Minor spoilers follow:
You can tell when a game is made with passion, and A Plague Tale: Innocence just oozes that feeling. Developer Asobo Studio, developer of 2016’s ReCore, has crafted a single player experience that is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, with genuinely poignant moments throughout.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a third person, stealth-based adventure game with combat interspersed throughout. The focus isn’t on combat, but on lengthy, often unforgiving stealth sections. You play as Amicia, a fifteen year old living in 14th century France during the outbreak of a plague, who must escape the Inquisition with her sickly five year old brother Hugo. They must escape the Inquisition, avoid the tide of vermin that has overrun the country, and discover the mystery to Hugo’s illness.
As Amicia, you often avoid conflict by using a stealth approach. Amicia has a sling that she can use to distract and later kill enemies. Stealth is often mandatory, but there are times you can choose go in guns blazing (in in this case, “sling-blazing” or whatever) and brain some people, though that approach is not the safest. Amicia, though, starts the story as any normal 15 year old daughter of French nobility in the 1300–until the rats and Inquisition shatter her peaceful life.
Since A Plague Tale: Innocence is a narrative heavy game, the story is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of the experience. A Plague Tale: Innocence’s story is great—often harrowing, and truly gripping. The voice acting is solid throughout, and gives great emotional weight to a tale that is more often than not grim and gruesome. I don’t want to give too much away, but A Plague Tale’s story is full of compelling twists and turns, leading to a shocking grand finale. My original impression was that it would be just a tale of Amicia and her brother, but as it turns out, there is a diverse cast of companions Amicia picks up along the away.
Amicia’s companions don’t just serve storytelling purposes; they also have gameplay functionality. Without giving away too many spoilers: there is a thief character that will help you pick locks, and another character that can sneak up and take out guards on your command. The number and types of companions you’ll have changes as the story progresses, so the formula never feels stale.
The villains in A Plague Tale are great, even if the Inquisition leader Vitaly and his armored lieutenant Lord Nicholas remind me heavily of Palpatine and Vader. The Inquisition seeks Amicia’s brother Hugo for nefarious reasons, and pursue him with the scores of armored soldiers at their disposal. The soldiers you meet will have no qualms brutally murdering Amicia if they can get their hands on her. Amicia has to use a combination of stealth and clever use of her arsenal to deal with various situations. She has no health bar, so most of the time failure is instant death.
And then there are the rats.
The plague is brought by the rats, but they’re not just a minor annoyance. The rats are like a force of nature, only scared by the light, or lured away by meat or alchemy. If you’re caught in the dark, they will eat you alive. These make for some interesting puzzle moments, and for some truly gruesome ways to dispatch foes—like when you break their lantern with a rock, and a tide of rats wash over them, leaving only bones behind.
While the combat and stealth sections are somewhat puzzle-like, there are lots of puzzles throughout A Plague Tale that are cleverly hidden as obstacles which often feel genuine. Of course, there are still the very video game-like puzzles where you operate levers to move giant braziers, but even then the story serves to explain their existence. A Plague Tale is best when a puzzle feels like a natural encounter in the world, and doesn’t feel like a puzzle at all, and it manages this quite often.
Unfortunately, not every element of A Plague Tale is as seamless.
Stealth is done fairly well for the most part, but can be problematic. Failing a stealth section in a game is never fun, because it can happen after you spend minutes painfully avoiding guards and other hazards only to get caught at the last second. Replaying those minutes of avoiding guards can be tedious, and A Plague Tale sometimes doubles this tediousness by adding unskippable dialogue. There were a few times where a pretty long story beat would precede a stealth section or other encounter, and failing it meant that I not only had to take the time to get through the encounter again, but also listen to the same few lines of dialogue until I am able to resume play. At these moments the gameplay mechanics are directly working against the story that is being told.
Amicia can upgrade her gear, altering things like how long it takes to ready a shot with her sling, or how much ammo she can carry, but it feels like one of those rare moments where the gameplay mechanics are at odds with the narrative. Most upgrades aren’t even possible without another upgrade, but instead of presenting these upgrades as items that are found along the way, or as a type of skill tree, you must collect items to “craft” them. The crafting system feels so rudimentary and unnecessary it’s one of the small things that break up the pacing and storytelling, but it does provide a reason to explore levels further.
A Plague Tale is a linear, narrative driven experience, so it doesn’t give players much of a reason to replay it. That said, there are collectibles in each chapter, and upgrade materials can be found off of the beaten path, so there’s replayability for completionists.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is beautiful, horrifying, and surprisingly poignant. Characters are introduced, loved, and killed off Games of Thrones style in a harsh, gruesome world. Despite a few missteps where gameplay and storytelling clash, this is a single player experience that’s worth checking out.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows
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