I’ve been keeping an eye on this game since it was first announced, constantly intrigued by its unique concept and its interesting premise. Whilst I had some reservations about its ability to remain captivating, I can safely say that those doubts have been cast aside. Without wasting time, A Plague Tale: Innocence is unlike anything else. Sure, the gameplay could have benefited from a bit more depth, but when all is said and done, the journey at hand offers up a mechanically well balanced affair that rarely fails at keeping you hooked.
The game is based in 12th century France, and opens with a scene that immediately introduces us to Amicia; a young girl who is out in the wild hunting boar with her old man and her family dog. It’s clear that Amicia belongs to a wealthy and loving family, but that soon means very little in the face of what’s to come. You see, whilst outdoors with her father, her dog soon runs from view, seemingly following the scent of the boar that Amicia failed to best. Following in tow, Amicia sets off to find where her dog has run off to.
To her shock, Amicia finds the dog half mutilated and in severe pain, but before either her or her father can help, the dog is pulled underground by an unknown force. Both flee back to their home and order a lock-down, but are abruptly interrupted by the Inquisition. The Inquisition has been sent to retrieve Amicia’s younger brother Hugo, whom Amicia has had very little contact with due to his unexplained medical condition. Following orders from their mother, both Amicia and Hugo are sent on the run as their whole family is butchered.
It soon transpires that, although cruel and murderous, the Inquisition is the least of their troubles. That force that killed the family pet is none other than a swarm of ravenous, disease-ridden rats, and their numbers are vast and plentiful. So much so that they swarm in devastating waves throughout the entirety of the Kingdom of France, able to strip the meat off a person in the space of a blink. Between life threatening dangers, the harsh wasteland that was once a thriving country, and the insanity of many left alive, nowhere is truly safe.
Now, Amicia and Hugo must fend for themselves as they traverse the torn world around them, with no one to trust, and pretty much every step they take coming with the risk that it’s their last. The game’s opening is surprisingly shocking and emotional, and it does a wonderful job at getting you instantly invested in not only its core story, but the many questions that are dumped on your lap from the get-go. Hell, within my first hour of play I had heaps of questions circling around in my head, desperately playing on to find out more.
Where did these rats come from? How are they so seemingly supernatural? What does the inquisition want with Hugo? What’s the heck is even up with Hugo? A Plague Tale: Innocence will constantly toy with your head throughout, and it only gets all the more interesting and entertaining as you venture further in. Given that Amicia and Hugo have had such little contact with one another, the relationship is immediately fragile, and even more so when we take into account that their whole family is now little more than rat food.
Hugo, being much younger than Amicia, doesn’t truly have the insight that’s needed to survive the world around him. He’s now almost completely dependent on Amicia, who seemingly has short bouts of resentment towards Hugo for his oblivious nature. Amicia, on the other hand, is much more in tune with the way of the world, but still quite immature in her own ways. The way that both of these characters are thrust into one another’s company is an outstanding canvas for character growth, which is something that’s always forefront.
Despite the fact that Hugo suffers from an unknown sickness within his head, Amicia is equally as fractured, but being the older sibling, it falls to her to step up and fill the boots of responsibility. She doesn’t have the patience to deal with Hugo’s behavior, nor does she particularly understand Hugo’s ailments. It’s all just thrown at her head-on, and it’s clear that, at least initially, it takes its toll on her. This opens up a considerable amount of dialogue between the two, which although sad and emotional, is very well realized.
What ensues is a journey that’s deep and wholly engaging. A Plague Tale: Innocence is full of horror and beauty of equal measure, mostly born through not only the growth and gradual bond of these siblings, but through their struggles to survive in such a daunting, dangerous world. Like I said, whether it’s angry bloodthirsty villages, unnatural swarms of vermin, or the ever dominating presence of the Inquisition, nowhere is safe for these youngsters to reside. This is a tense tale for the ages, and one that knows exactly how to pace its story.
Primarily, you take on the role of Amicia, however, you’re able to give orders to Hugo throughout the entirety of play via relaying said commands through the use of the D-Pad; stay put, follow, go there, and so forth. This tends to be imperative for progression, being that you’ll oftentimes come up against areas and structures in which only Hugo can access. For instance, should you come up against a locked house, you’ll send Hugo through a small window to unlock the home’s door from the inside, allowing Amicia to gain access herself.
On the flip-side, Amicia is able to perform the bulk of pretty much everything else. She comes equipped with a sling, and will often use it for defensive and tactical measures. This normally consists of distracting guards by flinging rocks at metals, allowing you to guide Amicia and Hugo safely by as said guards are seeking out the source of the noise. Occasionally, you’ll need to defend yourself through direct combat via the sling; lobbing large rocks at an enemy’s skull, often killing them on the spot as you cave in their heads.
It’s important to know when to (and when not to) use your sling. You see, your sling makes a fairly loud whooshing noise when you use it, which will attract the attention of nearby foes. This risk is completely alleviated when you throw rocks by hand, giving you quite a healthy dollop of choice when it comes to sussing out how to maneuver around each and every area undetected. Do you sneak by the ten guards stationed around you, or, do you gradually pick off the unarmored guards to lessen the load off the need for stealth?
Things work much differently when you’re up against the swarms of rats. On a very frequent and unpredictable basis, hordes of vermin will descend upon you in no time at all, and the only defensive measure you have is light. The rats hate the light, and will never cross from the shadows into it. The game uses this feature remarkably well to produce some very intricate environmental puzzles. These puzzles get more innovative as progression is made, and soon, you’ll find yourself spending excess amounts of time working out what to do.
The solution to each problem is rarely straightforward, and you’ll oftentimes need to think outside the box or pay close attention to your surroundings to get by unscathed. See a hanging light? Flick a rock at it to wobble it, allowing you to move in unity with the waving source of light. Surrounded by rats with nowhere else to go? Shoot your sling at a patrolling enemy’s torch to have the rats descend on them whilst you sneak by. These are very basic examples that you’ll meet early on. Later on in, you’ll have much more to contend with.
It’s here where the game truly begins to ramp up. You’ll find yourselves up against brain teasers that see you employing stealth, combat, and everything in between in rapid succession, making for bursts of frantic bouts of play. Furthermore, the AI is crazy smart. There’s no way to cheaply circumvent their roles here, as is a flaw that’s present in many games of the same kind. They’ll investigate suspicious noise and activity, and if you take the piss, they’ll go over their stations with a fine comb, and even call out for some help.
Their perceptional awareness is spot on, which largely ensures that you’re always treading on egg shells. It’s also quite fascinating to observe their movement patterns, their behaviors, and their dialogue, which constantly fluctuates in interesting ways. The rats, not so much. They’ll just feast on you to the bone if you so much as step a toe in the shadows. Mercifully, death isn’t at all punishing in this game. Thanks to a generous checkpoint system, you’re normally thrown straight back into the fray not too far from your last failed attempt.
Most of the game’s core mechanics are relayed to you throughout the first few hours of play, but new mechanics are introduced at a decent pace to keep things interesting. Starting out, you have little more than the ability to use your sling and throw objects to distract folk. However, things soon get interesting once you start unlocking igniter rocks, sleeping powder, and much more besides. For each new tool you get, the game makes a habit of taking its intricacy up notch once it’s fed you into understanding how each gadget works.
Sleeping powder is fairly self explanatory, and works wonders against guards that are kitted in full armor, saving you the trouble of needing to sneak by their view when combat is out of the question. Igniter rocks, however, are useful for lighting torches and fire pits from afar, allowing you to clear a path that keeps you save from the red-eyed evils. Much like the stellar puzzle design, the ways in which you’ll use these new additions will usually vary as you climb deeper into the fray. That’s not to mention that crafting system that’s in place.
Whilst far from in-depth, you’ll be able to craft new equipment and stronger variations of said equipment via crafting stations, and through the use of using materials that you’ll scavenge on your natural path. You can indeed craft some items on the fly should you own the correct materials too, but this usually consists of bulking up your ammo count. It’s a relatively straightforward system overall. In fact, that’s the only drawback here. A Plague Tale: Innocence would have greatly benefited from some more depth to its gameplay.
Whilst it does a good job at keeping you on your toes through constantly throwing new puzzles and tricky scenarios your way, the crux of play never really alters. The majority of your time is spent either fleeing, taking part in some light combat, or working out how to get out of a sticky situation; be it with an area full of guards, an area full of rats, or a mixture of both. That said, I cant ever say that the game grew tiresome or became boring, it just would have been great to see a little more variation, or more depth per-encounter.
That very small gripe to the side, the game’s intelligent blend of action, adventure, and stealth, pulls through at each and every turn. The game is laid out in such a way that you can usually utilize a number of different routes and tactics to get to where you need to be, making for a decent and somewhat open framework on a level-by-level basis. On that note, each and every area is a puzzle in itself, and you’ll need to be constantly mindful of the fact that you’re playing as two children that are wholly, and desperately out of their depth.
This alone is where much of the tension is formulated. You always feel vulnerable and against all odds, even when you’ve maxed out your inventory, you’re a fish out of water. It’s a concept that many games attempt to replicate across many genres, and to witness Asobo achieving this with such fluidity and ease, well, frankly, it speaks volumes. The bottom line in all of this is that A Plague Tale: Innocence is exactly as advertised, and, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that it succeeds at almost everything that it sets out to achieve.
It’s a fantastic puzzler, a sophisticated stealth game, and comes tied to an utterly captivating script. If you’ve even been slightly interested in any of its promotional content, you owe it to yourselves to pick this up. I daresay that it sits up there with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in regards to its distinction and quality. Throughout all of that, and despite how much action can fill the screen at any given time, the performance of the game is flawless on not only the Xbox One X, but the Xbox One S and the Xbox One. There’s not a technical issue in sight.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is broken into just shy of twenty chapters, and will take roughly fifteen to twenty hours to complete on a fairly moderate run. There’s some replay value to be found through seeking out the game’s many collectibles, all of which come with fairly rich descriptions that get added to the game’s codex once you’ve obtained them. You’re free to access the chapter select and play from any chapter that you’ve completed through the main menu, allowing you swift access to mop up any collectibles you may have missed.
In regards to the game’s visual and audio design, A Plague Tale: Innocence gets two big thumbs up. The care and attention to detail is remarkable, and the variation from area to area equally as such. This easily rivals, and perhaps even surpasses the likes of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, offering gorgeously designed locales that are fascinating to chart. It helps, of course, that the game sounds as good as it looks. Everything from the voice acting through to the soundtrack is fittingly distinct and utterly outstanding from start to finish.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is grim, dark, and constantly provocative, and yet, it effortlessly manages to remain emotionally radiant throughout. This isn’t just another survival game, it’s a tale that consistently and articulately interlaces beauty with brutality to excellent effect. Whilst the gameplay could have benefited from a bit more depth, the overall journey is mechanically well balanced, and to its credit, unlike anything else. This, is a must have.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.