Kids on de Rune.
Title: A Plague Tale: Innocence
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: Out now
TL;DR: This might be the next modern classic.
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There’s something special about A Plague Tale: Innocence. The latest title from Asobo Studio might stumble in places, but its faults pale in comparison to what this grim medieval adventure does so, so well. While it’s easy to applaud the game for looking so damned good, or the wriggling river of rats that courses through the game for looking so nauseating, the real power of A Plague Tale lies in its story, and more specifically its sibling protagonists, Amicia and Hugo de Rune.
It might be because A Plague Tale manages to create this tone of “I don’t care what you’re used to or who you like, I’m gonna make you cry,” from the get go that it’s able to deliver such a vicious world for you to guide young Amicia and her sickly brother, Hugo, through a plague-ridden France. As is usually the case during times of trouble in games, the terrifying rats that burst through the ground in wriggling hordes before gnawing on anything that moves are only one half of the bloodstained picture of the game. Along with the supernatural vermin is the other monster: man (gasp!). The Inquisition is on a holy mission to combat the plague and a big part of this consists of them taking a very violent interest in Hugo. It’s that interest from The Inquisition that forces Amicia and Hugo on to the road, traipsing through quarantined villages, a corpse-laden countryside, rat-infested catacombs and castles, all while picking up a few companions along the way.
It’s the dynamic of this sibling relationship that’s the crux of A Plague Tale. While Amicia and Hugo are brother and sister, it’s a relationship that’s almost estranged, with Hugo being stuck indoors thanks to an illness. Amicia, on the other hand, is pretty outdoorsy, favouring her slingshot over, I dunno, a sewing needle? What’s interesting about Amicia is just how quickly she falls into the role of the carer; it seems almost instantaneous and it’s not until you see these flashes of immaturity and impatience with her brother that you’re brought to the reality of Amicia being just as much a child as Hugo is. And while Amicia’s character arc perhaps doesn’t stoop to the hard to watch depths some of you may have been hoping for, it’s a worthwhile journey, one that manages to leave you with an aching sensation that something bad is right around the next corner (which is often the case).
The game’s France is certainly no place for children, oozing horror at every given chance. Villages you pass through lay in chaos, with Amicia and Hugo rocking up a little too late to the party, tiptoeing through an eerie silence broken only by a door slamming shut. The countryside plays home to fields canvassed with corpses of people and animals, and towns you stumble through only serve to highlight the terror of townsfolk and the lack of mercy shown by The Inquisition. At their core, the levels of A Plague Tale are essentially you just moving forward, but thanks to the sublime detail of its world, the perfect timing with scripted moments, and the occasional terrifying chase, it manages to make you forget that you’re just moving forward thanks to its choreography and design.
It’s a good thing that A Plague Tale’s world, characters, and story are so strong because, as is often the case with these adventures, the gameplay doesn’t offer anything extraordinary. Everything it does, it does very well; puzzles are often centered around maneuvering braziers of fire, or perhaps knocking something down to open up a new path or force yourself through somewhere. The small troupe of orphans that you collect along the way also bring their own set of skills, with a lockpicking thief, a fire-throwing alchemist, and a murderous blacksmith all working to pad out the abilities available to Amicia. Hugo also has a few skills to offer other than an adorable voice; you’ll be able to send Hugo through crevices or windows at times, where he’ll then open a door for you. A lot was made of how Hugo needs to stay close to you or he’ll freak out, meaning you’ll be holding hands for him a lot during the game. Thankfully, this isn’t the burden it sounds like it’ll be; Hugo is a pretty smart companion, knowing when he needs to shut up or when he needs to go somewhere.
Along with your companion’s abilities, Amicia is pretty handy with three things; the first is her terrifyingly powerful slingshot which you’ll be using in equal measure to knock things down and lodge stones into a someone’s skull. The only time using the slingshot feels like a bit of a slog is when you’re having to fight off small waves of soldiers; admittedly these moments are rare and the game’s liberal auto-assist does help, but the slingshot mechanic is guilty at times of slowing you down at horribly tense moments.
You can upgrade Amicia’s slingshot to help her ping stones faster or else carry more ammunition, just as you’ll be able to craft helpful and deadly little items to use in the field as Amicia becomes more adept at alchemy. It’s not so much an experience quota that Amicia needs to meet to craft new items; instead, her companions deliver new recipes at times throughout the game. These vary from fire pellets that you can use to light fires at a distance, or pellets that burn through a soldier’s helmet, forcing them to remove it and making them vulnerable. The crafting system is pretty reminiscent of what we saw in the rebooted Tomb Raiders or The Last of Us, delivering a crafting system that’ll have you rooting through every nook and cranny of a level, or searching out workbenches to upgrade your gear.
Of course, being a child means that Amicia isn’t rushing into an area screaming for blood, especially with Hugo constantly weighing her down. It means that stealth is a huge part of A Plague Tale, and it’s executed in an excellent if very familiar way (but hey, if it ain’t broke and all that). Amicia is able to hide in long grass where she can divert a soldier’s attention with a well-placed stone throw at a table full of armour, or scarecrows with buckets for heads. As you continue through the game these diversion tactics become a little more complex, but ultimately it’s all grounded in those early exercises. It’s a system that’s realised almost perfectly, and you’ll quickly fall into the rhythm of A Plague Tale’s tense stealth gameplay.
While there are a fair few things you can do about The Inquisition, there’s not too much you can do about the reason they’re there in the first place: the rats. A bit like the army of the dead in Game of Thrones, the rats in A Plague Tale don’t tire, they don’t stop, don’t feel, and they’re a brilliant part of the game because of this. It’s the way they burst up through the ground (and out of other things), and the way they tear through anything that crosses their path. Sure, you can block them off using fires, but they’ll still clamber up against the edge of the light with a ferocity that makes it impossible to ignore them.
There’s so much still to say about A Plague Tale: Innocence; the way the game effortlessly builds tension through its cinematography, the balance between silence and music, the downright astounding design of the characters, and let’s not forget that the voice acting is predominantly done by children which is just mind boggling when you consider just how effortlessly they’re able to convey that crystallised terror that marinades the game throughout. A Plague Tale: Innocence might not be perfect; it stumbles in places and there’s a minor pacing issue mid-way through the game, but it’s the closest we’ve had to a modern classic in some time, and I have no doubt that it’s gonna stick with a lot of people when the dust has settled.
- The voice acting is amazing
- It’s character and environment design is incredible
- The relationship between Amicia and Hugo is explored very well
- There’s a definite bump in the game’s pace around the midway point
- Boss fights are rare, but one in particular seems at odds with the game
- Animals just can’t catch a break in A Plague Tale: Innocence
PEGI: 18 ESRB: “M” for Mature
Well, it’s a game full of killer rats, cut throat soldiers, and an ever growing troupe of orphans in a world caked with blood and guts, so it’s probs not a great choice for the kids.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by PR for the purpose of this review.