#136: A Plague Tale: Innocence
Initial release: May 14, 2019
Platforms: PlayStation 4, XBox One, PC
Developer: Asobo Studio
There seems to be a recent trend of quasi-horrorish games set in the distant past. There’s a lot to explore in history, and Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence brings the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death to a gorgeous, creepy life.
The year is 1348. The hundred years war has been raging for a decade. The Black Death has appeared and is ravaging Europe. And, somewhere in France, the Inquisition is hunting a little boy who has a strange, vaguely defined disease, and it’s up to his big sister to protect him.
Right away you can tell this isn’t your ordinary medieval story. This isn’t a story of brave knights fighting against evil. Much of the primary cast, including Amicia the protagonist, are women, and Amicia especially has a level of agency most medieval settings don’t grant women.
While the story touches on class conflict (Amicia and her brother Hugo have lived pampered lives compared to the young thieves who rescue them) it dodges questions of medieval sexism and religious oppression in its attempt to tell a story about family with supernatural elements. Amicia and Hugo are well developed, and it’s their relationship and conflicts that drive the story. There’s also Melie and Arthur, twin thieves who grew up in harsh conditions to become master thieves, looting the corpses left behind by war, famine and pestilence. Rounding out the cast are Lucas, the young alchemist’s apprentice who, following the death of his father-figure master, must learn to follow in his footsteps, and Rodric, who brings skills learned from his blacksmith father who was killed by the Inquisition. This theme of carrying on from the parents extends to Amicia and Hugo; Amicia takes after her knight father, killed early on, but she also has Alchemical knowledge taught by her mother that comes in handy in gameplay. For his part, Hugo has an encyclopedic knowledge of flowers.
In all honesty, this motley bunch of kids (Amicia and Rodric are probably the oldest at maybe 18 or 19; Hugo is 5) present a more interesting dynamic than almost the entire rest of the game. The inquisition are weird and culty, the english are a bunch of goons, etc. Unfortunately, plot must march on, and Hugo’s vague disease seems to be key to, and the cure for, the objectively unnatural swarm of rats that are coating France in a sea of black fur and shining eyes, bursting through stone walls and floors and filling entire pits.
And therein lies the central gimmick of the game: the rats present an environmental hazard in ways similar to a zombie movie; they are billions, and must be managed. They fear light, and much of the game’s puzzles involve using light to move rats around. You can also use them to your advantage — douse a light and they’ll swarm any enemy caught out of bounds, chewing him down to bone in a matter of seconds. The game introduces you to new concepts when necessary, and you’ll be using all of them. There’s a great moment where an English trooper is caught in a gate at the end of a tunnel. as you push a swarm of forward with your torch, they move towards him. You can save him by lighting a torch near him before continuing on, making them avoid him, and he’s grateful for it — but you don’t have to save him if you don’t want to.
The rat gimmick is probably the best part of the game. It’s what gives the game its unique vibe; the rats are, quite frankly, terrifying, and pushing them around is a fairly unique way of creating puzzles. Between this and the long walks you have a solid game. Except… the combat is butt. The game draws a lot of elements from The Last Of Us, including combat, but unlike in that game, the combat is is dreadful. While you can dodge most things in stealth, there are portions where you have to fight, and these are the worst parts. Your primary method of combat is a sling; you can upgrade it and your other equipment over time with materials that you collect (some of these are also used to make one-time use items, so you have to sometimes decide what’s more important.) Rocks will kill anyone without a helmet, and there are ways of getting them to take their helmet off. You can craft items to light or douse lamps and fires, which the game provides materials for so you’re never stuck, and your ammo stock and item usability can all be upgraded. But the game never really addresses Amicia’s initial horror at killing. Chapter two has Amicia and Hugo being chased through a village, and Amicia has to kill a few bad guys. Initially she’s horrified, but by chapter 5 she’s forgotten all about it. This is another reason why I think the combat in this game is ultimately unnecessary, because an initial attempt to portray a character realistically reacting to killing another person eventually devolves into typical game logic of “enemies must be destroyed.” That’s including a few boss fights which are ass AND butt, grinding the story to a halt.
All that being said, this is a truly gorgeous game. At times the soft lighting makes the game resemble a renaissance painting, which is a perfect aesthetic. The presentation overall is great, taking further cues from The Last Of Us with use of smash cuts and actually just lifting the UI wholesale.
The audio is another high point, especially if you switch to the vastly superior French voice track (it would’ve made more sense if the Englishmen still spoke English, but whatever.) The music is a great mix of guitar and violins that doesn’t sound generic at all.
It’s not a long game by any means —Ii got through it in about 13 hours, and some of that was just because there are frequent spots where I just died over and over. These parts were extremely frustrating because they showed how uneven the combat is. But all in all, this is a pretty decent walking sim/puzzler with some truly amazing sequences (i.e. trying to traverse a battlefield full of war dead, or the amazing first proper introduction of the rats when you get to the cathedral and they start bursting through the walls.)
While its story indulging in supernatural nonsense is a little disappointingly cliched and unwilling to examine the more interesting themes it suggests, it hits good notes about what family is and what it means. So I think I can say at the end of all this that this is a solid title from a game that mostly makes Disney tie-ins, and I would like to see more work in this vein provided they do something to reduce frustrating bits. There’s a new game out since this review was originally written, so I guess we’ll just have to see!