Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Video games have the unique ability to bring us to new worlds, or to show us what our world was like in times past. These digital historical recreations can educate us about our shared past, entertain us with fanciful historical revisionism, or, in the the case of A Plague Tale: Innocence from Asobo Studio, horrify us.
A Plague Tale spins an oppressively grim story about one of the darkest times in human history, and though it's never quite a horror game, the unrelenting tension and gruesome scenery are a uniquely disturbing backdrop to this puzzle/stealth hybrid.
While the core stealth gameplay doesn’t push any boundaries, and sometimes even wanders into the realm of frustrating and repetitive, the heart of A Plague Tale: Innocence is the tale it tells, and the beautifully hostile environments in which it takes place.
A dark and hostile world
A Plague Tale takes place in an alternate version of the dark ages, in plague ravaged France, where rats have taken over the shadows and threaten to consume everything they touch. That includes you, a young woman named Amicia, and her little brother Hugo. Their privileged lives are destroyed by the plague and the enigmatic and villainous Inquisition, forcing them into the hostile countryside, with only each other to rely on for survival.
While it’s based on a real time period, there are supernatural elements ever present in this version of 14th century Europe. Alchemy and blood magic are commonplace, and these are far from the strangest things you’ll encounter.
The Inquisition, the seemingly militant branch of the church are your primary human foes, alongside the ever present vermin swarm. A Plague Tale: Innocence is not subtle in its repudiation of religion’s role in the Dark Ages, and in fact, there is a lot about the game’s plot that isn’t subtle. The lines between good and evil are very clearly drawn, and as the two main characters delve deeper into the (surprise!) world-ending conspiracy only they can stop, I couldn’t help but think the tale might have better been on a smaller scale. The story of simple survival is compelling enough, without bringing in the impossibly high stakes that have become so commonplace in games.
I wonder if this is a bad guy?
Through the scale of the story might occasionally feel overblown, the smaller moments shared between the characters are not. The writing (and for the most part, translation from French to English) is solid throughout. The tender familial moments shared between brother and sister are convincing, and solidly presented. It’s always a risky proposition having children as protagonists, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being obnoxious or overly sentimental, but it’s deftly maneuvered here. Performances were all around stellar, with Amicia’s English voice actor as a particular standout. These solid performances are critically important for a game so focused on such a small group of people, and it’s clear Asobo prioritized this.
Throughout the adventure other characters will tag along, but they are all children or teenagers, and that makes for an unusual and interesting dynamic. They are young and afraid, but brave in the face of insurmountable odds. Never controlling an adult was a great idea, as it reinforces the underlying desperation that pervades the story, and the sense of triumph when they are occasionally victorious.
The only thing more dangerous that the rat swarm is the dogmatic and self-obsessed fervor of the adults, and that’s a great thematic line that is followed throughout the dozen or so hours of the story.
Where the game really shines is in the level of detail that went into creating a sense of place, and the care put into the character’s interactions with one another. A Plague Tale: Innocence looks all around excellent, with a level of polish and detail you might not expect from a smaller studio with limited resources.
From the grey skies and corpse strewn battlefields, to the putrid center of the rat’s nests, and the opulent cathedrals you’ll visit later in the game, every area you explore is clearly a labor of love, executed with an eye for color and detail that is consistently impressive. The lighter moments of the game (few as there are) have a painterly quality that are a stark contrast to the horrors you’ll encounter later, but the attention to detail is stunning throughout.
That extends to the rats themselves. With some technical wizardry, Asobo has managed to imbue the waves of rats with a purpose of movement and collective intent that I’ve never encountered before. The scale of these swarms continues to escalate, until you’re encountering oceans of the critters, and I never encountered any game breaking bugs or slowdown.
Audio is excellent as well. The constant chirps and squeaks of the rats along side the screams of suffering people pervade even the quiet moments, and the music is very good as well. It’s suitably tense during stealth segments, and the deep strings have a haunting solemnity that perfectly matches the bleak tone of the game.
The lighting is exceptional, which isn’t hugely surprising for a game with such an emphasis on light and darkness, both thematically, and as the core gameplay mechanic. The rats are afraid of light, and almost nothing else, so darkness and light are a critical dynamic on which the game rests.
Familiar stealth gameplay
APT:I is a stealth game with light puzzle elements, and occasional combat. It may sound odd, but gameplay is not neccesarily where A Plague Tale: Innocence shines. The gameplay is perfectly serviceable, but it does fall into the same traps so many stealth games have over the years, and falls to some of the reasons the genre remains so divisive.
Most of these puzzles revolve around staying in the light to keep the rats at bay, mostly by lighting torches or crafting explosives, or sneaking around soldiers and distracting them with sound or an increasingly powerful set of items at your disposal.
Life, death, and sacrifice play a huge part in solving the puzzles you’ll encounter. One particularly gruesome puzzle, for example, involves you being forced to sacrifice a live pig to the rats to survive, while your little brother screams in protest.
This is not a lighthearted game.
As far as gameplay mechanics, there isn’t anything particularly new here, and what is here is pretty straightforward. The puzzles, while occasionally creative, are usually as simple as “move this thing here, light this torch, pull this lever.” Sometimes the environment itself is the puzzle.
As the game goes on, there is more of an emphasis on combat, though it never evolves into anything very complex. It's here the game begins to feel less tense, as the more powerful you become, the less fear you feel playing. I’m a huge fan of empowerment in games, and it is neat to see this timid young girl have more agency, but it also undermines the tension the title has spent so long building.
That said, it is satisfying to watch Amicia gain strength and combat prowess as the game goes on, and the power dynamics do begin to change by the end of the game pretty dramatically. Saying more would be edging in on spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, you will not spend the entire game cowering in fear and hiding.
As with many stealth games, APT:I does suffer a bit from the same weaknesses the genre can’t seem to overcome. That includes occasionally faulty AI that is either blind or hyper vigilant, and frustrating trial and error.
As in the horror genre, repetition kills tension in stealth games. I occasionally found myself unafraid to get caught, as it was sometimes the only way to ascertain the recommended route. Much like Amicia, I began to grow weary of the stealth elements toward the end of the experience. It’s a longer game than it might initially appear, and though there is variation in gameplay, by the end, I was tired of trial and error, and being killed for the tenth time because a guard saw me from across the courtyard in the dead of night.
These are criticisms that apply to the stealth genre as a whole, but this is not the game that fixes these problems.
The crafting elements are also very simple. As you progress through the game you’ll have access to more and more options, from gas that knocks out guards to chemical mixtures that explode and send rats scurrying. Itr’s worth exploring the environments to pick up as much as you can, and you can also upgrade your items, like bags, your slings, etc to make the more powerful.
Like much of the gameplay systems in A Plague Tale: Innocence, these crafting elements are fairly simple and straightforward. The game always makes sure you have enough to get by, and I managed to get through the story without maxing anything out. There are no skill checks really, the game is very hands off about whether or not you choose to engage with the crafting system.
The same is true for collectibles as well. Throughout the chapters, you can find items that Amicia will add to her collection. Some are relevant to the story, family heirlooms and the like, others are flowers for Hugo’s budding interest in botany. I don’t know that there’s any reward for collecting everything other than the satisfaction of completing the index and probably an achievement or two, but it does add some light replayability to the title.
Simply, beautifully told
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a straightforward experience from a gameplay perspective, but that’s not a weakness. Instead of attempting to do everything as seems to be the direction many AAA titles are moving, it has a much more focused approach.
It’s lean. There’s no reason to replay it other than to experience the story again, no branching dialogue, fishing mini-games, or real skill tree to speak of. A Plague Tale knows what it wants to do, and does it well. It’s a dark tale, set in a very dark time, with expertly crafted environments, disturbing moments, and a thread of hope and perseverance running throughout . For fans of compelling and lovingly crafted single player experiences, A Plague Tale is a breath of fresh air.
Though it occasionally suffers from the same issues that have always plagued the stealth genre, it is absolutely worth experiencing, and is an incredibly strong original IP. I hope it does well, not just because I’d like to see more in this world and from this developer, but because I want to see the artistically ambitious single player, narrative driven structure continue to blossom in an increasingly multiplayer focused industry.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a great example of what a dedicated team with a very clear artistic vision can create, and I highly recommend you experience it for yourself.
Just make sure you keep you stay out of the shadows.