I picked up A Plague Tale: Innocence on PC this last December when Steam nominated it as one of their top picks for best story-based games of 2019 (spoiler alert, it won!) and after playing, it’s easy to see why.
I actually wrote this review months ago, but I’ve held off on posting it because of Covid-19. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to recommend a game about a horrible plague wiping out the better part of Europe during an actual pandemic. I didn’t want to encourage any media that would add to the fear that’s already pervading our day to day life.
I’ve been thinking about it though and I realized that for me, (and probably a lot of other people,) getting to face a fictional plague in a video game can be a sort of exposure therapy. It allowed me to face a source of anxiety in a controlled environment.
It can also be a good salve for those looking to find games like The Last of Us Part II.
Enough real-world drama though. Let’s get into A Plague Tale: Innocence’ game-play.
It’s an action adventure game with heavy, stealth based, horror-survival elements.
You play as Amicia de Rune, the young daughter of 14th century nobles who must leave her family home and attempt to unravel the mysteries of her little brother Hugo’s mysterious illness, evading both the purge of religious inquisitors and a sea of plague spreading rats.
One of the amazing things about this game is how fragile you feel as Amicia. The inquisitors aren’t especially large or inhuman like the enemies you might encounter in games like God of War or Dark Souls, but they feel impossible to overcome sheerly by virtue of being full sized adults. The game subtly reinforces this with the wide, powerful strides the inquisitors take and the heavy clanging of their armor with each powerful step.
In fact, there’s no hand to hand combat what-so-ever. If Amicia ever gets close enough to be caught, she dies. You do learn to craft an item later in the game that allows her to escape, but it requires a lot of precious ingredients to make and the game only allows you to carry one at a time. Combat is generally fought from a distance as Amicia can kill enemies by hitting them in the head with her sling. You have to be careful though. Some of them wear helmets which must be removed before Amicia can kill them. Not only that, but enemies will hear your sling and come to investigate fallen comrades. They’re much more difficult to hit when they’re charging after you. It’s best to stay hidden.
Then there’s the rats…
Rodents in this game aren’t like the friendly little fellows you see running on wheels at your local pet store. Imagine tiny swarms of the zombies from World War Z that piled on top of each other to get over the wall of Jerusalem and you’ll be a lot closer to the mark. Your only saving grace is that they can’t go into the light. Torches and braziers create safe areas for you to navigate through the seas of infected ankle biters. A lot of the game involves either using sources to get through rat infested areas, or else solving puzzles where you have to use the light in order to manipulate the rats into scurrying where you need them to be. One step into the shadows however and they’ll eat you alive in seconds.
A Plague Tale: Innocence’ story isn’t overly complex, but it is interesting enough to keep the pace moving and there are a few surprise-beats that definitely hold the player’s attention. The villains are properly intimidating and the bits of lore that you pick up as you explore go a long way toward fleshing out the world.
Amicia finds these collectables that the game splits up into three categories; gifts, curiosities and alchemical carts. They are little pieces of 14th century history and medical knowledge that give some really good insight into the mindset of the people in that era and how equipped they would have been to handle a disease like this.
Likewise, Hugo loves to find and collect flowers. He tells you what each of them symbolize and even some of their medicinal properties. These moments also help show Hugo’s innocence. His mother taught him herbalism, and seeing a new flower is one of the few times you see him run ahead of you on the path, his childish excitement overcoming his fear.
The sibling’s relationship is tricky. Hugo was sick from a young age and their mother, who was an accomplished alchemist, kept him sealed away in a tower while she worked to develop a cure for him. This means that the two barely know each other even though they are brother and sister and they were raised in the same house. It also means that Hugo has a hard time trusting Amicia and Amicia is somewhat jealous that Hugo got so much more time with their mother.
Amicia feels a strong sense of responsibility for Hugo, but she also feels unequipped to take care of him and a little resentful that the responsibility was thrust on her. She’s brave and clever, pushing herself and her brother forward even when faced with the most terrifying of situations.
Hugo is a little kid and he acts exactly how you would expect a little kid to act. He likes flowers, frequently asks about their mother and gets scared when Amicia isn’t holding his hand.
There is also a small cast of side characters that aren’t quite as developed as the de Rune siblings, but still give you more than enough information to get a good sense of who they are and to care about their safety. There are sections of the game where they work with you, and you can command them to use their own unique abilities in order to bypass situations that Amicia and Hugo would not be able to get through on their own.
These kids are so endearing and believable that you can’t help but become invested in their safety. Keeping them alive isn’t just a qualifier for beating the game, it’s something that you’re emotionally invested in. You find yourself tensing up during moments of stress because you want so badly for them to succeed.
This is exactly how a narrative should work in a game. The mechanical tension of potentially losing your character is amplified by your emotional attachment to her. You want Amicia and Hugo to survive because you actually care about them and not just so you can get to the next chapter.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the soundtrack. The music is beautiful, haunting and tense all at the same time. The low chorus of string instruments, which are interrupted by panicked scratching, sets the tone for each scene. I haven’t seen many other games utilize sound design this well.
I know there’s a lot going on in the world right now and a story about disease is probably the last thing some of you want to spend your free time on, but this game is something special. I’d really hate for you to miss out and as I mentioned earlier, it might even be therapeutic for some of you.
I mentioned that I picked it up via Steam on PC, but you can also play A Plague Tale: Innocence on PS4 and Xbox One.
Here are some links if you’re interested.
Xbox One: https://amzn.to/2Dyq3f6
Remember to wash your hands, wear a mask and stay safe friends.
Thanks for reading,