Developed by Asobo Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive
Released on PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed on PC)
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a single-player, cinematic third-person action/puzzle adventure set in 14th-Century France in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. Amicia De Rune, a young descendant of a noble French family, must endure the chaos of British soldiers, Inquisition, and Plague while safeguarding her gravely sick toddler brother, Hugo.
By Justin Russell →
In A Plague Tale: Innocence’s rat-infested France, there is an inexplicable animal urge (as in when your server warns you not to touch a hot plate, or when you peer off a high ledge) to indulge—to accept the invitation of the malignant horde’s magnetic field and be consumed by it. I suppose one could say, individually, they’re cute, but the tidal masses of these disease-carrying rodents feel more akin to a natural disaster or a feature of the apocalyptic landscape than any sort of living thing. These rats serve as a central figure in both A Plague Tale’s themes and game design.
As Amicia and Hugo traverse the French countryside for safety, puzzle mechanics abound—turn levers to pull a bridge, push carts to climb to a high place, stealthily throw rocks to distract Inquisition guards, and throw alchemical potions to ignite torches or hay bales to earn a few seconds of safety from the voracious rats which are repelled by the light. Even at the edge of the protective aura of light, the bravest of the rats will cheat out from the front line for a fleeting second to nibble at Amicia’s boots, only to reintegrate into an indistinct sea of fur, tails, and beady red eyes. At first, they scared me (naturally), but after a while (and having been desensitized by the grim depictions of sickness, death, and corruption), you start to wonder what it’d be like to stick your finger in it. This seductive force, and the dying embers of innocence made dimmer from its indulgence, are what is at stake.
Amicia and Hugo must sneak, run, and fight across the bloody, rat-infested France. The environmental puzzles are nice and light, and while they don’t require a ton of thinking, they never devolve into guess-and-check, trial-and-error trivia. This sweet-spot allows you to actually think about the effects of your actions the first time around, as you think just a step or two ahead on which lanterns to light or extinguish and in which order, to clear a path forward through the deadly rat horde. This sweet-spot still exists as the action eventually ramps up, as many humans (mostly the Inquisition guards and soldiers) who carry torches and swords sprint with violent intent on Amicia and crew. The action is smart and exhilarating, and some sequences—throwing a stone at one soldier’s lantern (so the rat horde swallows him whole), then to quickly switch to and throw an acid projectile (to remove a helmeted soldiers protection so that a regular stone will finish him on follow-up), while you ignite a torch to quickly clear a path forward—can all transpire in a matter of seconds.
The crafting and upgrading systems are a fine way to invest in long-term and gradual changes to Amicia’s skill-set, but the hunt for the necessary materials can sometimes feel like a hassle. It can feel incongruous for dramatic story scenes to play out while running around clicking ‘E’ to loot chests and random boxes around the room for stones, vials, and leather.
The visual depiction of the world is generously bleak, with an emphasis on beautiful lighting effects to contrast against the unrelenting dark and death that surrounds our characters. The game is well ‘shot’ in that cinematic sense, with a camera unafraid to capture faces up close and with a narrative pace that—like a rolling car crash—violently jostles Amicia’s and Hugo’s expressions back and forth between naive childlike innocence and a weariness rooted in knowledge of the treachery of the world and of the souls which inhabit it. A Plague Tale (like many, many games since 2013) is stylistically inspired by the Last of Us in its character-first, grim, and cinematic visual presentation with a sparse, atmospheric, and natural audio design and soundtrack. A word of advice, however—I vastly prefer the experience with French voice-over performances and English subtitles.
Naturally, A Plague Tale’s thematic intent becomes a bit more coherent as the story approaches its climax, but proves to be a bit frustrating. The voracious infestation of the rat horde is an obvious analogue to the Inquisition’s gluttonous quest for power. There emerges some trace elements of intrigue in the connection between institutional corruption and the seductive nature of the mystical power of the rat horde—especially warning against the dangers of such powers even in the hands of good, and of becoming so committed to survival and to the destruction of evil as to lose your own sense of self and morality. However, these elements feel too loose to work in any functional sense, and resolve, moreso, with a broad fairy-tale sensibility (the latter of which was undoubtedly their intention). A Plague Tale treats the concept of innocence itself as a victim, but instances in which this virtue is reinforced during the narrative are too vague and well-worn to have the impact or originality I desired. Ultimately, the game succeeds on the back of memorable and genuine characters who touch the heart, but the broadness with which its narrative concepts are depicted makes it only as good as the sum of its parts.
→ The Nutshell
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a grim but beautiful experience. Fun, simple puzzles strike a balance of difficulty that will never have you slapping your head in frustration, while managing to integrate concepts of plague and Inquisition in inventive, organic ways. Although the narrative struggles to develop over-arching concepts of corruption and morality, its sensitivity towards its young characters serves as a memorable heart to this dark tale.
A Plague Tale: Innocence earns about three stars on a scale of five.
A Plague Tale: Innocence leaves an emotional impression with a cast of tender, beautifully rendered characters in a bleak world, but struggles to deliver a fully cohesive thematic bite.
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Read Justin’s review of one of his favorite games of 2018, Florence.