After a lengthy run making games under the Microsoft Game Studios banner, including 2016’s ReCore, developer Asobo Studio is joining forces with Focus Home Interactive for the 14th-century adventure game A Plague Tale: Innocence. Featuring a unique period in history and location, it’s time to see if Asobo can take an interesting idea and turn it into a compelling experience.
As Amicia de Rune, you are charged with guiding your little brother, Hugo, to safety. That means much of your time will be spent holding his hand and forcibly leading him. You do have the option to have him stay put, but if there’s danger around he’ll soon become frightened and alert others to your presence. There are also situations where you can tell Hugo, or other companions, to interact with targeted items (such as turning a handle or picking an lock). It’s all handled via the d-pad and the responsiveness is solid.
While this is absolutely not an action game, Amicia isn’t helpless. She packs a sling that can fire rocks and other projectiles for various purposes. Unarmoured enemies can be put down by a rock to the head, whereas sturdier foes can have armour knocked off or be forced to remove their helmet. As you progress you’ll gain access to more ammo types and useful tools, but stealth is almost always the proper approach.
In fact, much of your sling use will be done on inanimate objects as you’ll fire a rock at a chest of armour to draw the attention of a guard, allowing you to pass unseen. You’ll also use it to ignite or extinguish flammable objects, sending the ravenous, plague-infested rats scurrying for the darkness. Progression in A Plague Tale is often tied to properly solving these challenges, making gameplay primarily a mix of stealth and environmental puzzles.
Everything works well when you have time to think about it, but during those rare instances when quick action is needed aiming the sling feels cumbersome and imprecise. The lock-on feature certainly helps, but sometimes you can get stuck targeting the wrong part, especially when dealing with a mobile target.
Set in France circa the 1300s, A Plague Tale populates its world with a mix of natural beauty and violent atrocities — there’s no shortage of corpses, both human and animal, to be found here. There’s an exhilarating emptiness to the world, and though its linear design prevents comparisons to something like Shadow of the Colossus, it did give us a barren feel similar to Hellblade.
Although the world looks threatening, in practice it’s not as harrowing as it might’ve been, especially when you consider how vulnerable your characters are. The rats, which look monstrous, ultimately end up filling a role similar to the kryll in Gears of War, where there’s always a light source just where you need it, and running from danger is only done at predetermined points.
Some of the game’s limitations can be seen during cut scenes when some elements, including faces, end up with a sort of washed out hue that creates a clay-like effect. The voice acting is consistently well done, however, and the performances help bring you into the struggle to survive a brutal world riddled with fear and suspicion.
Returning from a hunting trip with her father, Amicia is sent to bring dark news to her mother, who is sequestered away from the family trying to find a cure for whatever mysterious ailment Amicia’s young brother Hugo suffers from. Before she can tell her mother about the events of the hunt, armed men from the Inquisition arrive searching for Hugo. These men murder Amicia’s family, but she’s able to escape with Hugo to go in search of a doctor.
On the run from the Inquisition, the de Rune children soon learn that the world outside of their estate is dark and perilous. Beyond the human danger, they must also deal with an infestation of rats, which not only carry disease but are also so rabid that they’ll tear apart anything that they can sink their teeth into. Amid all these threats, Amicia must push forward not only to keep her brother from the Inquisition but also to carry on her mother’s search for the cure to Hugo’s illness.
It’s a strong story, and the development of characters and relationships help pull you into the de Rune’s plight. There are times where Hugo will do something detrimental to your survival and you’ll want to toss your controller out of frustration, but then you remember he’s a five-year-old recluse so it’s understandable that he’d be so impulsive and oblivious to the consequences. It’s just one example of the smart writing that highlights what the game has to offer.
Gameplay is a little more uneven. As noted, A Plague Tale consists mostly of environmental puzzles — usually manipulating sources of light to move the rats around — and stealth. That’s a fine combination, but the issue is that there’s usually only one answer, and it often comes down to executing it (rather than “solving” it) to advance, which can feel repetitive after a while. The stealth mechanic feels forgiving, which is good since detection often equals death.
There are some light RPG elements mixed in as you’ll collect resources that can be used to upgrade Amicia in various ways, such as the ability to carry more ammo, move more quietly and forego the need for a bench to create upgrades. Resources are plentiful, perhaps too much so, and are also used in the crafting of potions and ammo.
At around a dozen hours, A Plague Tale: Innocence doesn’t overstay its welcome, using its engaging story and interesting world to compensate for some slightly underwhelming gameplay. It’s well worth your time.