A Plague Tale: Innocence
A Plague Tale: Innocence from French developer Asobo Studio is a game that defies categorization. There are a few puzzles, but it’s not really an adventure. You have to do some sneaking, but it’s not really a stealth game. And sometimes you have to run and dodge and shoot, but it’s not really an action game. A Plague Tale is just a jumble of a lot of different genres, which somehow fit together nicely to create an interesting and unique experience.
A Plague Tale takes place in 14th century France. You control 15-year-old Amicia De Rune, but before you can do much of anything, the Inquisition shows up at your estate, kills your parents, and for some reason starts hunting for your younger brother Hugo. This starts a sequence where you and Hugo have to do a lot of hiding and running, avoiding soldiers and towns while trying to figure out what’s going on.
While you’re exploring the world, you gain some companions. Interestingly, they’re all teenagers like you, and none of them are Arya Stark, so you can’t get into swordfights with soldiers, or face them head on. But you don’t always have to runaway from them, either. You start the game with a sling, and as you find materials to upgrade it, you eventually learn how to deliver deadly headshots. It takes time to load your sling, so you can’t mow down multitudes of soldiers at once, but you can pick some off here and there. So the sling gives you options. You can sneak or shoot, or use some combination of the two.
Along with avoiding soldiers, you also have to worry about rats — and not just any rats, but crazy demon rats that can kill you with one bite. Luckily, these rats refuse to enter lighted areas, so you can keep them at bay. Unluckily, the game’s world is rather gloomy, and you rarely have a torch or a lantern at your disposal, so you have to figure out how to reach one illuminated area after another, without becoming rat food. One way to do this (shown in the game’s trailer) is to supply the rats with meat — including human bodies left hanging around by the Inquisition — which keeps the rats distracted for a while.
To help you along — and also to keep the game evolving — your companions teach you how to craft different sorts of ammunition for your sling. So as you progress through the story, you learn how to make fiery projectiles (good against rats), fuming projectiles (for getting soldiers to take off their helmet so you can kill them with a headshot), and even rat attractors (as another way to kill soldiers). You also find materials that allow you to upgrade your gear (mostly so you can carry more stuff) plus numerous hidden collectible items that serve no purpose whatsoever (but give you some background information on France in the Middle Ages).
The interface for A Plague Tale uses a fairly standard setup. You use the WASD keys to move, the mouse buttons to aim and shoot the sling, the E key to interact with items, the spacebar to climb and dodge, the C key to crouch, the Q key to issue commands, the shift key to sprint, and control key to throw. You can also press the 1-9 keys to select a certain type of ammunition for your sling, or use the mouse wheel to scroll through them. All of this works fine, and you can even reconfigure the hotkeys if you want. But I found the interface to be a little bit clunky — possibly because the game is such a resource hog, especially when rats are being rendered — and I didn’t get the sort of fluid responsiveness I wanted. I also didn’t love that only autosaves are allowed, although at least the autosaves are friendly, so you never have to go back very far when you screw up.
A Plague Tale has a few puzzles, but they’re not complicated. Mostly, you just need to pull some levers or push a crate somewhere. Plus, because the game is completely linear, and because there aren’t any red herrings, there are very few ways to do things other than the right way, so even if you have no idea what the puzzle is about, it’s shouldn’t take you long to figure it out. As an example, at one point you need to push a crate so Amicia can use it to climb over a fence. But when you push the crate to the right spot, Amicia immediately lets go of it, and you’re not allowed to push it any more. You’ll probably have a tougher time figuring out how to get past soldiers and rats than you will solving the puzzles.
Where A Plague Tale really shines is in its cinematic quality. The graphics are excellent (even on the lowest settings), and they do a nice job of setting the mood for the world you’re in, with a lot of emphasis on lights and shadows. The voice actors also do a terrific job, especially Charlotte McBurney as Amicia (in what appears to be her debut role). The actors have no trouble emoting their lines, even during scenes of great trauma, and that helps to sell the story and the characters, and to keep us involved. Perhaps instead of calling A Plague Tale an adventure / stealth / action game hybrid, maybe I should just call it a movie game, where you control the protagonist in a computer movie — and where you have to stick to the script, since you’re not given any options about where to go or what to say.
It took me a little under 20 hours to complete A Plague Tale, and that worked out just right. Asobo Studio managed to walk the tightrope of keeping their game interesting. Every so often, they introduce a new enemy or ammunition, give you some time to figure it out, and then add something else before the gameplay gets repetitive. That way, you’re always seeing something new, and you have to keep coming up with new strategies to survive. If Asobo had bloated A Plague Tale to 40 hours and forced you to repeat encounters ad nauseum, then the game would have been far less fun.
Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with A Plague Tale: Innocence. It’s unique in premise and content, it looks and sounds good, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I probably would have liked it even better if it had stayed more stealthy than action-oriented, but I’m not going to complain. A Plague Take definitely isn’t for kids — violence and gruesome deaths abound, and there is also some (completely unnecessary) profanity — but for everyone else, it’s a worthwhile game to check out, just perhaps at a slightly cheaper price.
Reviewed By: Steven Carter
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
This review is based on a digital copy of A Plague Tale: Innocence for the PC provided by Focus Home Interactive.