Developer Asobo Studios have constructed a young adult tale – think The Hunger Games, Maze Runner or Divergent – that treks through the worst of what the Great Plague inflicted. Not your typical video game fodder…
The highest estimates state that the Black Death wiped out 60% of human life on the European continent. Its effects on the course of civilisation cannot be overstated, as the political and religious upheaval that occurred as a result changed the nature of European life.
There is a sequence in the first quarter of A Plague Tale: Innocence where you come upon a battlefield. Vast, godless land stretches out before you, piled high with the bodies of soldiers – English, French, dead. It is fittingly bleak, a confrontation of the death being wrought across the land in the name of… what, exactly? The protagonists couldn’t tell you – Amicia and Hugo De Rune, children of a knight who was privy to such horror alongside Philip V of France. In that battlefield, you’ll shatter the lanterns of patrolling soldiers, leaving them to be consumed in the darkness by a far more unknowable horror than the wars of men.
After the slaughter of their family and the consumption of their home by the rat plague, Amicia and Hugo journey across the ravaged lands of 14th century France. Pursued by the mysterious and ruthless Inquisition (and its faceless leader Lord Nicholas), much of the story’s narrative beats are borne from the increasingly complicated relationship between the two children. Hugo is sick, you see, with an undefined condition that the alchemic medicine of the period mostly fails to understand. He says he hears voices and, over time, the masses of rats begin to treat him differently.
Such is the usual makeup of successful YA fiction. In a world overrun with monsters, humanity itself is shown to be monstrous in its own vicious ways. The title of the game hints towards the children of this world being the key to salvation, and their suffering is the price. In order to face these challenges, Amicia and Hugo eventually join forces with similarly orphaned children. Some of these characters serve only as reasons to push Amicia and Hugo into dangerous situations, but the core relationship between the two De Rune children is touching, carried by some powerful (if a bit one-note) voice acting on the part of their actors.
A Plague Tale: Innocence lacks meaningful or positive adult influence through much of its run time, a narrative choice clearly made to knit the characters together. It begins to feel a tad Breakfast Club, with the introduction of a thieving brother and sister, a burly blacksmith’s son, and a nerdy alchemist’s apprentice. When institutions such as the church, the community (the only groups of humans you meet try to murder you), and the family are either destroyed or shown to be uncaring, it falls to the youth to restore balance for themselves.
Amicia and Hugo’s first real encounter with the rats is in the basement of a church – an institution which, during the game’s narrative, spreads fear and misinformation throughout the land. Asobo Studio doesn’t entirely stick the landing on this one, bailing out on criticisms of the church and superstition in the endgame when it is revealed that the Inquisition is operating on its own twisted agenda.
That agenda is closely tied to the emergence of the rat plague. Rather than focussing on the truth of the black death as a misunderstood disease run rampant, Asobo Studios has opted for the rats to take a far more vicious and omnipresent role within the world of A Plague Tale: Innocence.
Arriving in such numbers that they can shatter the earth under your feet, the rat hordes essentially create no-mans-lands that travel and shift. Fire and alchemy can be used to manipulate them, but they often form the backbone of the game’s puzzle sections. Whether it be manipulating burning braziers in order to create a path to safety or having the rats… *ahem* ‘focus their attention’ on the English soldiers hunting you, the various ways in which A Plague Tale: Innocence uses the rodents is often disgusting, but constantly interesting.
“The various ways in which A Plague Tale: Innocence uses the rodents is often disgusting, but constantly interesting.”
Less interesting is the basic toolkit available to Amicia. Your main method of protection is through a sling, with which you’ll crack many a rock into many a skull. Amicia’s initial reaction to having to murder for survival at least carries some amount of weight, but by the end of the game you’ll be feeding the English to the rat plague as though it were the World Veterinary Association’s recommended diet. Indeed, what Amicia and Hugo are willing to do in order to survive is something that A Plague Tale: Innocence never truly grapples with. Innocence lost, for sure.
Dealing with enemies is normally a simple matter of popping off headshots or finding the local rat swarm that’ll clear out the area for you. Only in the final chapters of the game will you come upon areas with space for creative approaches, but it’s just as possible to headshot your way through these areas, which is a shame.
What A Plague Tale: Innocence does succeed at is providing a musically and visually stunning tour of plague-ridden France at an apocalyptic scale. Mediocre combat encounters aside, the forests, city streets and abandoned castles created here by Asobo Studios are a pleasure to inhabit, and the level of detail in their architecture makes them feel like real places.
A Plague Tale: Innocence truly wants to be a stealth puzzle game and struggles at times with the fact that its combat encounters are just padding. Regardless of the blandness in the combat, the dramatic world and the set pieces therein make the game an unexpectedly gripping experience.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available now for PS4 and Xbox One.