France, 1348. Philip VI is king, the Edwardian War is in full swing, and the Great Plague has devastated a majority of mainland Europe. Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence opens in the bleakest of ways; your dog dies, your family is torn apart and you are on the run from the Inquisition, a deadly religious faction with a deep interest in your younger brother.
As the De Rune siblings, consisting of 15-year-old Amicia and five-year-old Hugo, you play through an emotional story that follows their survive against the Inquisition and the plague itself. Each chapter contains a mixture of stealth, puzzle-solving and exploration that has you crossing French woodland, labyrinthine castles and disease-ridden towns.
Amicia is no fighter. She doesn’t wield a sword or axe, but her combat prowess comes in the form of a sling, which she uses to hurl rocks at enemies. This also doubles as a tool for performing tasks such as igniting lights or manipulating obstacles. The most intense parts are avoiding the swarms of rats, which the game uses as a metaphorical buffer for the deadliness of the disease. These moments are Plague Tale‘s most intense, as you become surrounded by these beasts and have to use light sources such as torches and braziers to navigate past them. Step a foot into the sea of rodents and risk death. Across the entire campaign, it was interesting to see how Asobo Studio designed this mechanic around the puzzles and action. It never gets tiring.
There comes a problem when Plague Tale forces its stealth sections upon you. You may have a variety of tools to choose from – with some allowing you to utilise the rats against your enemies – but the trouble lies in how linear these stages are. Many of them are linear, making them feel more like puzzles with a defined solution. You’re mostly dodging repetitive guard patrols and throwing items to distract them, which feels tacked on and outdated. No matter what options you think you may have, the truth is there isn’t a lot of choice.
Many of the story beats are riddled with clichés – particularly in the opening and closing chapters – which somewhat dampens the experience, with even the premise itself having a “been there, done that” aura around it. Ignoring that, seeing the relationship between Amicia and Hugo develop over the course of the game is where it truly shines, brought to life by the performances of the lead actors (I played with French audio for the authenticity but the English voice acting is just as good). It allows the narrative to move past the plague to explore the endearing bond of these two siblings and the cause that unites them.
You can sense this relationship develop while playing too. The game acts as a sort-of ‘escort title’ similar to The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite, where you guide Hugo through each level and keep him safe. The difference to those titles is he is barely out of infancy, so he is not equipped to deal with threats. He needs help scaling ledges or opening doors, and he cries out for you if left alone for too long, alerting enemies to his location. It makes you feel like a protective guardian, panicking as you leave him to kill a guard. It draws you closer to that relationship by making you more involved in its development.
When I think of what A Plague Tale: Innocence does best, I picture its brutal portrayal of death as a prevailing theme throughout the story. Whether it’s seeing a battlefield littered with soldiers’ corpses or Amicia crawling through a rat-infested tunnel, death surrounds the characters’ lives. The game has bleak tones unlike any other game of this type, and I credit Asobo Studio for pulling off such grotesque imagery, even if there are still many moments that ultimately do not land.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4, Xbox One
Developer Asobo Studio
Publisher Focus Home Interactive
Disclosure a copy of A Plague Tale: Innocence was supplied by Koch Media UK