I LOVE that in 2019 it’s viable for a videogame to be about the Black Death and plague rats in 14th Century France. Obviously, there’s a little more to A Plague Tale Innocence, but the Black Death, rats and France are important cornerstones.
The French connection is an obvious one for Asoboa Studio, being based in Bordeaux. It’s also an incredibly volatile and interesting time and place for A Plague Tale Innocence to be set in. From the information released so far, the gameplay trailers and behind-the-scenes looks, it’s been hard to discern exactly what kind of game A Plague Tale Innocence is.
After having spent a few hours playing the opening chapters, I now know.
A Plague Tale Innocence Preview
At its heart, A Plague Tale Innocence is a story-driven, action-adventure. It has stealth elements, puzzle solving and even some third-person combat. For the most part, it’s about experiencing the story of siblings Amicia and Hugo De Rune.
This brother and sister duo set out from their family home under tragic circumstances in a bid to find a cure for the mystery illness afflicting Hugo. While primarily in control of Amicia, you essentially control both De Rune children. Hugo is so young and sheltered that for most of your play time he’s clutching Amicia’s hand and standing by her side. When he’s not, he’s wondering at the world around him, exploring on his own or helping Amicia to reach areas that are otherwise inaccessible.
To survive A Plague Tale Innocence you need to ensure that both children survive and sometimes it’s not easy. A large part of the gameplay involves sneaking, hiding and moving past people who want to do you harm. Thanks to the rampant spread of the Black Death, people are suspicious of outsiders and driven mad from the grief of loss.
That makes Huge and Amicia easy scapegoats.
In these sequences when you’re being hunted you’ll have to run away from those seeking to do you harm. These moments are reminiscent of those in Tomb Raider, though, without the jumps and explosions. You’ll need to lead Amicia and Hugo away from the bad guys, down narrow streets and into buildings to escape. When your location is unknown, you’ll need to crouch and sneak past people.
You’re able to create distractions by throwing rocks and pots and you can send Hugo through narrow gaps to unlock doors and let you through. Other sections of A Plague Tale Innocence have you throwing rocks with your sling. You can knock things down or remove an enemies armour. Hitting people in the head with your sling will kill them, though this is rare. Amicia is a child and she’s not a killing machine. That’s now what this game is about. It’s about survival.
And it’s not just people who want to do you harm. Swarms and I mean SWARMS of rats are keen to feast on your flesh. In one section of the preview, Hugo and Amicia have to make their way through a church crypt. As they’re walking, the walls start to bulge and a flood of black, writhing rats with glowing eyes pour into the corridor from all angles. These plague rats are insane with hunger and pretty much just insane. Their only weakness is light. Sources of light push the swarm back, like Moses parting the red sea.
But there’s no stopping them, not really.
Stick to the Light
Should you wander into an unlit area when rats are nearby, you die. It’s in these sections that A Plague Tale Innocence embraces its puzzle-solving elements. To navigate the rat-filled crypt you need to knock torches down, light them and guide Hugo, all while staying in the light and avoiding the dark. It offers a nice reprieve from the running and hiding, but there’s no real safety in the game.
At every turn, there’s danger, something that wants to kill you and no real chance to rest. This becomes a problem as Hugo’s illness presents in ‘attacks’ that incapacitate him for a few moments. He can’t walk or talk and he is simply immobile. Usually, these attacks come at the most inopportune times, which leads to more running, hiding and escape.
So while, at its core, it’s an action-adventure game, A Plague Tale Innocence is really the story of these siblings, their journey and their growth together. It’s incredibly clever of Asobo to have Hugo stick so closely to Amicia. From the very beginning, I felt responsible for him and I had an overwhelming urge to protect him.
An Emotional Journey
It’s not uncommon to connect with and empathise with characters in videogames, but it’s rare to so quickly become attached. Kudos to Asobo for crafting a real, believable relationship and one that so easily appeals to our parental or fraternal tendencies. It helps greatly that the France depicted in the game is both beautiful and horrific at the same time. The rolling hills and trees of the countryside and the forests are gorgeous.
The light filtering through the leaves and reflecting off the muddy ground and rivers is really quite stunning to look at. Even the villages are pretty in their own way. Based on real, medieval villages, the streets are narrow, cobbled and undulating. The further you go, the uglier the world gets. The plague, the people, the dirt and the muck. It all starts to be more prevalent. The world becomes more oppressive and it does so in-step with the story beats.
The worse things get for the children, the uglier the world gets. And the inverse is true. When you escape from something terrible, you emerge into the light, into the clean and fresh light of day, safe. At least for a moment.
While it’s difficult to say whether Asobo will be able to maintain the pace and flow of the story beats and gameplay, if it does, A Plague Tale Innocence could very well be one of the best-told stories in gaming this year. I’m definitely very keen to see the De Runes’ story play out and see how Amicia and Hugo survive.
A Plague Tale Innocence preview was played on PC using a code provided by the publisher. It will be available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One on May 14, 2019.