The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors
You are trapped. Everywhere you look, there is a sea of black rats flowing over each other trying to get their sharp fangs on your mud-covered skin. Thankfully, you are under a light, the rats’ only fear, protecting you for the time being. You cannot sit around for long though, as you need to cross the room in order to escape heavily armored soldiers with lanterns who will kill you on the spot. Suddenly, a soldier enters the room, scattering all the rats in his vicinity with his torch as he plans to search every nook and cranny for where you are hiding. Desperate, you crouch behind some broken crates and barrels and try to come up with a plan to save your life. Having no torch of your own, only a sling and some rocks, your options are limited and time is running out. What do you do?
A Plague Tale is a phenomenal game that blew my pessimistic, preconceived expectations right out of the water.
Thankfully this is not a situation that I have or ever will encounter in my real life, but it is something that you would experience if you were to play A Plague Tale: Innocence. You play as Amicia De Rune, the daughter of a Noble Family in Aquitaine, France during 1349: the time of the Black Plague. Amicia lives a relatively easy life, except for the fact that she hasn’t seen her mother much at all since her five year old brother Hugo was born with a rare condition. Everything is going fine and dandy until the British Inquisition comes in and starts slaughtering everyone in your house in search of your brother Hugo. Separated from their parents with their lives in jeopardy, Amicia and Hugo are forced to flee their home and go to Hugo’s doctor so he can continue getting medicine for his condition. As the story unwinds, Amicia must put her selfishness aside and try her utmost to protect her little brother at all cost, find out what is wrong with Hugo, and discover why the Inquisition wants him so badly.
To be fully honest, I went into A Plague Tale: Innocence with average expectations. The Developer, Asobo Studio, has quite a few “Movie Tie-In” games like Wall-E and Toy Story 3 under their belt, and generally that isn’t the best track record when jumping to a narrative-based game. By all means, I expected this to be a poorly-written, bug-ridden mess of a game that I would have to suffer through to the credits. Turns out, I picked the right profession by not becoming a fortune teller, because A Plague Tale is a phenomenal game that blew my pessimistic preconceived expectations right out of the water.
Much of the ten(ish) hour game is spent crouching, sneaking, and using the environment to your advantage.
First and foremost, the gameplay. Comparisons between A Plague Tale and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us are inevitable, but that is a really high compliment in my opinion. Much of the 10+ hour game is spent crouching, sneaking, and using the environment to your advantage. As referenced in the intro, Amicia has to use her sling and her rocks as tools to escape. My go-to strategy was to hide behind cover or in tall grass, toss a rock at a chest full of armor, and attract the soldier to the origin of the noise (with the comical “huh! What was that?”). Once the big goon soldier realizes that there isn’t actually something there, I stand up and shoot a well-aimed rock at the soldiers lantern and knock it out of his hand. Immediately, light now extinguished around the guard, the sea of rats swarm him and proceed to tear him to bits, creating an opening for me to finally exit.
…the combat consistently becomes more interesting and open-ended as the game progresses…
Later in the game, with the help of an alchemist’s apprentice named Lucas, Amicia is able to craft and create ammunition for her sling that have different effects. For example, one can put out any fire, another can burn a soldier’s face and make him take his helmet off, and one can even be thrown to call rats to a specific area or enemy. With an ever-growing list of tools at your disposal, the combat consistently becomes more interesting and open-ended as the game progresses, which really helped to prevent it becoming stale. I did experience two or three instances of frustration when I was forced to hold off a wave of enemies for a short period of time, because the slingshot controls are not ideal for taking on more than one enemy at a time. But the fact that I only remember two or three frustrating bits is very impressive for a stealth combat system.
Just as solid as the gameplay is the overall narrative that A Plague Tale has created. The world that the characters inhabit is very well thought out and has many moments flirting with some supernatural elements without ever committing fully to them and breaking the the immersion. In this dark time where everything is dying around them and where they are hunted daily, the characters have realistic intentions, strengths, weaknesses, and fears. It really is fascinating to watch Amicia and Hugo develop from uncomfortable blood relatives to actual siblings who love and care for each other. Similarly, the British Inquisition has a solid, albeit somewhat “Star Warsy”, plan that is a joy to watch unfold.
If there was one thing to criticize in A Plague Tale, it would have to be some of the moment-to-moment dialogue and voice acting. Because the game was made in France, the English dub is mostly by actors and actresses with french-american accents. Most of them do a good job of expressing their emotions and thoughts well, but sometimes characters verge on the edge of “cheesy” with their accents and acting. Similarly, some of the character back-and-forth dialogue can be choppy and doesn’t have a natural, conversational flow to it.
It is hard to critique as the game wasn’t written with English first in mind, but when you have games from Studios like Naughty Dog and Santa Monica who just nail their character directing and vocal performances, it is impossible to not make comparisons. I did try to put the game in French with English subtitles, and that helped greatly with my immersion, but I found myself reading the subtitles and not looking at the visuals on the screen, which was a problem.
The sheer amount of detail and polish that was lovingly placed in every nook and cranny was truly impressive.
The visuals in A Plague Tale: Innocence absolutely blew my mind. Again, going back to the company’s history of games, the visuals had no right to look as good as they did. Environments ranged from dull, dreary, muddy towns to vibrant, beautiful, sunlit forests. The sheer amount of detail and polish that was lovingly placed in every nook and cranny was truly impressive. There were so many times I looked over at my wife during my playthrough and said “How on earth did this developer make a game this gorgeous? It’s just not possible.” Some of the animations for the sea of rats were a little bit wonky, making them look like “Hungry Hungry Hippos” when they chased after you and hit the light, but honestly it never bothered me too much because of how fantastic all the other animations and visuals were. I mean, seriously, highest praise goes to Asobo Studios for crafting this game and rivaling the visuals of many AAA studios.
While maybe not as insanely high in quality as the visuals, the sound design also was phenomenal (minus the aforementioned occasional voice acting). I had a few instances where my wife screamed out of fear due to the sound design alone, with the soundtrack putting her on edge in stealth scenes and the sudden screech when I was caught. The soundtrack, while not having any memorable themes or motifs, elevates the environments with its shrill and haunting sounds. While I may not be re-listening to the soundtrack while I am at work for fun, this is absolutely an instance where music changed the mood and elevated the game to new heights with its macabre tone.
All in all, as I have said many times already, A Plague Tale: Innocence came out of nowhere and absolutely blew me away. I cannot remember the last time I have been this surprised at the quality of a game, other than maybe Stardew Valley back in 2016. It is always a joy to see an relatively unknown studio come out of nowhere, swing way out its league, and hit it out of the park. I cannot remember the last game, other than The Last of Us, that crafted such a fantastic narrative experience and dreary world that has tense and fun gameplay as well. With its fantastic visuals, sound design, narrative, and environmental design, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a must play for those looking to be impressed.
Yes, if you:
- Love narrative, light stealth games like The Last of Us
- Have an appreciation for quality visual and sound design
- Enjoy stories set in dark, depressing worlds
- Like being able to craft and upgrade items
No, if you:
- Want a game where you make narrative choices that affect the story
- Prefer high-octane action instead of slow and intentional combat
- Have musophobia
A Plague Tale: Innocence was released on May 14th, 2019 at an MSRP of $49.99
Note: Cannonicity received a copy of A Plague Tale: Innocence in exchange for a fair and honest review.