Setting a game in the middle of the plague-infested French countryside might not have mainstream appeal of World War II or other more exciting historical event, but it’s an inspired choice by Asobo Studios. A Plague Tale: Innocence follows the story of teenage girl Amicia and her younger brother Hugo in the late Middle Ages, forced to go on the run through a country that’s being ravaged by the Black Death and war.
Though it might initially appear that Amicia of the De Rune family is enjoying the benefits of an idyllic and peaceful aristocratic upbringing, it soon becomes clear that her family life is not as hunky-dory as it seems. Her brother Hugo is confined to his room with their mother locked away with him in quarantine, trying to cure a mysterious disease that causes him to have seizures. Their world is turned on its head when the Inquisition unexpectedly come knocking, murdering everyone in their way as they hunt for Hugo, including their parents.
I’m not a fan of ‘babysitting’ in games, but thankfully the siblings have been written extremely well. Hugo is actually quite sweet and only really has one little tantrum. As he’s been locked in his room for most of his life there are some great moments as he discovers more about the world, encountering animals he has never seen with a wonderful questioning innocence.
Amicia starts the game as a rather privileged young lady, but gradually hardens and adapts as the story progresses. She is equipped with a sling that can fling projectiles to light or extinguish flames, and can, as a last resort, be used to kill certain enemies. Unlike a certain Tomb Raider, the act of killing really hits Amicia hard and she never delights in the act. It’s only in the closing chapters of the story where her anger boils over.
The story is really well paced with moments of action, tension, and quiet reflection spread throughout. You’re controlling Amicia for the majority of the game, leading her brother through the levels by hand, initially in search of a physician named Laurentius, who’s the only man that might be able to cure Hugo. There’s a lot of twists and turns in the story that see the two joined by other characters. A pair of orphan robbers join her band, as does a junior physician and young blacksmith, and when they set up base camp in an abandon chateau there’s almost a Famous Five feel as the young adults set out to defeat the grown ups.
Each chapter has a number of set pieces, the most common being stealth sections which find you creeping through forests, camps, or castles, distracting soldiers by throwing pots or smashing stones against piles of armour. There’s nothing particularly new or original about these, but they’re well executed with multiple routes to success and they’re also genuinely tense. Other times you will find yourself being chased through tight village streets or solving environmental puzzles. Again, they’re not revolutionary and aren’t that taxing – only one of them had be stumped for a few minutes – but they are fun and allow the characters to converse and grow on you.
The game’s unique selling point are the hordes of rats, and when they first appear they are truly terrifying. These masses of squeaking, plague-infested, furry hate pour from doorways, ledges and cracks in walls like waterfalls, only kept at bay by their dislike of light. Amicia has to use the puddles of light provided by lanterns or fires to cut paths through the vermin, but can also use light, or more precisely the lack of it, to turn the rats into a weapon. Smash the lantern of an attacking soldier and he will instantly be swarmed by the vermin and eaten alive, and you can eventually throw a substance at the soldiers which acts as bait to the squeaking nightmares. Either method results in a lot of screaming as the enemies are eaten alive.
If that sounds gruesome, it’s because it is. The game does not shy away from the horror of encountering half-eaten corpses, an entire battlefield of dead bodies to walk over, or a horse that is convulsing and pulsating as rats eat it from the inside out. Hugo, Amicia, and the other characters aren’t spared the horror; fail and Hugo will scream as he is eaten by rats, get too close to an enemy and Amicia gets a sword in the stomach. It is really quite graphic at times.
While the game is initially set in a realistic world, a number of fantastical elements are slowly introduced. Most of them are not too far fetched to be jarring with the realism of the rest of the story, but one is rather silly when you first encounter it. I won’t spoil these moments, but clear references to the movie Aliens were not something I was expecting from a game set in fourteenth century France! It still works, unlike the Hellblade-esque dream sequence, which could really have done with being more spooky and horrific.
The music throughout the game is really excellent and complements the time period. Drums quietly thud like heart beats and strings scrape and whine during tense sections, while quieter moments are accompanied by lilting plucked melodies. The graphics have similarly been inspired by classical painters with the soft, almost fuzzy palette resulting in some truly breathtaking images. We’re talking Naughty Dog levels of gorgeousness here with some vistas looking like they are painted rather rendered by a game engine.
The game takes around ten to twelve hours to complete, depending on how much exploring you do, and that’s just the right length for me. Any longer and the story would have outstayed its welcome, but if you do want to get more out of the game, there are three sets of collectables to discover. I finished my first play through with about a third of the trinkets, so there’s obviously quite a few places hidden areas I missed, even though I thought I had covered most spots.