Blending video game genres can be a very effective way of creating a new experience. When it came time to work on A Plague Tale: Innocence, developer Asobo Studio went back to the basics of survival horror and stealth games to create an adventure that feels as dramatic and cinematic as possible. The resulting story is suitably gruesome, but like with the titular plague, a few stumbles with control, gameplay, and overall theme serve to drain the life out of an otherwise complex and engaging experience.
They're still coming after you
The plot setup for A Plague Tale: Innocence borrows fairly heavily from some of the darkest pages of history. The story centers around Amicia De Rune and her brother Hugo, a pair of siblings in a well-off family living in 14th century France. After the game's very brief introduction, Amicia catches her first glimpse of the plague-like infestation that's been slowly building across the countryside. Rushing back to warn her family, the De Rune estate is suddenly beset by soldiers of the Inquisition. Following a hasty escape, Amicia and Hugo set out to discover the source of the Black Death and learn why zealots are so intent on finding her brother.
The general aesthetic of the game is perhaps best summarized as "grim." Death is absolutely everywhere, from views of burning villages and farms piled high with rotting animals to paths paved by desecrated corpses and cave networks practically overflowing with half-eaten body parts. There's hardly a corner to turn where there isn't a pile of bodies or body parts waiting on the other side. It's certainly a good fit for the game's theme, but people with weak stomachs may need to avert their gaze from time to time.
This heavy handed theme continues throughout the game's dialog and action. Amicia and her brother are not exactly cut from the same cloth, but given the gravity of the situation they find themselves in, the two waste no time before realizing they must trust and depend on one another. As such, there's a lot of tension when Hugo runs out-of-view, or when Amicia chastises him too firmly. Some of it feels organic — just two siblings squabbling when they should be working together — but other times it feels forced, tugging on heartstrings or familial instincts that simply may not be present in the player.
The ol' chase 'n' stab
Given that A Plague Tale: Innocence is intended to be a plot-driven experience, it's hard to imagine a better match between gameplay and story. Much of the action is centered around avoiding guards, escaping assailants, or making sure that the main characters aren't devoured by rats. As such, players will split most of their in-game time between light stealth and puzzle/platforming sections.
The stealth sections are among the weakest points in the game. Amicia and allies can hide in tall grass, take cover behind low walls, and use noises like thrown pots or slung rocks to distract guards. Over time, the player can also craft items that help take out guards without making noise. The procedure hardly ever changes, though: Watch the guards' paths and sneak by when they're distracted. Fail, and you get killed. Given that players are likely to fail stealth sections many, many times over, they're going to spend a fair amount of time watching Amicia get ran through with spears and swords while her allies watch and scream. Luckily, frequent checkpoints do a decent job of making sure there's not too much backtracking between those instances.
On the other hand, the puzzle sections are among the game's greatest strengths. Beyond having to deal with guards and stealth, Amicia and company also have to cope with the rat menace. These fiendish rodents move in swarms, and fire is about the only thing that keeps them at bay. Using Amicia's sling against them does almost nothing, but eventually she'll be able to craft items that can help, like an alchemical combination that can light up torches or embers from afar, giving players the chance to clear rats away from the path ahead. Coincidentally, the rats can also be used as a weapon against enemies, such as taking out a guard's torch to allow the rats to consume his flesh. A Plague Tale: Innocence is at its best when the player has to carefully manage both stealth and swarms of these plague-ridden creatures.
A Bubonic tonic
It's not exactly easy to recommend A Plague Tale: Innocence for a couple of reasons. The first is that the game is very dark — not visually dark, but thematically. Even for someone who enjoys history or bloody games, it's a bit much to see gore quite literally filling the void in just about every in-game environment. The second reason is because the story-focused nature, for better or worse, just doesn't translate into an action-packed experience. The story is fine in its own right, and things certainly get more interesting the more we learn about Hugo and the De Rune family's past, but there's nothing here that will grab players already busy with other games.
One of the strangest elements of the game is its control scheme. There's nothing out of the ordinary so far as buttons and input are concerned, but simply moving around the world feels remarkably clumsy. In fact, it reminds me of the early days of Resident Evil, when the game still used tank controls. A Plague Tale: Innocence does not have tank controls, but the way Amicia moves kind of touches on that same sort of frustration. I hesitate to say it's bad; it's true that I often had difficulty lining up the character with interactable objects in the environment, but if anything the not-exactly-precise nature of movement only serves to increase the tension.
The main problem I have with the game is that there just isn't enough to do. You can only slowly sneak past a guard so many times before you start wishing you could just skip the entire section. Amicia can use her sling to various ends, but the process ultimately boils down to choosing a different type of ammunition. Even tracking down collectibles is a bit of a chore, as upgrades to the sling require dozens of items just for simple fixes (why do I need alcohol or sulfur to upgrade a sling? Just saying), and yet none can be completed until both a tool and a workbench are found. There's very little reason for players to explore, and very little to be found if they do. Beyond that, many players are put off by escort missions, and for better or worse, that's what the whole of A Plague Tale: Innocence feels like.
Don't bite my bro
Asobo Studio certainly knows how to make a cinematic experience. With that said, A Plague Tale: Innocence is dark, dangerous, and just a little bit dull. Players who enjoy a story-focused adventure with approachable gameplay are likely to be thrilled watching the tale of Amicia and Hugo unfold, but other gamers may find that the action simply can't keep up with the story. It's worth following the De Rune family's escapades through to their natural conclusion, but players who are used to more active engagement in games may struggle with tedious stealth sections and a fair amount of heavy handed storytelling.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 downlode code provided by the publisher. A Plague Tale: Innocence is available in retail and digital stores May 14, 2019.
A Plague Tale: Innocence
- Glistening, gory graphics
- Good plot and cinematic tone
- Interesting and oftentimes challenging puzzles
- Truly freaky rat swarm system
- Heavy reliance on escort mission-style mechanics
- Fairly unexciting action
- Not many collectibles or side activities
- Dialog often feels overly dramatic