There was a lot to like about The Last of Us’ core campaign. Naughty Dog’s survival horror opus was not only successful in pushing the limits of the ageing PlayStation 3 from a pure hardware perspective, but it also exceeded expectations from a narrative stance, too. Where other developers stumble, the Californian company was able to effortlessly confront challenging subjects such as fatherly love, homosexuality, and more, all through the filter of a bleak post-pandemic world. The Last of Us: Left Behind represents the release’s first (and only) major single player expansion – but is it able to live up to the calibre of Joel and Ellie’s cross-country excursion?

Given the outrageous number of gongs under its belt, it was always going to be a tall order, but somehow the studio has managed to navigate it like a world champion wall climber equipped with a pickaxe. At just over two hours in length, the hotly anticipated add-on pack may be a condensed buffet of all of the treats that made the main game so sublime, but that merely means that you’ll want to savour every last piece. And revel in each bite you will, because this boutique piece of DLC is a miniature masterpiece.

Acting as a prologue of sorts, the plot primarily focuses on potty-mouthed protagonist Ellie’s relationship with boarding school companion Riley. However, it also fleshes out unseen parts of the primary storyline, as the youngster embarks on a suicide mission inside a dilapidated shopping centre in search of medical supplies for the injured Joel. The juxtaposition of these two opposing segments – which fade in and out over the course of the expansion’s entire running time – provide the post-release package with a great pace, and also ensure that you’re on your toes at all times. It’s the sequences with the two adolescent tearaways that will hold your attention the most, though.

These moments ditch the title’s traditional combat scenarios almost entirely, and augment you with the freedom to simply explore with your feisty friend. Playing as actress Ashley Johnson’s outspoken alter-ego, you’ll spend a large chunk of the add-on merely goofing around, as the developer funnels you through several intricately detailed sandboxes packed with mischievous treats. It would perhaps be unfair of us to spoil these encounters before you have the opportunity to experience them for yourself, but the mini-campaign does an impressive job of repurposing many of the mechanics from the core experience by presenting them in new and interesting ways.

Most importantly, though, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The abovementioned Avengers performer and newcomer Yaani King both bring incredible warmth to the two leading ladies, which makes you believe in their friendship. It’s layered, too, with allusions to past disputes and also the suggestion that there’s something a little more bubbling beneath the surface, all of which is tackled in the almost understated style that we’ve come to associate the developer with. Alas, the heavier topics do take a bit of backseat for the majority of the jovial jaunt, with the emphasis very much on the juvenile activities that the pairing partake in. One sequence, for example, rekindles the pint-sized star’s love of puns, as the two casually evaluate the quality of a string of jokes while circling an overgrown merry-go-round.

It’s in this environment particularly that the Uncharted creator flexes its technical chops. Despite lacking the sharp resolution and silky smooth framerate of a PlayStation 4 release, the game still manages to look borderline next-gen, with the company’s industry leading motion capture and hand crafted facial animation bringing bags of personality to the cut-scenes. The real beauty of the original game was in its attention to detail, though, and many of the new areas that you’re encouraged to explore here manage to maintain that attribute, even taking the time to poke fun at some of the developer’s past endeavours. Still, it’s through the frankly frightening number of art assets that the outfit effectively conveys the idea of a lifestyle in stasis, which is perhaps the most macabre trait present throughout the whole affair.

Don’t think that you’ll be avoiding encounters with the fiction’s interpretation of the undead entirely, though, as clickers do appear in the other parts of the campaign. While the heroine is armed with a pistol – and later a bow – you’ll spend much of your time evading these enemies, until the final act where you’ll need to use bricks and bottles to play pursuing human hunters and the infected off each other. In fact, this added mechanic works so well that it’s curious that it wasn’t included in the main game, with the option to puppeteer both sides a welcome change of pace. With the length of the adventure so short, you’ll only really get to experiment with this feature a couple of times, but the option is appreciated, and is sure to be fully developed in time for the title’s inevitable sequel.

Outside of these new additions, however, the studio also finds ample opportunity for more of the same. Optional dialogue sequences make a welcome return, rewarding you for inspecting every inch of the environment with bonus conversations that flesh out the personalities of key cast members. Meanwhile, hidden collectibles – which are once again represented by intricately rendered models – tell the personal tale of various other survivors in a manner that’s reminiscent, but perhaps not quite as impactful, as the likes of Ish from the Suburbs section of the primary excursion.

Conclusion

With a standalone asking price of £11.99/$14.99, The Last of Us: Left Behind is an admittedly expensive proposition considering its slender running time. However, quality almost always trumps quantity, and Naughty Dog’s inaugural solo expansion packs plenty of the former into its two or so hour campaign. This is a touching, intelligent, and largely refreshing extension to the core escapade, and while it’s not exactly brimming with narrative revelations, it’s still a beautiful story that you shouldn’t let pass you by.