WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD ...
... You have been warned:
It took me about 3 1/2 hours to complete on hard and I enjoyed 99.9% of it with major reservations for that .1%. I'll get to that but first 'the beginning'. It was fitting that they started with a montage of scenes from the full game, it immediately reminded us of who Ellie had become. When the Ellie and Joel cut-scene finished and you realise you're about to play as Ellie prior to the winter level, I couldn't help but smile. It was quite the surprise, but it felt natural and necessary because many people, including myself, had asked the question: how did Ellie manage to keep Joel alive?
After a brief cut-scene introducing Riley we were immediately thrown into the future. In this section we were introduced to a slightly different approach, more akin to Resident Evil. Simple but effective (and natural) puzzles that kept you focused on the matter at hand, while slowly building the tension as the inevitable first encounter neared. Slow paced and brilliantly atmospheric, we investigate an empty building, always weary of what may be lurking there, and to Naughty Dog's credit, they thought the tension was enough, which of course it was. I loved the process of slowly sinking deeper into a world I'd spent countless hours investigating in the main game.
The Riley and Ellie section that followed played out differently, with the emphasis on establishing just who Riley was and the nature of their relationship, something that was masterfully done and although understated, showed a love that went beyond the love of two friends. This was a love born out of loneliness and a need for affection that had blossomed into something Ellie could not fully understand, but it was clear that Riley did. It was a wonderful way of demonstrating one of Riley's strongest traits: integrity.
The conversation was much denser than the main game as they threaded their way through the derelict buildings with light and shade in the dialogue to compensate for missing narrative and taking us deeper beneath the skin of Riley. About mid way through this scene we get our first real indication that Riley fully understands what is growing between the two young women. "Remember the first time I brought you here?" She says. Ordinarily you would expect the line "Remember when we first came here?" This showed it was as close to a date as Riley ever managed with Ellie and also showed how she wanted to please Ellie then, and please Ellie now, for her last goodbye. We also see yet another side of Riley; that of the heroine as she sets Ellie up for the penultimate surprise after Ellie had just looked at a picture of two water-pistols: "Oh Ellie, I don't know why you don't give them up ... they're never coming back."
Then we find ourselves in the Halloween store. I found this section playful and endearing, clearly designed to remind us that these were just kids. This was down time but fun time and following Riley around the store lead to an endless supply of off the cuff remarks as she inspected every nook and cranny. There were plenty of other distractions at the players disposal too, like the fortune telling skull or the masks, which I found out by complete accident, lead to different animations when Ellie wore them. I must have spent a good half an hour in this store, testing the developers to see just how much content they'd put here, and I was simply amazed. It was here that I choked up for the first time after laughing at the playfulness and silliness because it was a startling contrast to an ugly world they'd been born into. This may have been an extreme mechanic but all of us at some time or other grieve for our innocence, and it rang true because of that.
But I'm not going to give a blow by blow account of every scene in this game. I just wanted to highlight what I consider the important scenes for bringing us closer to Riley. The 'breaking the car's windows' was a lovely mini-game that once again emphasised how young these two girls really were, and if you won (I lost) you were rewarded with a selection of four questions, one of which was "Why did you leave?" Once again, the tone in Riley's voice demonstrated a sense of integrity. She'd clearly left because she felt falling in love would not be fair to Ellie, which of course is why she said nasty things before she'd left. It was to enable Ellie to deal with it easier, or at least, that was her intention. Riley longed for Ellie to reciprocate love in the way she felt it but wasn't going to manipulate or press Ellie in any way.
The photo booth was a wonderful scene too, giving us our first glimpse of an awakening Ellie, as the close proximity created slight discomfort between the two of them. The embarrassment lingered for a while afterwards as both girls tried to distance themselves from that moment of forced intimacy by mimicking the announcer from the intercom, but it was still there and as a player you could feel it. There are many such vignettes throughout our journey with Ellie and Riley, such as the roundabout, punching the marionette, the water-pistol fight or the make believe video game. It was all leading to one scene though, and that scene was the most beautiful scene in the entire 3 1/2 hours I'd spent with this game: the kiss.
Ellie said she had to leave and Riley knew this was her last opportunity to find out whether Ellie felt the same way. She desperately wanted Ellie to ask her to stay ... needed her to ask. This was an incredibly clever scene for many reasons, but first, how they handled the scene: In the tradition of Valentines day, the kiss was kept hidden but intimate. We saw it from just behind Riley and it lingered just a heartbeat longer than a farewell peck between friends. There was no lust or sexuality, just love and tenderness and I never once felt embarrassed that this was the Ellie I'd watched grow beside Joel. But the kiss went beyond the framing. It reminded us of something Joel had said to Ellie out of anger: "You have no idea what loss is." And we finally understood that when Ellie comforts Joel and tells him, "it must be terrible to lose someone you love", we know without question that Ellie knew it was Joel who needed support, NOT her. Perhaps the most startling thing about the scene though was the bitter sweet nature of it. The music had brought Ellie and Riley together at last but it also brought about their end. Brilliant.
What about the gameplay? Just like in the main game, I found the gameplay to be engaging and fun. There was actually more content in terms of gameplay than I thought would be there and opting to flip between the future and the past was a master-stroke, enabling Ellie to continue fighting with weapons without compromising the structural narrative of the past. In essence, we played two different characters, the innocence and the educated. I loved the puzzle elements throughout which obviously allowed Naughty Dog to keep the action within the boundaries of smaller environments. It could be argued that the new mechanic of distracting the infected and leading them to the bandits could have been used more often but I fully appreciate the limited time Naughty Dog would have had when you consider all of the content in this game. I thoroughly enjoyed stealthily taking out a clicker, stalker or runner, creeping around or finding that one perfect spot where nothing can see me so that I can take them out silently with my bow.
And that .1% of reservation? The very last scene. Naughty Dog made a very good case for 'less is more' in the original story, leaving the player reeling at the very end by leaving blank pages for the player to write their own ending and draw their own conclusions. There IS a definitive ending but it's ambiguous enough to warrant endless speculation. We are invited to consider humanity, the fruitless nature of survival, the irony of nature taking from mankind while giving to Ellie, the imperfections and motives of each and every person who has ever considered themselves immune to selfishness. However, I felt 'less is more' undersold the ending of Left Behind because there was no greater picture just an inevitable death. For me, I wanted something unexpected. Not in the same sense as The Last Of Us but something we wouldn't necessarily have seen coming. I wanted to see the scene where they are sat together, waiting it out. I wanted to see Riley begin to change and Ellie shell shocked as it dawns on her that she isn't going to change. I wanted to see Ellie kill Riley.