A Plague Tale: Innocence Review — What Started With Rats, Ends With Monsters
A Plague Tale: Innocence follows Amicia and Hugo De Rune as they are hunted by the Inquisition while having to deal with the events of The Black Death.
The developers at Asobo Studio have prepared for the launch of A Plague Tale: Innocence for a long time and now that the game has finally arrived, their hard work and dedication has certainly paid off in this bleak narrative of death, greed, loss, and dark secrets. But when the layers of decay are peeled back, what this story really demonstrates is that the power of unconditional love and hope will, in the end, outweigh and destroy the darkness that cloaks this Brothers Grimm-esque tale from the get-go.
Nestled within the rural French countryside in 1349 during the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War and The Black Death, the first scene you’re presented with in A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of ambiance as Amicia De Rune–a 15-year-old girl–walks carelessly with her father, Robert, through a forest with their dog, Lion. As they both enjoy some bonding time together, Lion runs off after catching a whiff of a boar, closely followed by Amicia hot on his tracks.
What unfolds in the next few minutes is the start of their nightmare as they discover what has been lurking beneath their feet–rats, and plenty of them–which is only unearthed due to a tragic event. When looking back at the blissful father and daughter encounter in the forest, it dawned on me that this was probably Amicia’s last instance of any kind of normality as what follows next turns her and her family’s entire world on its head.
Amicia travels back to the family’s stately home to tell her mother what has happened, but in the midst of doing so, all hell breaks loose as the Inquisition makes an appearance. Gone is the life she once knew which is now replaced with fear and uncertainty. She is forced to flee the area with her young brother, Hugo, who suffers from a mysterious illness. Since he’s been hidden away from the world by his mother due to his strange illness, he’s led a very sheltered existence. Seeking whatever safety they can get from the terrors of the night, the siblings are pursued by the Grand Inquisitor’s forces who want to capture Hugo for an unknown reason.
Not only do you control Amicia, but you also take full direction of Hugo as he clings to her hand. At first, this may seem like a cumbersome and annoying challenge but it works remarkably well. You both move fluidly as one, only letting go of Hugo’s hand to allow him to slip into small spaces to gain access to other areas like opening a door from the other side. A Plague Tale: Innocence is pronominally centered around stealth mechanics and puzzle solving skills where you need to analyze the best route possible in order to survive while also keeping in mind that you have a young and vulnerable child at your hip. As so, you need to be mindful not to take on every enemy you encounter. Thankfully, Amicia is armed with a sling that she uses as a distraction method by throwing rocks at metal objects to lure soldiers away. She can also lob pots that make a noise as they shatter in whatever direction thrown.
As you make your way through a beautifully rustic yet diseased village, the townsfolk set upon the siblings believing the children brought on the plague. Thus begins a nail-biting chase sequence through the cobbled, narrow streets that’s as terrifying as it is exhilarating. The siblings finally find shelter at a critically dangerous moment which then allows Amicia to repair her sling at a workbench to make it stronger as it soon transpires that she’s really going to need it.
Asobo Studio has done an impeccable job at implementing fear and tension, especially when Amicia is faced with killing her first enemy. We forget through their bravery that they are still just children and the implications of death on such innocent minds comes over to the player as a genuinely hard moment. It captures the realization and gruesomeness of what is in store for these siblings so well.
When Amicia encounters her first Goliath boss fight while leaving the village, this is where the player gets a true taste of how the combat system works. There’s no real hand-holding here, other than a nudge at aim-assist. It can certainly take some getting used to at first as the sling isn’t the easiest weapon to maneuver but once you get to grips with how to swing it, aim at the right spot, and dodge, fighting becomes less daunting.
Moments later in a nearby church after meeting a priest for guidance, Amicia and Hugo finally come face to face with the dreaded rats in a crypt after yet another brutal scene. The infestation horde together in their hundreds, crazed by the smell of blood and fresh flesh. These bubonic plague-carrying rats seem impassable, to begin with, but thankfully, Amicia figures out that their kryptonite is fire. As you reluctantly creep through dozens of crypts and corridors, you will need the constant companion of a permanent torch. Sometimes you’ll have a stick you can set on fire, but of course, that burns out quickly leaving Amicia dropping it and in complete darkness. So it’s all about finding the best route through the rats, releasing braziers with your slingshot and lighting them with torches.
Making your way through the rat’s nest at the end is truly horrific experience with its dripping walls of blood and human corpses. The art direction in A Plague Tale: Innocence is outstanding at portraying a real sense of terror and the true impact that these supernatural seeming rats have brought onto the unsuspecting world.
Having finally rid yourself of the unsettling crypts, the siblings emerge back into the luscious French landscapes once more. As you make your way past more and more guards using the stealth and distraction mechanics and, of course, avoiding getting eaten by rats as darkness falls, Amicia and Hugo come across a farm where a doctor that worked with the sibling’s Mother to find a cure for Hugo lives.
Climbing over all the decaying livestock is a good indicator that life isn’t going too well here and the siblings are soon faced with more problems that see them flee the farm with a new found friend – a young boy named Lucas who has extensive knowledge in alchemy that was passed down to him by the doctor. Just before the threesome leave, I came across my first glitch that occurred in the barn while solving one of the game’s many puzzles. The glitch saw Lucas jumping into a pen filled with hungry rats and dying for absolutely no reason. It was only when I took us out of the barn that the glitch seemed to correct itself, but it was rather frustrating after the fifth time it happened.
Thanks to Lucas, Amicia now has an alchemy system at her fingertips that can be used to craft potions to help in situations, especially with the Grand Inquisitor’s guards. You gather resources found lying around on your travels that then can be used to extinguish flames or crafting a substance that when thrown, attracts hundreds of ravenous rodents to that specific area. Fortunately, using the alchemy wheel system is really simple and ingredients to create all manners of elixirs are easily found highlighted around each area you enter.
Determined to find a cure for Hugo, Lucas tells Amicia about an ancient book that is kept in a University library that holds the cure to his illness. As with everything in this game, forces keep them fighting for their lives and further from finding the cure. It’s at this point is where the narrative really opens up.
A Plague Tale’s linear story is immediately compelling and gripping. You’re constantly wanting to get to the next scene to find out more and at no time are you left waiting for things to get exciting – the onslaught of suspense and adrenaline is a continuous flowing stream. The stunning graphics and lighting cry out for a photo mode that unfortunately wasn’t implemented and this was rather disappointing due to the sheer amount of artistic effort that has gone into each minute detail that honestly deserved to be captured.
The narrative is deeply emotional and exposes both extreme sides of the human psyche–fear and greed, love and hope–while the underbelly reveals that this dark tale unearths that humans are the monsters, not the rats. One aspect that I found a little off-putting was the stiff facial animations and this was more apparent when a character was going through a particularly poignant scene. The lack of facial structure here put a slight wall up where you couldn’t empathize with them as much as you should have, but this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story in its entirety.
The puzzles throughout the game are well-thought-out and at times, quite frustrating, but not in the negative sense. It was more that you had to take a step back and analyze your situation more than once to then come back to it with a better solution.
Asobo Studio also did an outstanding job at making death actually matter to the player. It wasn’t something inserted into the title just for shock value or to fill a space. Some of the scenes that played out had me cringing in my chair when they occurred. They were brutal and tragic for a reason and played out in a fashion that still shocked me despite so much killing transpiring immediately before and after.
A Plague Tale: Innocence has over ten chapters in total which took me around fifteen hours to finish, but in that relatively short time, the developers crammed in so much that I was mentally exhausted by the end. It felt like I had played it for twice as long than I actually did, but not in a bad way. If you love games that implement stealth, a grim atmospheric environment, a meaty narrative, and lots of heart-wrenching scenes, you’d be a fool not to pick A Plague Tale: Innocence up. It’s a gaming experience that will leave you thinking about it long after competition.