A Plague Tale: Innocence may be the first game that its developer, Asobo Studio, wanted to make. Their past catalog consists almost entirely of licensed tie-ins and ports, while this title is an original IP set during an underappreciated period of French history, which happens to be Asobo’s country of origin. Moreover, it feels like an idea the team has had swirling in their heads for some time, waiting to be sufficiently financed before introducing it to the world. Unfortunately, this means the gamer zeitgeist has somewhat passed it by, and a game that probably would have turned a lot of heads a half-decade ago is now in danger of being ignored for being merely serviceable. It’s a shame, because the developers’ passion clearly shines through in their product.
It’s a safe bet that any game that has “colossal swarms of rats” as a primary mechanic was not made to make a quick buck, so in that regard, A Plague Tale is a welcome relief from the current state of the industry – a rare case of beautiful AAA production values supporting a focused artistic vision instead of a loot box platform. But now let’s talk about the eleph—er…rats in the room. The story takes place in a mildly alternate mid-fourteenth century, where the Black Death, instead of a bacterial plague carried by rats, is more of a biblical-style plague of rats…that also transmit a bacterial plague via bites. In the middle of this is protagonist Amicia De Rune, who goes on the run with her mysteriously ill brother Hugo when the Catholic Inquisition becomes violently interested in the boy.
What follows is mostly a medieval coming-of-age story in the vein of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, albeit with the bleak tone and general appearance and scope of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Unlike in Brothers, however, the player only directly controls one sibling, with the management of the other child (and a few other characters over time) relegated to extremely simple commands. The bulk of the gameplay consists of fairly easy stealth and puzzle-solving supported by a crafting system of alchemical projectiles. The ever-present rats are both an obstacle and a weapon, as you’ll have to manipulate the deadly swarms’ aversion to light in order to forge paths and eliminate human enemies.
Like both of the above-mentioned games, while A Plague Tale is not mechanically an exploration game, it will certainly be most appreciated by those who aren’t turned off by the “walking simulator” user tag on Steam. “Difficult,” “deep,” and “organic” are not words that will ever be used to describe this title, and the result is of mixed quality at best (although the last couple of chapters open up a bit and are subsequently the most viscerally entertaining parts). For example, while the “puzzles” that are largely about following instructions aren’t particularly exciting, they at least feel like natural character interaction. Conversely, there are other moments where players are required to direct others to solve a problem for them using single key presses, and these feel like the shallow video game segments that they are.
The real reasons to play this game are its characters, environment, and surprisingly engaging narrative. Asobo’s vision of medieval France is a devastated but hopeful one, populated by believable characters that are both torn apart and held together by war, illness, and religion. The imagery is striking throughout, and the tense, somber soundtrack sets the mood perfectly. Furthermore, the general “loss of innocence” theme is supported by appropriate subthemes involving surrogate families and the necessity of harsh truths, and the plot advances in several unexpected ways. Not just in direction, but in scale; however many rats you expect to be dealing with by the finale, there will be more.
The rats are actually something of a technical achievement, considering how many of them are constantly being rendered without murdering the framerate, even while more mundane things cause it to stutter occasionally. Along with the generally impressive voice acting, it’s another example of how A Plague Tale: Innocence can surprise you. Its stealth and horror traits are by no means astounding, and it often feels overly familiar, but it has its own share of highlights as well. For those who want to get truly absorbed in a game – especially one with a very human heart – this is probably one you should check out.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Focus Home Interactive.
Equal parts beautiful, repulsive, simplistic, and mature, A Plague Tale: Innocence is difficult to recommend but impossible to dismiss.