“The Last of Us” continues with a compelling origin story


“The Last of Us: Left Behind”

Naughty Dog

Grade: A

Snow lightly covers piles of dead leaves as the season shifts from fall to winter, and Joel’s just been hurled from a second-story window by a rival human survivor. He lands on a piece of wreckage, a metal beam that impales him straight through the gut. It’s 2033, 20 years after the apocalypse, and resources are so important that people kill for them. But Joel, hardened as he is, can’t live long with his abdomen punctured. His only source of salvation comes in the form of 14-year-old Ellie, whom he has been hired to protect and transport. 

“Left Behind” picks up right in this moment — in the unexplained segment transitioning between the fall and winter chapters of “The Last of Us.” Though it’s tempting to write off “Left Behind” as an afterthought, it fully embraces the best aspects of “The Last of Us” — its story, direction, voiceovers, music and art design. Basically, everything.

“Left Behind” is the download-only additional content to developer Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 3 exclusive “The Last of Us,” which originally launched in June 2013 to universal critical acclaim. Set in a post-apocalyptic United States, the main storyline spans from east-coast locales such as Boston and Pittsburgh to Colorado. The apocalypse was caused by the Cordyceps fungus, which gradually turns people into violent, zombie-like monsters. A corrupt, authoritarian police force presides over quarantine zones that serve to protect the remains of humanity from the infected, but the police are opposed by a resistance group called the Fireflies. The leader of this resistance force, Marlene, asks Joel to transport Ellie — who is immune to Cordyceps and could be the only hope for a cure — to Colorado.

In the “Left Behind” expansion, the player controls only Ellie, but otherwise the game retains the same mechanics from the main campaign, such as crafting Molotov cocktails, smoke bombs and health kits to increase effectiveness against enemies and collecting artifacts, handwritten notes and photographs to piece together unseen characters’ stories (in this case, it’s the tragedy of four military commandos). Ellie is younger, smaller and weaker than the game’s protagonist, Joel, and experiences difficulty with melee combat, which makes the game more about stealth than bludgeoning. Fortunately, for those disinclined to be sneaky, there are many sizeable caches of gun and bow ammunition to discover. But the best combat twist is that fungus-infested monsters now populate the same areas as the humans hunting Ellie, something unseen in the original game, and a small noise such as dropping a brick or a bottle can send the two groups into a slugfest.

The settings, which include two malls (one in Boston and one in Colorado) harken back to the imagery of George Romero’s zombie classic “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Left Behind” beautifully captures the decay, overgrowth and waterlogging a shopping mall would experience over 20 years of abandonment. Similarly to the full game, “Left Behind” laboriously details billboards, stores, posters and graffiti left by earlier survivors. It’s worth taking the time to poke into every corner and collect the scattered stories, especially early on in Ellie and her best friend Riley’s excursion.

What differentiates “Left Behind” from simply being a cheap add-on is that its storytelling is partly retrospective. In short, it’s Ellie’s origin story. “Left Behind” alternates between current-day sequences full of combat and hunts for medical supplies and the events in Ellie’s life prior to the “The Last of Us.” It begins when Riley, Ellie’s roommate at military boarding school, returns after a prolonged absence and slowly rebuilds the girls’ relationship after a falling out they’d had beforehand. The two roam through an abandoned mall in the Boston quarantine zone as a means of farewell, as Riley tells Ellie she’s being sent away permanently. The charisma Riley carries makes her immediately likable. She’s just as, if not more, badass than Ellie, and the narrative that unfolds during their exploratory adventure is heart-wrenching, beautiful and as horrifying as the original game’s best moments. Most surprisingly, the scenes with Riley — though never relaxing — produce the closest thing to tension-free fun in “Left Behind.”

While Ellie’s banter with Joel gradually becomes endearing over the course of the original game’s 10-hour main storyline, seeing her witticisms play off another girl her age from the outset of the expansion shows an entirely different side of Ellie’s personality. Ashley Johnson reprises her voice and motion capture as Ellie, reviving the character’s spunky spirit with as much fervor as was present in the original story. But, because this is partly a prequel, Neil Druckmann’s writing and Johnson’s performance craft Ellie into a typical teenage girl who has time to worry about her relationships and her body because her survival isn’t immediately threatened. Newcomer Yaani King provides Riley’s likeness and delivers her with as much finesse as every previous supporting character. As is the case with everything Naughty Dog has developed, the quality is impeccable.

Though “Left Behind” costs a hefty $14.99 on the PlayStation Store, the extra three hours of gameplay tell a nuanced and heart-crushing story on par with the source material. Riley’s dialogue and Ellie’s drive to rescue Joel stick with you, even after the system’s been powered off.