Review | A Plague Tale: Innocence
Rats, medieval France, and siblings. The simple combination of those three elements forms the core of A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game, however, turned out to be anything but simple. Set during the Black Plague, one of the most horrifying and deadly periods in human history, the game is built around the journey of Amicia and her little brother Hugo. On their quest to find a cure for Hugo’s mysterious illness, the siblings will encounter many enemies. Don’t be mistaken, A Plague Tale is not about fighting your way across France. And that unusual decision to trade in combat for stealth happened to make the game all the more interesting.
Rats are not the only monsters Amicia De Rune and her younger brother Hugo should be afraid of. Before the Plague even reached France, the country had already been rapidly losing inhabitants due to war. The Hundred Years’ War had led to attacks from the English, whose soldiers came to be stranded on French ground soon after the rat infestation. Then there is the Inquisition, ready to kill anyone who comes in their path. Their ruthless leader Vitalis, who does not seem to be in good shape himself, has no problem causing bloodshed around the country. His evil henchman, Lord Nicolas, is not the kindest soul either. Enough obstacles for the siblings to kill their way through, right? Except the developers behind A Plague Tale are courageous enough to maintain realism. A teenager accompanied by their five-year-old brother is barely in shape to fight civilians, let alone kill trained soldiers.
Equipped with just a slingshot, Amicia can’t take out soldiers the same way any other video game protagonist does. A Plague Tale is about the exact opposite of the saying be all brawn and no brains. It’s about the brains. How can two children move across a battlefield scattered with English soldiers? How can Amicia avoid to be seen while passing several knights? How can they escape from the plague-ridden rats in an abandoned house? Amicia has the ability to throw vases that attract nearby soldiers, simultaneously clearing a path. With the slingshot she can fire at metal objects her surroundings, causing a similar effect, but soldiers will eventually return to their position. Shots to the head can be lethal, though. But even then, going on a killing spree is not possible. You spend the majority of the game crouching past soldiers, afraid that your footsteps are too loud, or your path too risky. Once a soldier has spotted Amicia, the player has a few options: run away and hope they can find a new hiding spot, or try killing the soldier. The sound of a soldier walking closeby is scary enough in itself, but being catched is worse.
Asobo Studio translated this point of view of children, where the soldiers are almost boogeymen, incredibly well into the game. Playing as a teenager, there definitely is some sense of powerlessness. The soldiers are much taller, faster, and if Amicia doesn’t watch her steps, she gets captured. Additionally, Amicia is nearly always holding her brother’s hand. She can let go of him and make him wait somewhere, but leaving him alone for too long only scares him. Hugo calling out for his sister also attracts soldiers and puts him in danger. Like Amicia, Hugo can also be killed by others. It can sometimes sadly be quite easy to slip past soldiers. A lot of soldiers don’t really move and are – conveniently – standing with their backs towards the player.
Then there’s the black rats. They move in enormous hordes and devour everything in their path. Fortunately, the rats don’t go anywhere near light. Similar to the stealth sections with soldiers, these light puzzles can also get complex: Amicia can light torches, use her slingshot to throw down pieces of meat, and even use the dark to her advantage. One of Amicia’s strategies is to turn off the light, so rats can move towards a previously safe zone. If there is a soldier wandering around, he will soon fall victim to the flesh eating rats. Throughout the game, many different puzzles relating to rats have to be solved in order to make it to the next location. While not all puzzles are challenging, it is never actually bothersome or boring.
The siblings will encounter other children – named the Orphans – on their journey towards a cure. Each companion has their own ability they can utilize to aid Amicia. Lucas, a young boy with a lot of knowledge about alchemy, helps Amicia make several handy tools. The twins Melie and Arthur are skilled thieves, and master lockpickers. Blacksmith Rodrick can push heavy weights and knock down soldiers when asked. All of the Orphans are introduced at different points in the game and their presence does not feel forced at all. Their introduction provides some interesting dynamics with both Amicia and Hugo. Not tom mention, the dynamic between the De Rune siblings themselves is compelling itself. Brother and sister, who have never really spent time together, are thrown together into a brutal world. The voice acting done by all of these actors, especially the ones portraying Amicia and Hugo, is immensely good. Particularly Hugo’s voice actor beautifully conveyed a young boy’s innocence in a world that is literally changing around him.
Aside from its intriguing characters and distinctive gameplay, A Plague Tale also excels in its graphics. We would honestly not mind wandering around the picturesque French countryside for a bit longer. It’s visually stunning, mainly because of the lighting techniques Asobo Studio utilized, but also because of the scenic environments that were created. You could take a screenshot at any time, and it would look like Amicia and Hugo have stepped straight into a painting. A Plague Tale looks and feels like an AAA title, making it hard to believe that this game was developed by just less than fifty people. And their hard work has definitely paid off. Same goes for the bewitching soundtrack, which simultaneously captures the horror and kindness Amicia and Hugo experience. Olivier Deriviere has undoubtedly created one of the most beautiful video game soundtracks of the past decade.
Heavily influenced by other linear story-driven games like The Last of Us, A Plague Tale: Innocence focuses on its characters and their relationships. At its core, A Plague Tale is about Amicia and Hugo, and their changing relationship. The game is full of optional interactions – you could probably miss a few if you don’t pay attention – that build Amicia’s relationship with Hugo. As a player, you’ll love protecting Hugo and the more his condition worsens, the more finding a cure is a priority. Asobo Studio has effortlessly created compelling characters, but in a world that begs for more exploration. While players get to search for collectibles – objects typical of the time period throughout the chapters – there is still much unknown about Amicia’s surroundings. After seventeen chapters worth of story, there is still room for more. The actual ending, however, felt a bit flat compared to the other beautifully crafted chapters. There are a lot of questions left unanswered, but maybe that’s the point. Innocence is just a subtitle, after all. Despite the ending, we wouldn’t mind seeing another entry in the (hopefully) A Plague Tale series.
With no more than fifty people, Asobo Studio worked on this ambitious project. A Plague Tale: Innocence exhibits just how much people can achieve if they have passion for it. A Plague Tale turned out to be one of the most compelling – and unquestionably one of the best – titles of 2019. We can’t help but be enthusiastic about whatever Asobo Studio has planned next. Because A Plague Tale delivered, in terms of gameplay, graphics, voice acting, and soundtrack. What more is there left to say?
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive