There have been a number of games that seek to do more than simply provide good gameplay or a compelling plot, but instead attempt to create an emotional connection between the player and someone you are charged with protecting. The Last of Us and God of War 2018 spring to mind, and now A Plague Tale: Innocence does as well. Set in the early stages of the 100 Years War and at the height of the Black Plague, A Plague Tale tells the story of a young noble girl and her little brother. Despite the difficulty of the task set before both the characters and the developers, A Plague Tale succeeds.
A Plague Tale is the latest game from publisher Focus Home Interactive and was developed by Asobo Studio. Though Asobo has been around for more than 15 years, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t recognize their name, they appear to have been relegated to providing supplemental development for other studios or developing licensed movie and TV show titles for some time. In fact, their last original IP was Fuel in 2009. So how much can you really expect from a developer who has spent most of their history creating Disney tie-ins and helping create Microsoft titles like ReCore? The answer is, "a lot, actually".
A Plague Tale is a story-driven action-adventure game with stealth and puzzle elements. The gameplay can be divided into three main sections: stealth, rats, and puzzles. The stealth is very traditional, there are no shadows hide in or disguises to don, it is all about line-of-sight. You can hide from enemies either by ducking behind a cover or crouching in a tall grass. Stealth is its own kind of puzzle, and for nearly half of the game feels like there is only ever one way to get by enemies. Once your options and the level design opens up, the stealth becomes a lot more appealing. Your encounters with rats, however, are a completely different beast. Whereas humans lose track of you over time and/or can be killed, rats are relentless and will only be stopped with light. The rats as a whole are really quite impressive, they undulate and crash down like water. They scurry away from light, swarm over each other in an attempt to reach you, and leave devastation in their wake. They literally are a force to be reckoned with. And when your interactions with humans and rats intersect, it's grizzly.
In order to deal with both the humans and the rats, you have your trusty sling. Throughout the game, you will collect supplies to upgrade equipment and craft items. The rocks you sling can be combined with other elements to create new projectiles like Ignifer, which can ignite torches and fires, or Devorantis, which will burn through an enemy’s helmet. At various points in the game there are workbenches that allow you to upgrade your equipment. Conversely, you can craft consumables like Ignifer and Devorantis in the field. Although some of the upgrades are easily left alone, most of them feel valuable and useful.
As the game progresses, it gets more challenging and Amicia becomes more capable with more tools at her disposal. At the start, you can only use your sling and rocks to distract enemies but you slowly grow in power in a believable manner. Even at the end, a group of a half-dozen enemies is still dangerous but easily dispatched if you use all of your tools. While the majority of the game is not difficult, there are several spikes that are extremely annoying. It’s not that the spikes feel like they are actually that difficult, but because most of A Plague Tale can be played more leisurely, the sporadic moments that require more skill feel out of place. I found five or six of these instances and the majority of them have you defending an area as enemies rush in. It’s really more of a pacing issue than an issue with the actual difficulty, though.
There are also light puzzle elements outside of stealthy navigation and evasion of rats. The majority of these are simple light-based puzzles, requiring you to make a path through the rats. There are also some block and lever puzzles. None of them tax the brain much but do a good job to break up what takes up most of your game time: the narrative.
The narrative takes center stage in A Plague Tale. Set 14th century France, the 100 Years War has been raging for over ten years and the Black Plague is looming. You play as Amica de Rune, a noble girl and sister to Hugo, your sheltered little brother whom you barely know due his mysterious illness. But catastrophe has struck and now he is entrusted to you and you must navigate the war-torn, plague-ridden, and rat-infested world of Medieval France, all while being chased by the Inquisition, a radical religous sect that wants Hugo. A Plague Tale has its own mythology and lore that it builds on top of introducing you to Medieval France, what starts as a very down to earth story eventually becomes a much more supernatural tale. And even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of the supernatural bent, it feels earned rather than coming out of left-field.
In addition to your brother, you’ll also come across thieves, an alchemist, and a blacksmith who will join your party. Most of these characters impact both the story and the gameplay which make them feel more than just ornamental. Hugo can crawl into spaces too small for you, the thieves can pick locks, and the blacksmith can bash down doors. At one point or another, each party member also gives you new crafting recipes for your sling. Most of these, understandably, come from the alchemist.
What is possibly the most interesting and maybe most successful aspect of A Plague Tale is the way the narrative intersects with the gameplay. The world that exists while you're playing the game and the one that exists while watching cutscenes actually feel like the same world. And when most games have an “innocent” character that must kill in order to survive, the transition from “normal person” to “killing machine” can be jarring (I’m looking at you Tomb Raider 2013). A Plague Tale takes its time with this. Your first kill only occurs at the end of the third level and Amicia never really gets over it. Every death you cause is punctuated by a musical stinger. The deaths that you come across are often commented on with a sense of shock and awe. There are several moments that feel straight out of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, as your survival will directly or indirectly mean the death of someone else. These moments are terrible in the best way and what’s worse is how Hugo reacts.
A Plague Tale is not a huge AAA games and so, unfortunately, suffers from midtier/AA-itis. By and large, the visuals are beautiful. I found myself taking 100+ screenshots because of how much I love the game's art-direction. The character designs, architecture, lighting are fantastic. However, there are issues with lip-syncing, walking animations, and dead-eyes. Like many games, A Plague Tale suffers by not always having the most expressive characters, you can hear the emotion in their voices but you rarely see it in their faces. By contrast, it is conveyed in other animations. For example, for the majority of the game, Hugo is by your side and holding your hand. It’s a simple but effective way of creating a bond between the characters. At various points, you can have Hugo wait while you accomplish a task and when you call for him to rejoin you, Amicia sticks out her hand until Hugo returns and grasps it. Again, small but powerful. On the other hand, walking and running never feel particularly good. Often times, it feels like you are covering more ground than you should when walking and running feels like it covers less ground than it ought to. You get used to it but it never feels good.
One of my favorite parts of A Plague Tale is the soundtrack. Composed by Olivier Deriviere, the music is phenomenal. It is very string-heavy and reminds me a lot of cellist Zoe Keating. I’ve been a big fan of Deriviere’s work anytime I’ve heard it but it’s usually in games that don’t quite live up to the quality of the music within. That’s not the case here but the soundtrack definitely elevates the atmosphere, punctuating every moment with a sense of intensity, somberness, and beauty. The voice acting is probably the weakest part of the game. Most of it is serviceable and some of it is quite good, but it is the most “mixed bag” of all of the aspects of the game.
I was pretty nervous going into A Plague Tale: Innocence given what the game was attempting to do and the studio’s history. Needless to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the end product. The game does start slow and has occasional pacing issues but none of that detracts from the fact that the vast majority of it is a brutal joy to experience. The way the narrative and gameplay fit together to make Amicia and Hugo’s journey both compelling and emotional is an impressive accomplishment that put A Plague Tale up there with the best of them. If you are in the market for a somber, story-driven game, I cannot recommend A Plague Tale enough.
Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.