Preview: A Plague Tale: Innocence was one of E3's bleakest games
E3 2018 had plenty of bleak game worlds on display, from the post-apocalypse landscapes of Fallout 76 and Rage 2, to the sure-to-make-us-cry world of The Last of Us Part II, and of course whatever the heck Death Stranding is about. But the darkest, grimmest, most brutal game of them all just might have been A Plague Tale: Innocence.
Coming from the developers at Asobo Studio, A Plague Tale might not be the game you're expecting at first glance. Most games set in medieval Europe concern knights or battles of some kind, with heroes swinging swords and seeking treasure. A Plague Tale, on the other hand, uses 14th century France as a backdrop to tell a family story, about siblings struggling to survive in a world filled with death.
Stealth and puzzle solving in a dangerous world
A Plague Tale is a game focused on stealth and environmental puzzles. Players take control of Amicia, a young noblewoman, as she looks out for her younger brother Hugo. In the hands-off E3 2018 demo the siblings were also traveling with another young boy, who was suffering from some unspecified illness.
"Suffering" and "illness" look to be major themes in A Plague Tale because, as the name implies, the game takes place in a world near collapse under the weight of sickness and death. The plague in question isn't a historically accurate Black Death, as you might expect given the time period, but rather the millions upon millions of swarming rats that have followed, devouring the dead and coating the landscape with their squeaking bodies and hungry mouths.
Yeah, it's just as disturbing as all that sounds.
The rat swarms that look to be a constant feature of A Plague Tale can be driven back by light, and so managing light sources looks to be a big part of the game. Amicia's primary weapon in the E3 demo was a simple sling, which she could use to fire stones or bits of combustible sulfur. She used this to light fires along her path, allowing her and the two young boys to make their way through clear territory at the center of the surrounding ocean of rats.
She also used the sling to take out enemies, the villainous inquisitors hunting for her and her brother, by smashing their lanterns or otherwise disrupting light sources. Removing the lights would cause the hungry rats to swarm in, quickly overpowering and devouring the men standing in Amicia's way. It looks like these sorts of environmental kills are going to be common in A Plague Tale; since Amicia is a young woman traveling with her even younger brother and facing off against fully grown, armed and armored foes, she'll have to use stealth and trickery, rather than combat skills, to make progress.
Is this game going to make us watch children get eaten by rats?
Amicia will have to manage Hugo and the other young boy traveling with her, to keep them safe and quiet. In the demo we saw her directing Hugo to grab things out of her reach, hugging the children to help them stay calm as the group inched along past squeaking rat swarms, and occasionally leaving the boys behind while she crept forward to deal with some obstacles on her own.
The Asobo developers running the demo mentioned that there is a time pressure involved in many activities in the game. Light sources like torches and burning haystacks visibly burn down and darken before your eyes, allowing the rats to draw closer. When you leave Hugo behind in order to move more quietly, he'll only stay calm for a short period of time before he starts crying out for you, potentially attracting dangerous attention.
The E3 demo, in the hands of developers who know the game well, didn't feature any failures or deaths. But that won't be the case once regular players get the game in their hands. Which raises the question...are we going to see Amicia and Hugo die grisly deaths, again and again? Are we going to see these children be devoured by rats every time we fail, or will their suffering due to our failures just be implied?
Either way, I'm not sure I'm emotionally equipped to handle that.
Grim visuals and hard choices
There have been games like A Plague Tale before, starring children or young adults in oppressively bleak and dangerous worlds, but most of the time those games have presented their worlds with more of a stylized and cartoony aesthetic. Games like Limbo, Inside, and Little Nightmares put their child protagonists in danger, but the horror of what we're seeing is lessened somewhat by the way it's presented. With A Plague Tale, though, there's no stylistic separation form the horror. The visuals are aiming for realism, it's fully voice acted, and it's all accompanied by a mournful soundtrack that makes heavy use of cellos.
The E3 demo ended with Amicia holding a torch, making her way through a ruined building. The torchlight forced a wave of rats away from her as she moved down the hall, fleeing inquisitors. Up ahead at the end of the hall, a trapped and presumably innocent man cried out to her. He begged her to stop moving, since the rats were coming closer and closer to him as she moved her light forward.
Amicia's voice was heavy with fright and sadness as she apologized, shouting that "We have to get out!" She kept moving forward, saving herself and Hugo from the inquisitors...but forcing the hungry rats over the screaming man while he begged for mercy.
Like I said: A Plague Tale: Innocence might have been the bleakest, darkest game in an E3 full of apocalyptic wastelands.