Fourteenth century France isn’t a pleasant place to be.
The Black Death has taken hold of the country, rats infest all corners of the land, and the Inquisition spreads fear into anyone who manages to survive. Picturesque villages and quaint countryside vistas crumble to ruin under the weight of war and plague. There’s little hope for anyone – but that’s exactly what players must cling onto in A Plague Tale: Innocence, the latest game from Asobo Studio.
A Plague Tale puts you in the shoes of Amicia De Rune, a privileged girl from a wealthy family. She’s had a good upbringing, although her mother is mostly absent as she’s spent the last several years taking care of Amicia’s younger brother, Hugo, who has been unwell since birth with a mysterious illness. Amicia barely knows him – but when tragedy strikes their home village, the pair are thrust together. Hugo has no option but to trust his sister, a near stranger, and she in turn must protect this sickly youngster whom she knows nothing about.
Knowing little of the illness that Hugo is inflicted with, the pair’s first port of call is a local alchemist who knows more about his condition – but even reaching him at a nearby village becomes an epic quest as swarms of rats and swathes of soldiers stand in their way. It’s just the first of many obstacles the pair must overcome, each challenge they face becoming tougher and more complex as A Plague Tale: Innocence progresses.
For most of the game, Amicia and Hugo will be found hand in hand, clinging together to survive. Their relationship blossoms from being one of necessity to one of trust and caring, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Hugo is a precocious but naive child – he’s five years old but he’s barely seen the outside world in that time. He’s fascinated but terrified by the world around him. Amicia, on the other hand, is independent and headstrong. Caring for her brother starts out burdensome, but her heart shines through and it isn’t long before Hugo becomes her sole reason to survive.
An adventure game at heart, A Plague Tale: Innocence expertly fuses storytelling, stealth and action to form a coherent, flowing and altogether gripping experience that’s hard to put down. It’s a rather linear game with little room to wander off the beaten path other than to find some extraneous collectibles. But it doesn’t matter; A Plague Tale‘s world may not be fully open for you to explore on a whim, but it carries you through from scene to scene expertly. Amicia and Hugo – and the other characters they meet on their journey – are brilliantly brought to life, and you’ll care for their wellbeing as much as they care for each other. Fantastic voice acting coupled with excellent character design and animation means that A Plague Tale‘s cast feels real. Its story may, at times, be a little fantastical, but it’s grounded by its believable cast.
Yes, it’s a story based on historical events – the Great Plague and the Medieval Inquisition are very real – but A Plague Tale: Innocence twists them with strands of fantasy to make for an exciting narrative. Here, swarms of rats become formidable foes in their own right; transforming into whirling dervishes of terror and chaos. Amicia and Hugo’s main threat constantly switches between the rats and soldiers, both posing obstacles to be overcome in various ways.
Both involve plenty of stealth – your combat options are limited, so getting past human enemies means sneaking, causing distractions and stealth attacks. Amicia’s only weapon at hand is a slingshot – but she’s a crack shot, so when the opportunity arises she can take out a soldier with a shot to the head if she needs to. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock extra types of ammunition with the help of a bit of alchemy, allowing you a little fun in how you deal with soldiers. Stealth remains a running theme throughout the game, but extra tricks – like an alchemical reaction that’ll force an enemy to remove their helmet, allowing you a clear shot at their head; or a powder that can knock a soldier out cold if you manage to sneak up on him – means that combat sections can be tackled in any number of ways. There’s a good amount of freedom involved, which means that no two conflicts ever feel the same.
When it comes to dealing with rats, these sections often feel like puzzles. Your only defense against the swarms is fire, which means moving from one light source to another without slipping into darkness. Often, lanterns and firepits can be moved around, and figuring out how to provide a safe path requires applying some logic. No task is ever too complicated, but the problem solving makes for a nice accompaniment to A Plague Tale‘s stealth and action sequences.
The most delightful accompaniment to the game, however, is its absolutely stellar soundtrack. Composed by Olivier Derivière, the composer most recently behind Vampyr and 11-11: Memories Retold, every note plays a part in telling A Plague Tale: Innocence‘s story. A classical score sets the tone for every scene, rising in tempo to build tension when needed; softening and soothing when necessary. Sound effects and changes in music, too, are important in offering gameplay cues, letting you know when enemies have spotted you, or danger lurks ahead. In a nice touch, the game offers a setting to remove the majority of on-screen prompts, allowing you to rely on the game’s sound cues. It gives an extra challenge, but means you can fully immerse yourself in A Plague Tale‘s world. I’d recommend a good pair of headphones to really get the most out of it.
For the most part A Plague Tale: Innocence is an absolutely stellar feat in storytelling and gameplay design, but it’s not without its flaws. It runs like a dream, a smooth framerate on Xbox One X without a single hiccup. Graphically, it’s stunning too; it pushes the limits of the console to deliver a rich and beautiful world. The AI, however, has let the game down at times. Being a game of stealth, enemy actions and reactions are key to a smooth experience. But there have been a few instances where their unnatural behaviour caused the odd break in immersion. For instance, as Amicia, I used my slingshot instead of a silent throw, alerting a guard to my whereabouts. No problem, except Hugo was right in front of him – and didn’t get spotted. Another instance saw me accidentally running right into the face of an archer, and since he was a long-range enemy, he was unable to do anything to me.
Ultimately, though, the occasional dumb-as-rocks AI is a small price to pay for what is otherwise a beautiful, harrowing and emotional journey. In the age of endless distractions, few games have kept me as engrossed as A Plague Tale: Innocence did, its 10-or-so hour runtime never outstaying its welcome. The narrative gets its hooks in you right from the start, forcing you to ask questions about Hugo’s illness, the rapid spreading of the rats, and the state of the world around you. You’ll get the answers you seek, with many dramatic twists and turns along the way – to say more would be to ruin part of what makes A Plague Tale so intoxicating.
I previewed A Plague Tale: Innocence back in March, declaring after only a couple of hours that it may well be Game of the Year material. I don’t regret saying that. It isn’t perfect, but A Plague Tale: Innocence‘s combination of gripping storytelling, excellent characterisation and varied gameplay, all tied together in a package with outstanding audiovisual design, makes for an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.