A Plague Tale: Innocence isn’t here to make you feel good. You’re still supposed to enjoy the stealth, the exploration and the detail of the environments, of course – but when the context is two terrified, soaked children running for their lives through blood and mud-slicked city streets in 1349 France, things take a concerted shift towards the depressing.
It’s there in the name, isn’t it? We’re reminded of something like The Plague Dogs, the equally upsetting 1980s animation. A world ready and willing to crush the weak with its realities. Well, misery loves company, we suppose – and A Plague Tale: Innocence is all about the company you’ll be keeping.
Set during the Black Plague of the 14th century, the story follows the mad flight of noble-born children Amicia & Hugo after their home is burned and their family is slaughtered by the Inquisition, a lawless crusade with a keen interest specifically in Hugo.
Developer Asobo Studio has obviously gone to great lengths to recreate the 14th century French setting – cities were inspired by walking the streets of Bordeaux, where Asobo Studio is based, and the approach to lighting is inspired by period specific painters – Vermeer and Bruegel. All in all, it’s a very European affair. It pays off too, as the environments of A Plague Tale: Innocence are gorgeous and rich, with some impressive art direction and lighting, especially during the church sequence near the end of our preview.
Taking control of Amicia, players have to care for their far less capable brother Hugo, a sickly boy who has been sheltered his entire life. Upon first learning of the duo, groans were had over the risky proposition of a game-long escort mission, but A Plague Tale: Innocence has some key details to overcome this.
Firstly, the relationship between Amicia and Hugo is actually believable – sure, there is some slightly wonky dialogue, but the conversations between the two are not just caring and well voice-acted, but also deductive and intelligent. Amicia bucks the trend of the previously innocent main character being ‘super chill’ with killing people to survive, instead recoiling in horror after striking a man dead with a whip of her sling, the game’s primary weapon – “I’m so sorry… I didn’t mean to,” she gasps.
Secondly, the game controls the same regardless of whether Hugo is by your side. You’ll still be able to sprint, jump over obstacles (stopping to help Hugo, mind) and fight back with your sling. Since Hugo isn’t overtly dragging you down – at least when you’re just trying to get around – the connection between the two characters is able to grow, without the distraction of a frustrating escort mechanic.
During our time with this preview version of the game, we not only fled from the Inquisition and dashed through those aforementioned city streets, but also trekked cautiously through the rat-infested catacombs of a hilltop church. Asobo have cast rats as a physical embodiment of the plague itself – some 5,000 can be onscreen at any given time. They swarm and weave over every shadowed surface, leaving disgusting black sinew on the walls, and devouring humans within seconds.
The rats of A Plague Tale: Innocence are a different kind of horror to that of being chased through city streets by madmen – they’re otherworldly, and almost supernatural in their destructive hunger as their red glowing eyes skitter in the dark. This is a game played well with the gamma turned a bit down, allowing for the shadows to truly swallow the rats’ forms, leaving just their devilish eyes.
In order to survive these rats, you’ll need to make use of the light, which drives them away. Amicia can remove wall-mounted torches, temporary sticks, or even topple ceiling fire stacks to create a pathway through the rodent masses. The preview showed a few different ways that light can be used in the environment, but stopped short of mixing the mechanic with any stealth or combat. Hopefully the finished game shows some more variation and creativity with this idea.
With a specifically bleak setting and mechanics that conjure memories of other frustrating gaming experiences, A Plague Tale: Innocence may initially seem like a hard sell, something to be passed over or perhaps picked up on sale. However, our time with the game says anything but. The base ideas here are nothing new, but executed with polish and heart, and, if anything, the story of Amicia and Hugo in a setting such as the Black Plague will be well worth the ride on its own.