This title was reviewed on PC but is also available on PS4 and Xbox One.
The stories in third person adventure games have really matured over recent years, and A Plague Tale: Innocence proudly carries on this tradition. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s all wrapped up in a dark, pseudo-historical tale of horror, death and loss, so don’t expect a jolly ride.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is certainly no slouch when it comes to visuals. For the daytime and brighter sections, foliage buckles as you move through it and there’s a great natural feel to the environments. The lighting continues to add to the atmosphere in the darker sections of the game; crackling fires and lanterns reflecting in the dark, medieval buildings really give a sense of foreboding as you carefully creep through the levels. Character models are top notch, with mud and scars building up on the main characters as they go from one narrow escape to the other.
Doing the ‘plague’ part proud are the rats themselves. The impressive and terrifying number of these oily, shimmery creatures make them seem like a huge cloud of death…which they essentially are. Whilst the developer’s claim of up to 5,000 of the vermin rendered at once seems bold, you don’t doubt it when their beady eyes start pouring out of every nook and cranny at night.
However, the animation lets down the positive visual package of the game. Amicia’s character model frequently has clipping issues with objects in the levels and lacks a connected feel to movement. Hugo has an annoying habit of getting stuck in things, too. Whilst still graphically strong, the polish is not quite where it should be.
Set in Europe in the Middle Ages, A Plague Tale: Innocence takes an interesting twist on the holy wars and crusades sweeping across Europe at that time. The plot centres around two children of the noble De Rune family – Amicia, the elder daughter; and Hugo, the sickly younger boy. Predictably, things hit the fan and the pair end up on the run from not only a holy order, mysterious monks, and English troops rampaging across the French countryside, but also the plague-ridden rats that are certainly more deadly than your usual pet shop chums.
Hugo’s mysterious illness and frailty is a source of tension between the siblings, with its relation to a dark family secret and ancient prophecy panning out through the game. There are some really tender moments in the less fraught sections, for example their glee at finding a load of frogs on a riverbank. Some of the game’s collectibles are different flowers, which Hugo gently tucks into his sister’s hair when you find them. On the flip side, the loss of innocence and witnessing both physical and psychological horrors drives the character’s development throughout the plot. While the whole ‘indifferent siblings grow closer’ gig is certainly nothing new, it’s really well done here.
The core gameplay should be familiar to those who have played other third-person action games with stealth elements – Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Last of Us, for example. Being unarmed (save for a sling), Amicia and Hugo are extremely vulnerable, so stealth is rarely optional; human enemies will go into an alert state extremely quickly and you can’t even take a single blow. Running is rarely an option too, with puzzles or slow climbs at exits making it easy for pursuing archers or spearmen to turn you into a pincushion.
Equally deadly, the rats murder you within moments of stepping out of safety. You really do feel up against it: there’s a truly spectacular chapter of (literally) wading across a huge, corpse littered battlefield, avoiding rats and English invaders alike, which is one of my favourite gaming moments of recent years.
Level design isn’t the most inspired, with most of the human inhabited areas being linear puzzles in which you creep from long grass to throw rocks at noisy things. The ability to direct and give basic directional/wait commands to your buddies is nice in theory for a creep em’ up, but you rarely need to even bother. Unless absolutely necessary (such as picking a lock, or sending someone through a crawlspace to open a door), it’s best to just hold their hand and take the very minor speed hit. Whilst not the the most taxing by any means, the parts where you use tools such as light and other people as diversion for the rodent swarm are the most challenging and interesting parts of the game.
There is a crafting system in line with the alchemical theme. Similarly to The Last of Us, the resources you collect are shared between upgrades and the slowly growing array of potions and chemical tricks at your disposal. This risk and reward approach to crafting isn’t very balanced though, and once you get hold of some of the later recipes automatically (like ones that dissolve the armour of invincible soldiers or outright knock them out) towards the middle of the game, you can start to get pretty lazy with the stealthing and rack up a sizable body count. In a game that spends so much on trying to make you feel weak and vulnerable, it’s a frustrating thing to see happen.
The linearity of the game also impacts its replay value. There are only a couple of categories of collectibles across your journey, so there’s not much to draw you back in after the nine hour emotional slog.
The music in A Plague Tale: Innocence is great at scene setting. Composed by veteran Olivier Deriviere, who scored 2018’s equally spooky Vampyr, the soundtrack builds a feeling of dread as you stalk through dilapidated buildings, whilst the tempo ups into rumbling drum beats in thrilling chase sections. The music being fully instrumental is a wonderful design choice which adds another level to the game’s creepy nature.
Voice acting is a mixed bag. In the native French, the emotion is delivered very well by all of the cast and marries well with the experience. Amicia’s fraught and panicked reassurances to Hugo as she tries to distract a horde of rats or to distract the bloodthirsty crusaders add excellently to the feeling of pressure. The English voiceover is less convincing with some really cheesy delivery and accents, so I would recommend keeping it in French and making use of the decent array of subtitle options.
Whilst not an AAA outfit, Asobo Studio have delivered a surprise hit in A Plague Tale: Innocence. The attention to narrative and building dread are married with solid, if not revolutionary stealthing and crafting. If you’re in the mood for a bit of medieval fantasy and storytelling, you will not be disappointed.