When you’ve read a synopsis of a game that says “it’s set in France during the plague in the 1300’s, and you’ll be playing a young girl looking after her little brother whilst being pursued by the Inquisition”, there’s a high probably that you’d groan about a game which is essentially one long escort mission. That’s not really sounding enticing, is it? Simplifying A Plague Tale: Innocence to that single sentence doesn’t do Asobo Studio justice for what they’ve created. It’s a streamlined, focused narrative game that incorporates stealth, puzzles and lush visuals to realise a brutal and unforgiving period in history where there seemed to be no justice or consequence to actions. The only goal in the short term is to survive, and that’s something that proves increasingly difficult as the stakes are raised and things go slightly supernatural and the only thing you can trust is the light.
Amicia is the main protagonist of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a young French lady who’s only wish is to be like her father and become a knight. She’s handy with a slingshot and not one to run in the face of adversity, which are useful traits when the Inquisition invade her home searching for her brother Hugo and kill everyone they encounter. It’s a harsh introduction to medieval France and it doesn’t get any lighter from there. Escaping with her sibling, they set out to find help and answers wherever they can, picking up a breadcrumb trail of hints and clues that take them into conflict with local villagers, invading English soldiers and even the Roman Catholic Church. Their journey is dogged with the ever present danger of the plague carrying rats and the mystery that surrounds why they’ve become so vicious. Staying out of the dark places that they lurk is the only way to be safe, but rest assured Amicia and Hugo will need to enter those pitch black realms to uncover the truth.
Gameplay is split firmly in two: stealth and puzzle solving. The stealth part probably makes up about 70% of the action and has Amicia and Hugo sneaking from cover to cover, distracting guards to clear a path along the route. This is where the slingshot comes into its own, and with its ever expanding abilities it’s a versatile tool. Direct confrontation has to be avoided because both our heroes are no match for trained soldiers, and tackling one head on means a swift death. Instead, using the environment as a diversion, as well as how the light and dark work to move the man-eating rats around, are the keys to successfully getting by. Occasionally there are companions on hand that can operate levers and switches, or take down an armoured soldier, though Amicia is largely on her own. Upgrading the sling by collecting items and finding a workbench does bring different advantages, and new ammo types are accessed when the need arises. It builds the skill set up at a nice pace and gives some freedom to experiment depending on the situation, as long as the stealth rules are adhered to: the sling makes noise when winding up, but gets greater distance; and throwing is silent yet can’t go anywhere near as far.
The puzzle part is generally centred around clearing rats out of the way when it’s gone past dusk. Igniting lamps or grabbing torches can drive them in certain directions, or even giving them something to eat can clear the way for a few seconds. It’s essential because like the chasing enemies, Amicia is vulnerable to swarms after only a very short exposure – one foot in the wrong place and it’s goodbye. However, even though the rats are ever present in these sections on the edges of the circle of light, it feels a more relaxed pace and one where there’s time to consider the options on hand. That’s assuming the torch or burning straw bale isn’t going to extinguish any time soon. With ammo that can start or put out fires from a distance, the slingshot comes in handy for dealing with the rodents too, and later on in the game there are more aggressive options that will ignite small groups and take them out of the picture completely. To be clear though, dealing with the rats is not a combat scenario, merely an exercise in not getting gnawed down to the bone.
With Hugo as your companion for the majority of A Plague Tale: Innocence, it’s fair to worry that he’ll become a hindrance rather than a help when he’s being dragged through chapters. The way the companionship is designed ensures that’s not the case. If Hugo is left on his own, he’ll happily stay hidden as long as he’s somewhere safe, and it’s a one button touch to get him to come and regroup with Amicia. Once the pair are holding hands, they’re effectively controlled as one character so moving around isn’t a problem. Unlike Ico where Wanda could tug in the opposite direction or get distracted, Hugo is much more reliable. That unfortunately means that it’s entirely possible to forget he’s in tow whilst spending a lot of time peering into the gloomy distance until he actively chirps up or appears in a cutscene. Staying alert and focusing on the enemies is necessary because they’ll spot the siblings at great distance and usually permanently lock on to them, and archers or infantry with spears are very accurate.
This is probably where the game breaks down a little, the stealth can be frustrating with the observation skills of the Inquisition, and the frailty of the characters. With an auto-aim component on the sling it does centre on the targets quite quickly, but it’s not easy because the aiming reticule doesn’t appear until it’s somewhere close. It’s in line with maintaining the atmosphere through no HUD information, and unfortunately is the cause of many deaths. To counteract it the checkpoint system is generous (for the first half of the game at least), and re-attempting doesn’t take long at all. This quick turnaround makes it less of a chore and there’s never anything to get stuck at for too long. Hunting for collectables and crafting materials on the other hand can take quite a while because even though things flash in the environment, figuring out what they are until Amicia is up close is tricky. There’s not a lot of free-roaming, and the impetus on evasion in the early chapters means that there are a lot of things to miss, and this might impact on sling upgrades. Crafting ammo can affect this too as all resources are shared, so there’s a balance to be struck over the most powerful options.
At least there’s a benefit to scouring the environment – enjoying the rich visuals more. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a very pretty and detailed game, and well worth taking some time to examine how much effort has gone in to bringing the time period to life. From the colourful forests to the grim catacombs of castles, it’s always impressive, and the decision to go with an absolute minimum of information on screen is a welcome one. It’s not let down by the sound design either, from the ambient noises to the voice acting. Each character is portrayed with emotion and the actors really hook into what makes them interesting, including the bad guys. There’ll be no love lost when boss fights are reached, and this is setup brilliantly because of the performances. Amicia’s journey not just to escape slaughter, but to protect her remaining family and deal with Hugo’s naivety sees her grow considerably through the game, and Charlotte McBurnley brings her strength and fragility to life superbly.
Asobo Studio have set out to create a narrative tale inspired by the likes of The Last of Us and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and these two titles are likely to be the first that spring to mind when looking at A Plague Tale: Innocence. They’ve succeeded too… it’s engaging and compelling right from the off, and even though it’ll not last much more than 10 hours, that’s plenty long enough to run through this story of loss, despair and hope. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t need to be, the fact that it makes you persevere with some of the more wooden mechanics brings you closer to Amicia, Hugo and several others that support them on the way. This is a great piece of story telling to get stuck into, and only musophobiacs should give it a wide birth.
A PS4 review copy of A Plague Tale: Innocence was provided by Focus Home Interactive’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, PC and Xbox One for around £40.