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A Plague Tale: Innocence review

A game about a plague build upon two of gaming's worst plagues that you'll actually want to be infected by

By all accounts, I should have hated A Plague Tale: Innocence. I’ve had the game about a young French noble and her even younger brother trying to survive both the Inquisition and a horrifying rat plague on my radar since its reveal, but I wasn’t quite aware of how much it relied on two specific gaming tropes: escort missions, and forced stealth.

Escort missions annoy me; forced stealth infuriates me.

Shortly into the game’s first chapter, the Inquisition attacks the de Rune manor, and the siblings—Amicia and Hugo—flee both the conquering forces of the Roman Catholic Church and the deaths of their parents. Amicia and Hugo, at this point, might as well be strangers. The young boy suffers from a mysterious disease, one which caused their mother Beatrice to keep him isolated from the world, along with herself as she cared for him. Amicia is burdened with taking care of a brother she barely knows and keeping the two of them alive when she herself is not yet an adult; Hugo suffers both emotionally and mentally due to being ripped from his home and his mother, as well as physically due to his illness.

Making their way across the French countryside in search of help quickly proves to be a daunting task. Not only has the Inquisition set up camps and roadblocks at seemingly every turn, but everything and everyone is being overrun by immense swarms of ferocious black rats. Both “sides” seem locked in a struggle for dominance, and the biggest victim of their clashes are the countless innocents whose bodies now litter the land.

Right from the start, A Plague Tale: Innocence forced me into both escort and stealth elements whether I wanted them or not. Hugo is never not by Amicia’s side, and even asking him to wait in a certain spot for a moment can cause him to panic if you get too far away. Meanwhile, our heroine’s only weapon is the sling she uses for hunting, which is poorly equipped to handle the heavily-armored soldiers of the Inquisition without some serious upgrades. So, stealth is the only choice in those early chapters, with relatively little in terms of gameplay beyond hiding behind objects and sneaking past foes while they’ve got their backs turned.

The swarms of rodents, meanwhile, didn’t care how sneaky you try to be. The only protection from them is getting to a higher point than they can climb, or staying in the glow of a nearby light source. As the hordes of rats make ungodly sounds and writhe around just outside the edge of the light, survival means figuring out how to get from well-lit area to well-lit area—which isn’t always a straightforward or easy process.

All of this was, at first, taxing. In many games, you know that once you get past that particular escort segment or finally clear that portion of a level where you need to be stealthy, you can get back to some faster-paced, more action-oriented gameplay. Here, I was pretty certain that swap to feeling more powerful and capable in situations was probably not coming. Hugo was going to be by his sister’s side for most of the trip, the rules for dealing with rats seemed pretty well set, and there wasn’t a chance that Amicia would suddenly become an action hero—at least if developer Asobo Studios wanted to maintain the spirit of the game it established in its first hours.

My assumptions were actually wrong in a few ways. However, the shift in my opinions on the game would not come at first from any particular gameplay advancements, but instead simply from the story and its participants. Neither Amicia nor Hugo are particularly compelling or likable in the early going, but that’s because they’re as unfamiliar to us as players as they are to each other. Amicia’s cold, almost distant attitude to a lot of what’s going on slowly gives way to moments of warmth and tenderness for both her brother and others. Hugo’s incessant crying about wanting to return to his home and his mother—which, to be fair, would be natural reactions for anyone his age—become interspersed by more and more moments of childlike amazement at an outside world he’s barely seen. Amicia and Hugo grew into characters I not only wanted to care about, but did care about, becoming heroes—each in their own right—while never betraying the more grounded selves they were at the start of the story.

Along the way, others come to join the siblings in their adventure, and each new friend is just as interesting and compelling as our main heroes. The team at Asobo did a fantastic job crafting characters that feel like people instead of video game tropes, and each brings something meaningful to the overall story. Better, it’s a story that only grew more emotional and engrossing as each chapter went by. Every now and then, the narrative will get bogged down slightly, but it doesn’t take long for it to get back up to speed. It also, at one point, seemed to threatened to sabotage itself when the story took a particular (spoiler-y) turn that I wasn’t at all expecting, but it was a thematic choice that actually worked out. To me, the true sign of a great solo-focused video game is one where you want to play “just one more segment” even through it’s 4 in the morning and you really should have been asleep hours ago—and once it gets going, A Plague Tale fits that to a tee.

By its end, I came to have an immense amount of respect for this game. I know at least a few others out there have made the comparison, but it reminded me of my time with Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Both are smaller-scale games that do a whole lot with relatively little, both are incredibly personal stories that explore human emotions on a level many other games never touch, and both feel like labors of love from the teams that created them. Yes, I know—saying that one can “feel the passion and care of the developers” when playing a particular title is an overused cliche at this point, but it’s honestly the case here. Especially given its unique themes, settings, and narrative beats, this is a project that wouldn’t exist unless a lot of people had a huge amount of faith that it’d work, or determination to put in the effort to make sure it did.

(I guess I should also mention that it probably helped a bit that I played through the game with French voices. It can be easy to miss a particular line of dialog here or there when you’re unable to focus on the subtitles, but it makes the overall experience feel much more genuine. Also, turn off the UI.)

And, in the biggest compliment I could probably give, even A Plague Tale: Innocence’s gameplay won me over. I still don’t like escort missions, I still hate stealth, but I now can’t imagine this game without either. What makes everything work here is that Asobo Studios did a really commendable job of figuring out how to keep everything feeling fresh from chapter to chapter. Contradictory to my fears, it wasn’t just the same thing over and over, as it felt like every new segment provided some new element, upgrade for Amicia, twist on the gameplay, or otherwise. The game does stumble a bit near its end, when the team seemingly decided that there needed to be some more action-oriented segments to ramp up the stakes. I don’t miss the humor in realizing that moving away from escorting and sneaking into pure fighting was actually the weakest point of A Plague Tale, even though it’s initially what I would have wanted, but I’m big enough to admit it.

And, of course, I can’t forget the rats. If you let the more logical part of your brain take over, it’s easy to see the hundreds of thousands of little black vermin as simply a combination of polygons and programmed AI, with hard-set limits on what they can do, where they can go, or what threat they can actually pose. If you let yourself believe in the fantasy just a little, though, and see them how their world sees them, they’re an incredibly impressive and utterly terrifying foe that never stops being unsettling. Even when you know you’re safe, and you know they can’t get you, they’re still there, nipping at your heels, hungering for the chance to eat you alive, and the terror of that thought doesn’t go away.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is a perfect example of why I’m such a cheerleader for mid-tier games. Bigger in scope and production than most indie titles, but more daring and free to explore new ideas than costly triple-A projects, games such as these are where we see some of the most unique and compelling offers on the market. Even with my personal biases against two core parts of its gameplay, A Plague Tale completely won me over—and while it’s certainly not perfect, it’s pretty darn good.

★★★★☆

A lot of people are probably going to sleep on, or not even know about, A Plague Tale: Innocence—and that’s a shame. It’s a gripping, touching, emotional, yet at times horrifying experience, one that feels quite unlike almost any other game out there.

Developer
Asobo Studios
Publisher
Focus Home Interactive
ESRB
M - Mature
Release Date
05.14.2019
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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