A Plague Tale: Innocence – review

  • Format: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbone, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
  • Developer: Asobo Studio
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://aplaguetale.com/en 
  • Game code provided by the distributor

Do you love running around the colourful wonder of a Super Mario game’s environs? Perhaps you pine after the legendary Monkey Island, and wish there were a similarly bright and hilarious world to explore today? Well, tough – this game gives you 14th century France at the height of The Black Death, and you’ll bloody well like it. No, really, you’ll like it. It’s good.

Many previews have arguably been misleading, although the net result is a win. As you may know, the concept revolves around the idea of thick waves of rats everywhere, numerous and aggressive enough to devour anybody who stumbles into their midst within just a few seconds. There’s certainly a lot of avoiding the Rolands involved, but it’s not true to say that this takes up all of your time. You don’t even come across your first rat until the third chapter.

The story concerns the young teen Amicia (although it seems the original French script is superior, her English language actress is excellent) and her little brother Hugo. Amicia barely knows her brother – a mysterious disease has seen him confined to his room for his whole life, with only his mother for company – but events conspire to send them on the run together. So begins an adventure that chiefly consists of sneaking around in basic but surprisingly non-annoying stealth, setting things on fire, and throwing rocks in people’s faces.

You can sometimes use rats against human enemies, but not if they’re carrying a lit torch or lantern…

Visually, the historical setting is very well used, and a wonderful change of pace from most of today’s games. It’s never exploited to its full potential for story or gameplay purposes though, which is a shame. Even the plague barely registers in proceedings. This isn’t a game that’s aiming for pinpoint historical accuracy, though. You only need to take a look at the immense throngs of terrifyingly organised rats to see that.

Amicia and Hugo are making their way through a world that’s relentlessly aggressive towards them. Your only protection from the army of rats is light, usually provided by fire. The Inquisition meanwhile, who are everywhere, are on the lookout for you. Initially, therefore, progress is made via throwing rocks to distract enemies, who will loudly and dramatically announce that they’re going to investigate, so you know to leg it while their back’s turned. Either that, or darting between pools of light keeping nearby rats at bay, sometimes lighting fires yourself with a compound you soon learn to craft. Lanterns and torches are very rare, which leads to a superb and arguably underused idea. Lighting a length of wood gives you a portable but – crucially – very much temporary light source. There’s genuine tension in slowly creeping across a floor carpeted with rats, praying that you can make it to the next light source before the lifeline in your hand burns out.

Although stealth is necessary almost up until the end of the game, Amicia is not completely helpless. The game gradually introduces different alchemical compounds for her to craft which can, in various ways, allow her to attack or (to a much lesser extent) protect herself from both human and rodent enemies. These compounds are sometimes used in the game’s puzzles (particularly in areas with both humans and rats), which all ultimately boil down to ‘how do I clear a path from X to Y?’. It’s clever, unique, and atmospheric stuff, supported by a story that demands you follow it to the end.

Wherever you go, there’s a grotty beauty to proceedings.

Things eventually start to go a bit early Assassin’s Creed, however, in that you can’t help but feel that leaning into the historical setting more heavily would have resulted in a better game. Don’t worry, there’s no Animus nonsense. At about the halfway point however, gameplay slowly starts to put more emphasis on combat, and the story speeds up the introduction of the supernatural elements (which eventually bleed into gameplay). Having to use Amicia’s sling on two or more enemies in quick succession brings into painful focus how unsuited the controls are for this, even with the wisely generous auto-aim enabled.

The supernatural twists and turns aren’t as ill-fitting or ridiculous as you might fear. Nonetheless, they do lead to an anticlimactic and entirely unnecessary boss fight, which is preceded by what is probably the worst section of the game. However, that is countered by a brief but perfectly judged epilogue that leaves the door open just wide enough for a sequel, which we would be more than happy to play.

It’s a very linear game, yet one that still asks you to think and act carefully on a regular basis. Indeed, an open-world experience here would quite likely have led to many players losing interest in a poorly curated experience. Gameplay may slowly degrade as it becomes less confident in its unique qualities toward the end, but it’s rarely frustrating, and never bad. There’s nothing quite like A Plague Tale: Innocence, and we say that as a huge compliment.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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