Down With The Sickness
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game I’ve had a close eye on ever since I was given an early look at its plague-ravaged world during a meeting with at E3 2017. Though the initial build was, unsurprisingly, a bit rough around the edges, it showed tremendous promise. I was mesmerized as I watched Amicia, the game’s protagonist, work her way through a stunning Gothic cathedral filled with what seemed like thousands of plague-carrying rats. These nasty, viral critters moved and undulated across every surface, giving them an almost supernatural appearance. And the way Amicia was able to corral them with light—the creatures’ only weakness—causing them to devour the soldiers pursuing her and her ailing brother was a sight to behold.
Well, it’s been just shy of two years since that demo. And finally, the game is upon us. And from the moment I fired up my PlayStation 4 and stepped into its ruined version of medieval France, it was plain to see that Asobo Studios’ has been busy. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a gorgeous and painstakingly polished adventure that explores familiar themes like war, death, and revenge. But that’s not to say it feels derivative by any stretch. Experiencing the horrors of war and disease through the eyes of the game’s defenseless duo adds a whole new dynamic to these familiar tropes and keeps the narrative tense and engaging throughout its 17 chapters.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A Plague Tale: Innocence’s story begins with Amicia De Rune assisting her father in a hunt on the family’s land. Here, we get a taste of the game’s stealth elements such as sneaking through tall grass, tiptoeing silently, and using your sling to strike targets at a distance. However, it doesn’t take long before this serene trek through the French wilderness is cut short. While pursuing a wounded boar, Amicia’s loyal dog is pulled underground by a powerful, unseen force. To make matters worse, after she and her father arrive home they’re soon greeted by Inquisition soldiers, who promptly murder everyone they see. This sudden bloodbath forces the newly-orphaned Amicia to flee with her ailing brother Hugo in search of safety and a cure for his mysterious illness.
The dynamic between the young but courageous Amicia, who is now forced to care for her vulnerable brother, was my favorite things about A Plague Tale. Hugo is very young, and as such has trouble grasping just how dangerous their current predicament is. For example, one moment, he could throw a tantrum and alert nearby guards to your location. Or, if that’s not enough, run off frolicking through an orchard teeming with murderous soldiers. The way Amicia attempts to gently curb his puerile impulses while trying her best to keep the two of them safe makes for some genuinely impactful moments.
One instance that stuck with me long after I put my controller down happened early in the game. After visiting a small hamlet devastated by the plague, Amicia and Hugo witness villagers who’re burning bodies on pyres. While trying to escape the not-so-friendly locals in a display reminiscent of Resident Evil 4‘s iconic “village” scene, Hugo asks in his innocent, sing-song voice, “Amicia, are they going to burn me, too?” Yep, that one got me right in the feels. A Plague Tale is full of moments like this. That said, you might want to keep some Kleenex handy if you happen to be of the softer disposition.
Working For The Rat Race
At its core, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a stealth game. Each chapter will put you in a mostly linear path to your final destination. As you proceed, you’ll need to avoid patrolling enemies and solve puzzles to progress through each environment. When facing rats, you’ll typically need to use items, like haunches of meat and hanging corpses, to distract them as you move to the next light source. Other times, you can unleash a stone from your sling to smash the lanterns of your enemies, leaving them ripe for the snacking.
Humans, on the other hand, don’t mind the light so you’ll need to find different ways to dispatch them. In the beginning, the most straightforward way to do this is to throw rocks at nearby crates of armor or smash pots on the ground and sneak by while they’re distracted. However, before long, you’ll find you need to get your hands dirty to survive. Thankfully, Amicia will learn several alchemy recipes throughout her adventure that can be used to outwit her enemies. These recipes allow you to do things like put enemies to sleep, lob flaming stones that can set distant objects ablaze, or even craft makeshift grenades.
Making use of these abilities is initially straightforward. At first, that is. Eventually, you’ll have to combine these abilities in quick succession to overcome what the game throws at you. For example, just before an enemy knight could kill me, I chucked a vial of Luminosa, which acts as a makeshift grenade and single-use escape item. While the enemy was blinded, I then used the Devorantis, an acid that melted his helmet. Finally, I finished him off with a well-placed stone to his now-exposed noggin, putting him down for the count.
Mind you, all of this unfolded in mere seconds. The rush of satisfaction that came from quickly using almost every tool at my disposal to overcome near-certain death was nothing short of exhilarating.
Leave Luck To Heaven
Without question, using your various abilities to defeat the soldiers and rats that litter the landscape can be exciting. But that’s not to say A Plague Tale is perfect. Like I said earlier, the game is quite linear. All too often, you’ll find yourself using the same techniques over and over again to progress. With countless armor crates, lanterns, or conveniently-placed haunches of meat dotting the path to each stage’s exit, things can start to feel painfully formulaic. It often seems like little more than dumb luck is the real inertia propelling Hugo and Amicia to through each chapter.
Still, that’s not to say that A Plague Tale: Innocence is without its clever puzzles. There are more than a few of them that require some ingenuity on the player’s part. It’s just a shame that you’ll find yourself repeating the same rinse-and-repeat rituals so often to get to them. Between its straightforward stage designs and repetitive puzzles that leave little room for experimentation, there isn’t much of an incentive to play through its story multiple times. Then again, this is an issue common with many narrative-based adventures, so it’s hard to fault the game too much for that. Despite this lack of replayability, A Plague Tale: Innocence’s story is certainly worth experiencing once.
Despite A Plague Tale’s: Innocence’s ghoulish premise, the game itself is nothing short of beautiful. From its detailed character models with their lifelike facial animations to its sprawling vistas and excellent use of HDR, this is one game that’s easy on the eyes. Areas are jam-packed with details. One particularly memorable scene is a battlefield littered with dead English soldiers. Thousands of corpses stretch as far as the eye can see (check out the screen above), impaled on spikes or run through with swords in a scene that’s so detailed you can almost smell the carion. Other areas eschew the gore for sheer natural beauty, such as a breathtaking underground lake that fills the cavern with a seemingly supernatural glow.
Despite all of these little details, A Plague Tale still manages to run at a steady clip without taking a hit when it comes to performance – even when areas are brimming with countless swarms of writhing rats.
The game also shines in terms of audio direction. It features excellent environmental sounds that immerse you in its ruined world, along with haunting acoustic melodies that inject plenty of emotion into the proceedings. Add to this some outstanding performances by Charlotte McBurney and Logan Hannan, who voice Amicia and Hugo, respectively, and you have one great looking and sounding game.
While it can feel a bit too constrained for its good at times, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a beautifully bleak and brutal game that any fan of the adventure genre should check out. Though the themes that underpin the story are familiar, experiencing the horrors of war and disease through the eyes of vulnerable children is a fresh and exciting new direction that makes fighting for survival feel all the more harrowing. It’s just a shame that, despite the numerous tools at your disposal, the game doesn’t offer you more freedom to experiment with the world Asobo Studios has created.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive; Developer: Asobo Studios; Players: 1; Released: May 14, 2019; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of A Plague Tale: Innocence given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.