When I previewed A Plague Tale Innocence’s first three chapters earlier this year I loved what I saw. An action-adventure title set in 14th century France, starring two children plagued by both rats and the Inquisition doesn’t sound like a home run.
But it is. It really is.
A Plague Tale Innocence is a brilliant, complex and engaging game. It never falters in its confident telling of the De Rune family’s story and aside from some very minor niggles, the gameplay matches the narrative stride for stride.
A Plague Tale Innocence Review
It begins with a tragedy that forces Amicia and Hugo to flee their home. Away from the safety of their parents, Amicia and Hugo are alone in a dangerous world and only have each other.
At only five years old, Hugo, suffering from a mystery affliction, has been sheltered from the world and his sister. Thrust together as strangers, their only connection is the familial one. Amicia takes Hugo under her wing and does her best to keep him safe.
Hugo, despite being away from home, hunted and in a very dangerous situation is full of wonder. Nearly everything is new to him and his sheltered upbringing and youth conspire to make him innocently ignorant of the true nature of his world.
Asobo Studio has pulled off an incredible feat with the De Rune twins in that each of them represents the player’s journey through A Plague Tale Innocence. Amicia is the player’s confidence, knowledge of gaming and existing skills.
Hugo, on the other hand, is the player’s unfamiliarity with the subject matter, the story and the game world. They go hand in hand to create a brilliant dichotomous experience that grows and evolves as you play.
Another amazing facet of A Plague Tale Innocence is the cadence at which the story unfolds. At the same time, new gameplay elements, abilities and items are introduced in concert. A Plague Tale Innocence is very nearly flawlessly paced, both in terms of narrative and gameplay and that’s a damn near impossible achievement.
Sticks and Stones
A Plague Tale Innocence’s gameplay has three main pillars; stealth, puzzle solving and combat.
Each of these pillars is used to push the narrative, move the twins through the world and keep the player engaged. As you move through the game, these gameplay elements are constantly changing and improving to ensure the experience doesn’t get dull.
Being pursued by the Inquisition and being only children, Amicia and Hugo have no choice but to sneak past those seeking to do them harm; at least initially. Armed with her trusty sling, Amicia is unable to go toe-to-toe with soldiers in armour and instead, she and her brother make use of long grass and distractions to get by unscathed.
Asobo has made a wise decision with A Plague Tale Innocence, in that Hugo stays by Amicia’s side unless otherwise directed. This means that when you’re sneaking around, Hugo and Amicia are essentially one and the same which prevents the game from breaking your immersion by having Hugo somehow invisible to enemies.
While sneaking, Amicia’s sling makes too much noise and draws too much attention, so instead, she’s able to lob pebbles and pots to create distractions. By hitting various objects — armour, pots, etc — with a pebble or by tossing and breaking a pot, Amicia can create opportunities to pass without incident.
In the early stealth sections, you’ll find yourself in the rhythm of hiding, waiting, distracting and moving. The one issue with these sections is that the enemies are really dumb. They won’t see you unless they’re practically standing on top of you and will give up searching far too quickly.
I know, it’s a video game but with such wonderful world building on display, it’s a shame for such video game silliness to creep in.
It’s Still a Game
The stealth and combat sections tend to go hand-in-hand in A Plague Tale Innocence. As you progress, you’ll have collected materials with which to craft and upgrade your equipment. You’ll have also learned special alchemical techniques to craft special items.
These include something to start fires, something to extinguish fires, something to dissolve helmets and something to attract rats. Through learning and using these items stealth and combat evolve and shift. Instead of simply sneaking past, Amicia and Hugo have ways to fight back and stealth becomes a means to get into place to take out the soldiers.
Enemies without helmets are able to be taken out by Amicia’s sling and enemies of any type, no matter how armoured are not safe from the swarms of rats infesting France. By making clever use of the environment and the items in your inventory, each encounter becomes a self-contained puzzle.
Should there be a soldier carrying a torch, simply smash it with a rock and watch as the rats devour him. If there are torches and bonfires keeping them safe, extinguish them to set the rats free.
Even though A Plague Tale Innocence is entirely linear, each encounter can be tackled in multiple ways depending on your preferred playstyle and/or inventory.
When Amicia and Hugo aren’t avoiding or cleverly murdering the Inquisition soldiers they’re doing one of two other things. Exploring or keeping away from the rats.
There’s a fair bit of danger-free exploration in A Plague Tale Innocence. Think of the sections in Uncharted where Drake and Sully chat, progress the story and simply walk around taking in the world around them. A Plague Tale Innocence has a lot of this.
And it’s really great. In these sections, you learn about the siblings, about the other characters you meet, what’s happening in the world and what people think about the Inquisition and the plague of rats.
The rats are something else entirely.
Throughout the game, there are sections that see you having to make your way through the swarm without being eaten. The rats are afraid of light, so Amicia and Hugo need to stay close to torches and fire. If they stray too far from a source of light, the rats very quickly gobble them up. These sections see you having to create pathways through the rats and make your way to safety.
Doing so is generally pretty straightforward, but the seething, whirling masses of black rats always kept me on edge and gave these sections a touch of anxiety.
I don’t want to give too much away as lots of the best gameplay mechanics and moments come from plot points that would be considered spoilers. Rest assured, as I said before, the plot and gameplay move and evolve together ensuring nary a dull moment.
It’s difficult to speak too much about the story in A Plague Tale Innocence as it’s one that benefits from experience rather than telling. Saying too much about anything that happens has the potential to reduce the impact on players and thus lessen things overall.
I will say though that the way the narrative gradually changes reminds me of the Boiling Frog. It’s subtle and slow, but by the end of A Plague Tale Innocence, the things that are happening are far, far removed from what you see in the beginning.
If it wasn’t for the journey, later events would feel like a hard left turn into madness.
Thankfully, Asobo Studio has laid the groundwork for every story beat and by the end, I was so invested that the bonkers stuff that was happening all felt right. You’ll see, trust me.
A Plague Tale Innocence is a game that’s come out of nowhere to surprise the hell out of me.
It’s easily one of the most ambitious titles I’ve seen in a while and certainly a massive success in terms of storytelling and gameplay. While it doesn’t really do anything we’ve not seen before, the care that’s gone into its creation means it’s something truly special.
I’ve not connected, on a personal level, with characters in a video game as easily or as deeply as the de Rune twins since God of War. Amicia and Hugo felt like my own children and amazingly, avoid being annoying, stupid brats like many other children in movies, TV and games before them.
So deep was my connection to them both that the first time in-game Amicia ventured off without Hugo I felt a surge of anxiety at his absence.
This one may not be on your radar but it should be. It’s a masterclass in emotional storytelling and absolutely top-notch in making narrative and gameplay compliment one another.
If you’re a fan of single-player, story-driven action adventure games then A Plague Tale Innocence may be the best game you’ll play all year.
A Plague Tale Innocence was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: A Plague Tale Innocence