Sometimes there are these games that fly under the radar, developed by relatively unheard of studios with much smaller budgets than their Triple-A counterparts, that manage to make an impact on the industry – proving that there is a blossoming middle ground between art-house or pixelated indie titles and the major releases from the big studios that we all know. These games are typically story focused, free from the shackles of microtransactions and other practices that the industry is plagued by – pardon the pun. One that comes to mind from recent memory is Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory. This game was gorgeous and driven by a strong narrative with some very serious and thought-provoking themes, and showed the industry what smaller development teams are capable of. And now, Asobo Studio, previously known for their work on licensed IP like Ratatouille, Toy Story and Garfield, among some others have proved to the world that Hellblade was not just lightning in a barrel for the gaming industry.
A Plague Tale Innocence looked destined to be lost underneath a barrage of reviews and hype around Rage 2, from big-name developers Avalanche and Id, with the publishing giants Bethesda behind them, as they both released on May 14th, however, this absolutely beautiful single-player game has managed to make its mark and has captured the hearts of those experiencing this wonderful title. From its beautifully imagined 14th Century French setting to its brilliant writing, stellar graphics, and unbelievable musical score, A Plague Tale Innocence is one of those titles that just has to be experienced. When looking at it prior to release I gave it barely a second thought, as it just seemed to be a game about the plague, about thousands of rats on screen, and had a vibe that usually I would barely ever enjoy – but after seeing some of the high praise given to it by pundits in the industry, I felt I needed to experience this stunning narrative focused game – and I don’t regret it one single bit. This game deserves its high praise, I’ll go so far as to say it deserves to be in the Game of the Year talks at the end of 2019, and at the very least its soundtrack will go down as some of the most beautiful, thematic and captivating – ever. So I’m going to give my thoughts on this, A Plague Tale Innocence, and tell you what all the fuss is about. Let’s begin…
A Family Affair
A Plague Tale Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, the daughter of noble parents, in 14th century France, and the game begins as you join your father on a hunt in the gorgeous forests surrounding your family’s property. It’s a fitting beginning to the game as it not only shows off the beautiful setting with rich colors and stunning lighting as you venture through the woods, but feels like any well-written narrative, starting you off with low stakes, and happier times, that you know cannot go on forever. And it doesn’t take long for everything to go south. Now, I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so I won’t go into details, but the beginning of the game sets a beautiful scene that is quickly juxtaposed with the dark and gloomy themes that will follow you throughout the rest of your journey. Amicia finds herself forced into looking after her younger brother, Hugo, who is stricken by an unknown affliction, and who has been kept away from the rest of his family for most of his life, and it’s their blossoming relationship that is the star of the show. Despite the clear focus on the plague and the thousands of rats you’ll encounter throughout your play-time as Amicia, this game is really a character and family drama through-and-through and tells the story of a reluctant sister as she learns who her brother is, and learns how to look after and care for him on their journey.
Mechanically, the developers put a lot of thought into this sibling relationship as well – Amicia is required to literally hold Hugo’s hand through the majority of the game, and if you leave your brother far behind, he begins to fret and worry which can cause enemies to be aware of your presence, so it is your job as the player to continually be aware of, and look after your little brother. But thankfully Asobo Studio hasn’t made this aspect of the game a pain for the player, and as you journey throughout the 10 or so hours of story, you forge a deeper relationship to Hugo, and you, and in turn, Amicia, understand the importance of their family connection. You will meet other characters along your journey as well, some being reluctant companions forced to team up to tackle the ever-growing threat of not only the plague but also the Inquisition. Your relationships to these party members will blossom as you tackle a growing threat which ramps up significantly throughout the story, and again, this character drama is the main focus of the narrative and is wonderfully developed by the game’s creators.
In a game where the looming threat of plague, deadly rats and the ever-imposing Inquisition is a constant concern, it is a brilliant game and narrative design by Asobo Studio that these take a back seat to the character development and group dynamic cultivated throughout the story. The overarching story, which feels well developed and has very memorable ups and downs and times of success and failure, is compounded by the great performance of a small, the ragtag group of children set on overcoming the odds to escape from the endless threats posed against them. All the voice actors contributing to this title have to be commended on their performances, especially Amicia, and another character who is introduced late into the game who I won’t name, as they truly lift the narrative to great heights, and make you really care about the story which unfolds around you.
A Beautiful, Hideous World
In a world where triple-A games are generally riddled with bugs, graphical glitches, day one patches and more often than not half baked stories and uninteresting characters, A Plague Tale Innocence stands out for more than just its brilliant narrative structure and character development. This game is in no small terms, gorgeous. From its use of lighting and shadow as more than just aesthetics, as it becomes an integral gameplay mechanic when facing thousands of deadly rats, to the incredibly high fidelity facial animations, skin and clothing textures, and realistic hair, Asobo Studio has reached heights previously only triple-A studios could reach. Being such a character-focused title, the facial animations in A Plague Tale are designed with great detail to complement the brilliant level design and narrative depth. All of the main cast’s faces and outfits are intricately detailed, with special note to Amicia’s hair which moves back and forth, and falls naturally over her shoulders as you move about the world.
Environmental textures and design, in general, is stunning, detailed and diverse as you traverse death-riddled battlefields, gorgeous forests, imposing castles, disease-ridden towns and cities, and impressively detailed churches and the level design in A Plague Tale has to be commended. The fact that these levels are tight, focused and linear makes sure that each one feels hand-made and designed for a purpose and is a breath of fresh air in an industry that is so obsessed with giant open worlds. Open worlds aren’t inherently a bad thing, look at The Witcher 3 for an open world with heart and soul and the feeling of handcrafted detail and beauty extending throughout its many miles, however so many games use the open world aesthetic to their detriment, with huge swathes of the map being barren and devoid of any meaningful gameplay or a story. A Plague Tale Innocence bucks this trend and gives a highly polished, tightly curated, linear level design for each chapter, and it thankfully never feels repetitive or boring thanks to an array of interesting locations to visit throughout your time in this world.
As the stakes are raised through the narrative, the areas you visit begin to be more and more polluted by the plague and the rats that carry it. They are truly a visceral gameplay mechanic, more akin to liquid or particle effects, rather than physical beings, as they react to light and tumble over each other to escape it. Amicia is armed with a small selection of tools and weaponry, which can be upgraded throughout the game at several crafting tables, using a relatively small selection of materials and ingredients, and although towards the end of the game you are equipped with an increasingly handy arsenal of gear, you never feel overpowered and, fitting with the narrative, Amicia, Hugo and their friends are required to use brains over brawn in order to tackle the obstacles in their way.
Stealth is a huge factor in A Plague Tale’s gameplay, and by utilizing your limited toolset you are required to not only avoid the unending groups of rats in your path but use them against your human foes in order to stealthily pass some of the areas in the game. Enemy AI isn’t incredibly intelligent, with moments where you are spotted by soldiers and guards being easily rectified by ensuring you are crouched and hiding. Sure, enemies, if they spot you, will attempt to flush you out and determine your location, but in most scenarios, it’s possible to simply hide and wait a short time until they’re no longer alert to your presence. I’ll give Asobo credit however because there are some situations in the game where one misstep or silly move, or cockiness, can lead you to being chased down by enemies who are much more powerful than you. You’ll also have to choose if you are better off dying and trying again, rather than using specific abilities that can prevent death – at the potential cost of future upgrades, as the small selection of ingredients and materials is required for both mechanics. Thankfully most materials are in abundance in every level, so it’s not so much a survival game as that of stealth and each enemy encounter or scenario feels as handcrafted as the level design itself. You can usually see a clear path or requirement to successfully traverse most areas, but in a game like A Plague Tale, the quote-unquote combat is definitely not the star of the show, that award goes to the characters and narrative for sure.
There are two boss encounters towards the end of the game, which narratively makes sense, and is enjoyable and tense moments, however, these battles of skill are somewhat out of character in comparison to the rest of the title’s feeling of being vulnerable and powerless. These encounters do, however, make you utilize the previously acquired skills to defeat the enemies you face, but suffer from the somewhat cliched, yet tried-and-true formula of many older games to hit the boss three times to succeed.
With many tense moments throughout the game’s chapters, and often new and creative options that allow you to tackle the gameplay sections, the combat and stealth never feel repeated, just like the level design. I like the fact that you’re essentially powerless because it removes the gameplay cliche of most modern video games, whereby you’re endlessly powerful against much weaker enemies. Again, Asobo has managed to give you just enough at your disposal to complete the tasks at hand but never relieves you of the feeling that the odds are against you, and I think this is a brilliant design that complements the character you are, and the narrative as well.
A Score Like No Other
There are really no words that can truly capture the atmosphere that the music in A Plague Tale creates, but I’ll try. Composer Olivier Deriviere has done a masterful job in creating some absolutely stellar musical pieces that perfectly fit with the tone and atmosphere of the game. From simple yet compelling tracks which remind me of some of the best parts of the music in The Witcher 3, to building crescendos of stringed sections which are timed to perfection with the gameplay, the musical score of A Plague Tale helps to complement the visual tone in a way that many games are simply unable.
n moments of tense action, the music ramps up to match the gameplay on screen, in particular, one section where you attempt to evade an onslaught of rats while thunder claps overhead; in more subdued sections of the narrative, the music is suitably relaxed and mellow, and certain gameplay mechanics are accompanied by their own specific themes, beautifully imposing a sense of power towards the end of the game especially, when the player is finally given abilities which are fittingly absent throughout the majority of the campaign. Without this incredible musical score, the game would still have been a gem to enjoy, but Deriviere’s work goes above and beyond in creating an atmosphere that will not soon be forgotten.
A Plague Tale Innocence proves to the gaming industry that live services, monstrous budgets and a triple-A name behind a game aren’t the defining factors to success. The care and level of detail put into this beautiful game is nothing short of outstanding and deserves massively high praise for all of its parts. Stunning visuals, interesting gameplay mechanics, some of the most atmospheric and wonderful music in gaming, and a wonderfully developed and emotional narrative, delivered with heart by its cast of characters, make this title something to remember for years to come. If you’re on the fence about A Plague Tale, hesitate no longer, go and buy this game, support these developers, and experience this game first hand. Titles like these are diamonds in the rough that deserves every bit of praise they receive and come around all too seldom. 9.75/10
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