A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE intends to bring meaning back to death. It tells a familial and grim fairytale of survival set in 14th century, wartime, plague-ridden France. Its premise is as original as its setting and is, for the most part, a success.
A Plague Tale: Innocence Review | One player, two characters
You play as the young Amicia, a highborn teenage girl who is forced to flee her family estate with her younger brother Hugo due to the English invaders knocking at (down) their gate. Hugo himself is sick with a disease and is generally defenseless to the world. The moment to moment gameplay of A Plague Tale has you navigating through dangerous environments, solving puzzles and hiding from the Inquisition hunting you down.
You’re armed only with a slingshot which, after a bit of wind up time, can be used to break locks, lamps and the unprotected heads of enemy soldiers. If they’re wearing an armored helmet, things become a bit more complicated. If an enemy spots you and gets within melee range, you’re dead. If that enemy has a ranged weapon? You’re dead. Your objective is to progress, not to kill, sometimes the best strategy is to avoid bloodshed. Sometimes. A Plague Tale is a stealth and puzzle game where face-to-face confrontation never ends well.
A Plague Tale: Innocence Review | Quiet as a rat
The stealth itself is simple and intuitive. Avoid the light and move through tall grass to remain hidden, throw bottles and rocks to distract guards, etc. It does the job and it’s always clear what you can and cannot get away with. While a wholly linear game, aside from an alley or two to explore, most enemy encounters or scenarios are open questions allowing the player to answer in a number of different ways. A knight blocks your route, what do you do? Knock out a lamp allowing the nearby rat swarm to deal with him? Sneak up behind the guy and suffocate them with a specially crafted and valuable powder? Or just cause a distraction with a bottle, moving him out of your path unharmed? A Plague Tale has an almost oxymoronic design, balancing player freedom inside its linear nature.
The game’s big stars are the aforementioned legion of rats infesting France. They will consume everything and anything, living or dead, the only thing they don’t like, is light. Light is the only place you are safe. Throughout the game your relationship with the deadly creatures changes as you learn to understand their behavior. They’re simultaneously the biggest obstacle in your path and the greatest tool in your arsenal, after hours of dealing with them, when you feel most sure of your control the rule book is kicked out the door. It’s a dangerous world and things are always changing.
A Plague Tale: Innocence Review | Fight or flight
There’s an incredibly interesting dynamic at play between the main character Amicia, you the player, and your shared vulnerability to the game’s world. Every foe you encounter is stronger than you. Amicia does not have the power or experience to fight them, after all before now she would never have dreamed of killing another person.
It’s hardly the first game that runs on the narrative of “Innocent character must grow and learn to survive” and usually after the first 30 minutes this thread swiftly comes to an end because you’re given two automatic weapons and a shotgun (Tomb Raider reboot). But A Plague Tale is a narrative driven game, much of its appeal, and success, is reliant on this parallel relationship between the player and Amicia to carry it through to the end credits. Fortunately, it handles this brilliantly.
While you do unlock various different craftable items you can use throughout the game, you’re never given the power to run around with abandon. You’re always just a young girl against an army, your Video Game Protagonist status is kept in check. The only way to survive is to outsmart them. Sometimes you’ll fail, but the checkpoint system will ensure you’ll never lose more than a minute or two of progress.
A Plague Tale: Innocence Review | Layers of beauty
As these screenshots show, A Plague Tale is a rich and beautiful game. Different chapters feature distinct color palettes, from the openings crisp colors of Autumn to the dark muddy nights and the first snowfall on a winter’s morning, the environments and weather are varied and ensure the darkest moments still instill dread right up to the finale.
There are moments throughout the game, where the sight before you, combined with Olivier Deriviere’s (Vampyr) score stops you in your tracks. A wondrous sight of a dilapidated castle on the horizon behind a curtain of the rain, or emerging over a hill’s peak and seeing the horrible aftermath of a tremendous battle, thousands of unidentifiable corpses making it impossible to discern the winner outside of the rats. And it’s these moments, as Amicia leads her younger brother by the hand, that will stick with you.
A Plague Tale: Innocence Review | Lost in complication
A Plague Tale‘s bigger pitfall is when it tries too much, and moves from a personal story into a grand tale of alchemy, religious fanatics, conspiracy and repeating ancient history. The game is at its best when characters are trading words back and forth as they help one another complete a puzzle or sneak their way through a camp. When the young cast share in one another’s fears, confide and try to reassure each other while nearby rats devour a soldier’s corpse accompanied by a long, haunting, cello note. In these moments the atmosphere is phenomenal, everything that does help build towards this is unnecessary noise.
It’s a shame that so much time and attention is wasted on the grand plot when the simpler, more human tale is its true strength. You’re invested in the characters who have been thrust into the cruel world of adults and war. You’re invested in how Amicia is coping with the sins she had to commit in order to survive and to protect her family. You’re invested in how she tries to explain all of this to Hugo and create a new life. This is great. But don’t expect people to then care about what the pope and a bishop are up to halfway into the game. Your focus ends up getting spread too thin, and the game suffers for it, you don’t get the emotional pay off the game had been building towards because it’s more interested in tying up an unnecessary plot thread.
A Plague Tale tells a tale about human cruelty, the loss of innocence, survival, and family via its beautiful visual and imaginative level design, but it feels like near the game’s end confidence was lost in this vision. It gets in its own way by deciding that something bigger was needed to keep the player’s attention. It’s a sour end to an otherwise great game.
GameRevolution reviewed A Plague Tale: Innocence with a copy provided by the publisher.