A Plague Tale: Innocence has the heart of an indie game, and the sheen of a AAA blockbuster.
It feels like short, linear, single player games continue to grow rarer and rarer with each passing year, as our industry continues to move in a direction where more often than not, the quantity of content in a game is considered the most important thing by most publishers. Multiplayer and online games encourage players to come back for more on a consistent basis, while on the single player side, constant content updates and massive open worlds drive engagement to make sure that people don’t immediately move on to the next experience.
Some large publishers do still stick by short, single player experiences, while indies also continue to deliver such games in spades. Asobo Studio, another indie studio based in France, delivers something similar with A Plague Tale: Innocence– an experience with the heart of an indie game, and the ambitions of a big budget AAA release. Reconciling those two facets should and could have proved an impossible task in most situations, but A Plague Tale manages to deliver a memorable, high quality, story-driven dozen hours.
"A Plague Tale: Innocence is an experience with the heart of an indie game, and the ambitions of a big budget AAA release. Reconciling those two facets should and could have proved an impossible task in most situations, but A Plague Tale manages to deliver a memorable, high quality, story-driven dozen hours. "
A Plague Tale: Innocence feels very much like a Naughty Dog game, if Naughty Dog didn’t have blockbuster budgets and endless resources to work with. From the storytelling style to the focus on characters, from the mechanics the game makes use of in gameplay sections to how it balances those with its focus on narrative, from start to finish, A Plague Tale: Innocence wears its The Last of Us influences on its sleeve.
The game is set in France in the early fourteenth century. The Inquisition’s presence is growing, raiding villages and striking hard against the nobility, but at the same time, much more sinister forces are also rising up. A plague of deadly, disease-bearing rats has started rearing its ugly head throughout the nation, killing people in scores in terrifying and brutal fashion- caught between the rats and the Inquisition, the people have a lot to contend with.
You play as Amicia de Rune, the daughter of a French nobleman, who’s lived a life much more sheltered and shielded from such dangers than most. She isn’t a stereotypically naive and incapable young noble by any means, but when things start going wrong, she still feels the weight crashing down on her shoulders all the same. Very quickly, she finds herself burdened with the responsibility of looking after her younger brother, a boy named Hugo, while she tries to protect him and herself from all the dangers they’re faced with.
The relationship between Amicia and Hugo is at the heart of A Plague Tale. Hugo has suffered from a mysterious sickness from birth, something that has caused him to remain in the isolation of his house his entire life, and cut off almost completely from the outside world. His mother has been the only person he’s had any sort of a proper relationship with, and when Amicia suddenly shoulders the responsibility of becoming his caretaker, there’s a lot she has to contend with- from getting to know this boy she hardly knows and has had very little interaction with, to dealing with her resentment for him for having hogged their mother’s attention for years, to, well, actually taking care of him in the middle of the storm they now find themselves in.
"A Plague Tale: Innocence feels very much like a Naughty Dog game, if Naughty Dog didn’t have blockbuster budgets and endless resources to work with."
It’s compelling and arresting right from the get go, and A Plague Tale does an excellent job of selling you on the dynamic between the siblings. Watching their relationship grow, watching them getting to known and trust one another, is what A Plague Tale is about first and foremost, and it never fails to do justice to its central premise. It helps that the individual pieces of that puzzle – the characters of Amicia and Hugo – are also written and acted very well. Amicia is a fine balance of loving and fierce, capable and vulnerable, while Hugo constantly displays the innocence and purity of a young boy who’s hardly ever seen anything of the world other than his own home, and manages to do so without being a hassle or a burden. Beyond Amicia and Hugo, you meet a few other characters on your trek through chaos-wracked France as well, who’re not quite as compelling as the siblings are. Voice acting and development for these secondary characters can be bit hit or miss, barring a couple. Thankfully, the game knows where its strengths lie, and these characters always play second fiddle to Amicia and Hugo.
On a macro scale, the narrative presents some interesting threads as well. The stars of the show, as you may have guessed, are the rats, who bring some interesting supernatural elements to the tale being spun here (which is as far as I can go without spoiling anything). A Plague Tale: Innocence poses some interesting mysteries and questions about these larger issues- disappointingly though, many of these questions go unanswered. From a certain perspective, the game’s unwillingness to resolve some of the larger mysteries makes sense- this is a game that places most if not all of its chips on personal stakes and the relationships between the characters, and against them, the backdrop is just that- a backdrop. Still, A Plague Tale does a good enough job of setting up a larger narrative and posing curious questions relating to it that the fact that some of those never get resolved can be a bit disappointing.
While I wasn’t surprised by A Plague Tale’s accomplished storytelling and emphasis on narrative, given that it had very much been billed as a narrative-focused experience, what did surprise me was how much I liked playing it. Gameplay in A Plague Tale can be described very simply- it relies on a few very simple systems and mechanics, but constantly makes use of them in new and interesting ways, so that it never gets predictable or dull. The bulk of the experience is split between environmental puzzles and stealth sections, while there’s a bit of combat dotting it all as well- and just as it is with its storytelling style and focus, in gameplay too, A Plague Tale: Innocence evokes The Last of Us strongly.
When hiding from Inquisition soldiers, A Plague Tale plays out like an ordinary stealth title. You break pots to distract soldiers, throw rocks at things to make loud noises to catch their attention, hide in tall bushes- that’s how it starts, anyway. Soon, A Plague Tale introduces rats into the fray, and situations where you have to contend with the deadly rat swarms and Inquisition soldiers both at the same time become more and more common. It’s here that the puzzle and stealth aspects start mingling, and A Plague Tale becomes a game of light and shadow.
"While I wasn’t surprised by A Plague Tale’s accomplished storytelling and emphasis on narrative, given that it had very much been billed as a narrative-focused experience, what did surprise me was how much I liked playing it."
Not only do you have to make sure you’re always close to a light source, you also have to manipulate said light sources to keep the rats away from you, or make the guards fall prey to the swarms themselves. For these purposes, A Plague Tale gives you several tools that serve several functions, such as lighting unlit braziers on fire, or extinguishing the flames elsewhere, or rocks that can break soldiers’ lamp and help the swarms move in on them. Certain environmental cues also help you in such situations, such as pieces of wood that you can light on fire to move from one light source to the next, or corpses or sacks of meat hanging on hooks that you can drop using your sling to distract rats, or karts with braziers in them that can become mobile light sources, or elaborate mechanisms of levers and pulleys to help keep massive swarms at bay.
All these elements are introduced at a drip feed. A Plague Tale makes sure you’ve learned and become comfortable with the stuff it’s already thrown at you, before either introducing something new, or making you use techniques you’ve already learned in new ways. It’s all very simplistic, but A Plague Tale implements all its mechanics in ways that always demand engagement and active participation. In its simplicity, it finds ways to be surprisingly engaging.
The tools in your arsenal can also be upgraded using resources you might find lying around, which also encourages light exploration. Again, similar to Naughty Dog titles, said exploration isn’t too elaborate, and there are no hugely divergent or open areas to explore, but there’s enough room to find hidden areas or branching paths to find new resources or collectibles. Like most of the rest of A Plague Tale’s gameplay, exploration is kept light and simple, and either in spite of that or because of that, it’s always enjoyable.
Visually, A Plague Tale: Innocence reaches astonishing heights, aided by both, a strong technical foundation, and evocative and beautiful art design. The level of detail on display is surprising, whether it’s a pile of corpses you’re looking at, or the shrubbery and greenery in a heavily forested area, or the faces of Amicia and Hugo. The rat swarms are particularly impressive, and the way they furiously all swarm together and run in your direction, and the way they’re repelled from the light, truly makes them come alive and feel like an actual, tangible threat. The game does suffer from some noticeable frame rate drops at times – regardless of whether not there are hundreds of rats on the screen – while the loading times between chapters can also stretch on a bit too long, but by and large, A Plague Tale is an impressive technical achievement.
"Visually, A Plague Tale: Innocence reaches astonishing heights, aided by both, a strong technical foundation, and evocative and beautiful art design."
A Plague Tale: Innocence isn’t the largest, most expansive game you’ll ever play, nor does it accomplish new things in the areas where it does place its ambitions. But I feel like that’s it’s biggest strength, rather than being something that holds it back. It’s a focused story-driven experience that knows exactly when to begin and when to end, and doesn’t let bloat or misguided attempts at artificially lengthening its runtime impact any of that. Throughout its ten to twelve hours, it delivers an emotional and effective tale of the bond between a sister and her brother, while implementing simple mechanics in constantly engaging ways to make sure that it’s not always all about the story. It’s a concise and focused experience, lean and mean in everything that it attempts- and it’s stronger for it, never feeling like a game that’s delivering less than what’s become the norm.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
An arresting narrative that sells its central premise excellently; Amicia and Hugo are well written and acted, and their relationship is developed very effectively; Engaging gameplay comprised of a lot of simple mechanics that are implemented in unique and varied ways; Impressive technical accomplishments on the visuals front; Beautiful art design; Laser-focused and refreshingly concise.
Some of the larger questions and mysteries of the story remain unresolved; A few noticeable frame rate drops; Long loading times between chapters.
A Plague Tale: Innocence isn't the largest, most expansive game you'll ever play, nor does it accomplish new things in the areas where it does place its ambitions, but it's stronger for it. It's a focused story-driven experience completely free of bloat or unnecessary attempts at lengthening its runtime, and knows exactly what it wants to do. It delivers an emotional and effective tale, while also implementing simple mechanics in constantly engaging ways to make sure that it's not always all about the story.