A Plague Tale: Innocence Review

May 14, 2019
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Also on:
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As you emerge from a cramped sewerage tunnel into an underground chamber, your eyes adjust to the gloom. Your flickering torch light is reflected in the horde of black eyes surrounding you. There must be more than a hundred of them; a churning mass of wet bodies and flashing teeth. Skittishly they avoid the glow from your makeshift light source, which you realise is slowly but surely burning out. If you can’t find safety or a new fire to kindle, there will be nothing to keep the rats from tearing your body apart in a matter of seconds. This is A Plague Tale: Innocence, and if you didn’t mind rats before, you may want to reconsider.

With a back catalogue chiefly made up of racing titles and adapting Disney/Pixar properties from screen to game, Asobo Studio is a world away from their previous projects (except perhaps for 2007’s Ratatouille). Set in the 14th century, A Plague Tale: Innocence is the story of Amicia, the eldest child of the landed de Rune family. At the outbreak of the bubonic plague and vermin infestations across France, the Catholic church sends soldiers to ransack the de Rune’s feudal estate, with the aim of taking Amicia’s younger brother, Hugo, for experimentation — a mytho-religious prophecy of the curative nature of the male de Rune heir’s blood has reached the ears of the Inquisition, and they will stop at nothing to put it to the test. With their parents butchered and home in ruins, Amicia and Hugo are on the run, confronted at every step by death, disease, and the bloody-handed Inquisition knights. And rats. So many, many rats.

The serenity of the prologue is a lifetime away from where you’ll end up.

Controlling Amicia, you’ll be five-year old Hugo’s chaperone for the first quarter of the game. You only have a slingshot in the opening chapters, used best to distract guards before creeping past them, your brother’s hand in yours. As swarms of rats explode from beneath your feet, you’ll either be flung into a fast-paced escape section where a single wrong turn down a blind alleyway will mean instant death, or forced to use fire and light sources to keep them at bay. The opening room-crossing puzzles are fairly straightforward, requiring you to locate a torch or knock a burning chandelier down from the ceiling to create a safe area cleared of rats. The early trailers for A Plague Tale: Innocence indicated this was the extent of the gameplay — but how wrong I was.

After the initial handful of chapters, the game opens itself up, and you’ll be presented with new situations which build neatly upon the aforementioned stealth areas; using spotlights to shepherd a cluster of rats towards an enemy, or operating cranks to access new areas. Amicia meets Lucas, the young apprentice of an alchemist, who drip-feeds you further tools to aid your quest as he completes his own research. These alchemical compounds — such as the burning Ignifer, which can be thrown at a flammable target — introduce different ways to attack, attract, or repel enemies. As your arsenal increases, you can choose whether to take opponents straight on, or to find quieter ways to outmanoeuvre them.

Light sources go from helping to hindering your progression.

Gathering resources then becomes vital to your journey, as each ammunition type needs to be crafted on the fly. Your sling and satchel can also be upgraded at special workbenches scattered lightly across the game, but these resource-heavy improvements create perplexing questions. Should I create a Luminosa compound, which can decimate an area of rats for a last-ditch escape, and use up my scraps of leather? Or save those components in the hopes of stumbling across a workbench, so that I can improve my sling? The crafting and foraging is well balanced, as there were just enough resources to keep my basic ammunition in check, but not quite enough to comfortably upgrade whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

Hugo will be your main companion initially, but alongside Lucas, you’ll meet further waifs and strays who fall in step with your quest. While looking after Hugo was never too much like an escort mission (it helps that he sticks to you like a… well, like a five-year old who has just witnessed his parents dying), after a while you’ll be able to let him off the leash for his own exploration, and eventually venture out alone or with another companion while Hugo waits with the rest of your group.

While I enjoyed the relationships between Amicia and the different members of her group, they did present some issues. These aren’t the NPCs from Uncharted 4, which were able to read your inputs and allow you to pass around them. These are the other kind of NPCs. For the most part they operate well and take your lead, but every now and then they’ll block a doorway or wedge you against a wall — on one occasion popping me straight through it and out of bounds, forcing a quick reset.

Sure, it looks amazing, but how does it smell?

Even with a few technical issues, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a visually stunning game, and in some respects, the details bringing the world to life may be among the best we’ll see this generation. The medieval period is fleshed out with tapestries, inscriptions, toys, food, clothing; ephemera which make the world feel lived-in and functional (or as functional as can be when half the population has been replaced with pus-dripping corpses overnight). Light and shadow are conveyed beautifully, and the shallow depth of field keeps character models crisp while imbuing further away objects and scenery with a hazy, almost dreamlike quality.

It’s a pity that you’re not allowed free rein of the camera when in motion — unless stationary, the right analogue stick is used to change the direction Amicia is facing, meaning the left stick allows movement forwards, backwards, and side-to-side strafing. It won’t be as polarising as ‘tank controls’, but even after I had become used to the setup it would have been beneficial to have a bit more control over the camera, whether I needed to see what was going on behind me during action scenes, or just to soak up a bit more of the gorgeous scenery.

Spotlights will keep you just out of harm’s reach. For now.

Being placed at the historical intersection of The Hundred Years War and the Black Death means A Plague Tale: Innocence can pull from a number of different environmental and thematic elements, which it manages deftly. Whether body-strewn battlefields or boarded-up houses in plague villages, the variety of locations keeps the game fresh and unpredictable whilst emphasising the story progression.

A key feature of the majority of locations, however, is the rats. I never grew tired of seeing an ocean of them before me, and their bloodthirsty animations are gleefully brutal whether they’re swarming a friend or an enemy. A sense of unease is effectively maintained, knowing they can be waiting to burst out from behind any grate — or in one horrific scene, the distended stomach of a dead horse.

If you want to succeed, you’ll need to get crafting new compounds and potions.

Starting with the barebones plot of two children escaping from their parent’s killers, A Plague Tale: Innocence adds layer after layer to build up the world. You’ll witness how the ordinary farming communities have been impacted by the plague, and their fear of English invaders. The story gradually expands to encompass family secrets, blood rituals, and forbidden knowledge, and includes some genuinely heartfelt and memorable beats along the way.

The side-stepping away from the ostensibly realistic opening scenes through to the high-octane finale is made possible through collectible trinkets and environmental storytelling. Each flower picked or artefact found has its own codex entry on the inventory screen, with supplementary text discussing the history and beliefs of the time. From abandoned castles to sinister cathedrals, you’ll take in alchemy, botany, folklore, and mysticism before you reach the end. By including these snippets from the offset, a lore is established for the world of A Plague Tale: Innocence, and so when these ideas are later revealed to be true, it doesn’t feel like an abrupt change up.

You’ve heard of a windmill and a watermill. I present: the Firemill™.

Over the twelve to fourteen-hour story, A Plague Tale: Innocence constantly builds on its game mechanics and challenges. Initially a straightforward stealth game, it mutates into a horror-infused puzzler before reaching its climax with the sort of bombastic action sequences which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Resident Evil game. A fantastic atmosphere of dread is created and maintained, as the human antagonists and vermin each race to outdo each other in the causing of grisly deaths.

The rats, central to the game’s marketing, are not only used well, but also wisely, allowing other gameplay elements — not to mention the Inquisition’s relentless mission — to share the limelight. A Plague Tale: Innocence is an engaging and thorough creation, which values quiet personal moments just as much as big horror scenes. The result is a confident and well-paced game, dripping in macabre atmosphere.

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Forswearing directness in favour of letting the game build momentum as it goes, A Plague Tale: Innocence weaves a captivating story from many different threads.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.