have fun exploring the treasures they find. This kind of approach to writing is so rare in stories set in post-apocalyptic that it's no exaggeration to say Left Behind's lasting impact is greater than that of the original game.
That may sound like a ridiculous statement given the short running time, but if you ever needed proof that quality isn't dependent on quantity then this is it. This is a story ultimately centred around how complicated seemingly innocent relationships can be, and full credit should go to the design and writing teams for telling it in such an accomplished fashion within such a tight timeframe.
When not engaged explicitly in the activities that tell the primary story, Left Behind takes a bit of a dip in form. You control Ellie throughout and there are times when things get incredibly tough as you're asked to deal with enemies and safely traverse life-threatening situations. These retain the same level of polish as the main The Last of Us, but the quality of the execution during the Ellie-Riley relationship-building moments means that you can't help but wish that even more time was spent exploring that area.
The major alteration made to combat is the inclusion of multi-faction encounters that see you, human bandits and infected locked in the same area. By throwing bottles and bricks it's possible to lure the infected into positions in which they come face-to-face with the bandits, meaning you can play the two sides off against one another. If you successfully remain hidden until their fight is completed, it becomes much easier to either pick off any still alive or sneak through undetected.
Such a tactic makes sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Ellie is less well armed than Joel was in the main game - for the majority of Left Behind a pistol and knife are the only weapons you've got to work with. Secondly, simply playing as the smaller, more fragile-looking Ellie creates a much stronger sense of vulnerability and causes you to naturally fall back into a more defensive style of play.
Just how defensively you approach things will depend on your chosen difficulty, with 'Survivor' offering a similarly punishing experience as it did in The Last of Us proper and not recommended for anyone without the relevant skills. In fact, it would be wise to play through the game on an easier difficulty first as too many deaths and restarts result in a disjointed playthrough that fatally disrupts the narrative flow.
Completionists will have to play through on Survivor at some point, though, as it's the only way to unlock Left Behind's one and only silver Trophy. The other nine are all bronze in flavour, with three reserved for completing the game on easy, normal and hard and the others spread between finding various collectibles and success in the aforementioned mini-games. Other than the silver for Survivor, none are especially taxing.
The Last of Us is considered by some to be the best game of the PlayStation 3-era. If there's any justice, Left Behind will be up for the title of best DLC of the PlayStation 3-era. It not only builds upon the good parts of the main game, it experiments with new elements that will surely become a mainstay of Naughty Dog releases going forward.
Everyone that has played through The Last of Us owes it to themselves to experience Left Behind.