You always hear them before you see them. The harrowing squeaks of thousands upon thousands of flesh-eating rats. Their glowing, beady eyes staring back from the shadows as you cling desperately to your torch, battling back a certain and agonizing death.
A Plague Tale: Innocence brings to life a rich world of tragedy, survival, and familial bonds. Having heard great things about the game and interested in an accessible action-adventure title, I picked it up and ravenously consumed it over the last few days. Sure, I was a bit slow on the uptake, seeing as how it was released last year by Asobo studios. However, the title recently celebrated its one millionth sale – and while those numbers may seem comparatively slow-going compared to some of the AAA titles out there, this labor of love is an absolute treasure deserving of your attention. Especially at 66% off until this Thursday, 7/9.
A Plague Tale centers around two French children in the mid 14th century: a young woman named Amicia and her 5 year old brother, Hugo De Rune. Born into a respected, noble family, their lives are plunged into chaos and terror after the Inquisition comes looking for the young boy [Gotta say, definitely wasn’t expecting that]. Their parents are killed, and the two find themselves fleeing the inquisition amidst growing conflicts with the English army and a terrifying plague known as “The Bite”. Brought about by rat bites, it’s said to cause boils and debilitating pain. Not only that – it’s exceedingly contagious.
Amicia and Hugo are initially dispatched to find a family friend and ally, but of course, the plot broadens quite a bit and they soon find themselves confronted with the need to face the Inquisition directly and attempt to rid the French countryside of this plague once and for all.
A Plague Tale: Innocence does a superb job of telling a concise, 8-10 hour story with an identifiable beginning, middle and end. There’s tragedy (tons of it), betrayal, heartbreak, joy, triumph…a proper reflection on the human condition and the stresses that any sibling relationship might experience, whether there’s an evil demon rat plague going on or not.
The voice acting is quite impressive as well. Amicia, voiced by Charlotte McBurney, channels a believable combination of struggling through sincere grief while doing her best to preserve what’s left of her family: herself and her little brother. Through it all, we see some glimpses to the child beneath – her spirit of adventure, the grand fairy tales she inserts herself into, the optimism she attempts to inject whenever she can. Yet, there are also many times when she utters equally powerful words:
“I don’t know what to do.”
Of course she doesn’t. She couldn’t be expected to have all the answers. Thankfully, she finds friends and allies to help her and her little brother through their journey. Each offers their own strengths and skills to help the pair get to where they need to go, and in time the rag-tag group of kids seems strikingly familiar to Peter Pan’s own Lost Boys (except there are some Lost Girls as well….)
The story picks up fast enough to get invested, and what I found to be even more impressive was that the story’s scope was kept well enough in control to keep it contained to an 8-12 hour adventure. There are a million different ways the story could have gone, but Asobo demonstrates real restraint and focus in delivering an impactful story that concludes precisely where it is meant to.
Overall, A Plague Tale: Innocence features a superbly fashioned narrative.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a beautiful game. Throughout the game you find yourself in forest scenes with lush trees sporting spectacular Fall colors. The depth and detail of these scenes inspired a sense of wonder and relaxation.
Good thing, too, because A Plague Tale: Innocence can be a horrific experience.
Early into the game you discover a “nest” where a colony of rats emerge from – and its hallways look like they’re fresh from ones own nightmares. Skeletons are embedded into the walls, and the dark roots glisten with an unknown substance.
The horrors are not strictly unnatural either – many of the most disturbing elements of A Plague Tale have everything to do with mankind’s inhumanity to man. Captured soldiers used as target practice, navigating the Inquisition’s torture chambers, crawling through bloody skeletons underneath ramparts and across a blood-soaked battlefield. Terrible scenes that nobody should have to experience, let alone children.
The scenes of horror that A Plague Tale ultimately constructed captured that real essence of anxiety and fear – exacerbated by knowing that your protagonist is not some otherworldly hero armed with an arsenal of high-powered weaponry.
A fantastic example of this is during a puzzle-room of sorts where you are tasked with lighting beacons from underground while your ally provides you with some general instructions from the upper level. You light a stick on fire (they have a limited time frame) and wander through the tight, rat-infested corridors beneath. It’s like a labyrinth, and some paths dead-end. So there you are, your stick burning out and you are left in the darkness to be feasted on by the rats.
The sense of anxiety I got from these scenes and wanting to make sure I knew exactly where I was going was the moment I knew that A Plague Tale had executed on something really special.
With The Last of Us: Part 2 so close in our collective rearview mirror, I think it’s important to note that while A Plague Tale has action/adventure elements, you do not start out with the ability to take on an entire camp of armed soldiers. You’re armed with a sling and some rocks, for pete’s sake.
So no, you won’t be feeling like Rambo in A Plague Tale – this game is very much about stealth and playing smart. There are quite a few puzzle elements, but in reality, every encounter is its own puzzle since you will die in one hit if a soldier catches up to you or you wander into rats.
The game does a fantastic job of layering in more and more complex actions so that when you get to the final chapter you have a number of tools at your disposal to dispatch foes – from chemicals that force enemies to remove their helmets, to being able to light or extinguish fires, distract rats and more.
I particularly enjoyed in the latter half of the game as I was sent on various missions with different allies. Some could knock out enemies cold, while others did a good job of distracting them or even picking locks for me. Controlling multiple characters in this way added some refreshing depth and changed it up just enough from chapter to chapter to keep things interesting.
There’s also the crafting mechanic to talk about, if briefly. It’s not exceedingly complex, but just rich enough to enhance your playthrough – such as making your sling silent, being able to fire twice in a row, or adjusting your clothes to be quieter when you move. By choosing to create certain more powerful single-use items, you could find yourself hindering potential upgrades down the road, which helps play even more into the “fighting smarter, not harder” idea. Again, impressive restraint on display here in delivering a tight and well-designed crafting system.
I had just a couple small gripes with the gameplay – well, one really: as you are working to figure out the optimal strategy for certain encounters, there are a number of unskippable dialogue options that you may find yourself going through dozens of times. It grew grating at times.
On the flip side, the auto-save feature was very generous, and it made it very easy to pick up and put down.
While it may seem odd that I would recommend a video game centered around a plague in these trying times, I was thoroughly entranced by A Plague Tale: Innocence. A fantastic blend of action, adventure and puzzle-solving, A Plague Tale complements this with superb visuals, great voice acting, and a finely crafted narrative to deliver a truly entertaining and engrossing video game experience.