The Bleak Plague
HIGH Walking through a ‘Red Sea’ of rats.
LOW The final boss encounter is a complete mess.
If A Plague Tale: Innocence wants its players to understand one thing, it’s that the past was disgusting. Thousands of hours have been spent rendering a near-photorealistic medieval France, and the result is lovingly presented filth. Rotten food moulders in baskets, muddy fields slow journeys, narrow town alleys reek through the screen. Then there are the corpses — hundreds upon hundreds of corpses lying in the street, hanging from trees, burning on pyres or piled like wood. Some games are unafraid to present gore — A Plague Tale seems afraid to present anything but.
A harrowing odyssey, A Plague Tale follows the adventures of Amicia, the 15-year-old daughter of a French lord, and Hugo, her sickly 5-year-old brother, as they journey through the the war and disease-ridden countryside while fleeing the Inquisition and searching for a cure for Hugo’s condition — a condition which the villainous religious fanatics find incredibly interesting for reasons that don’t become clear until late in the story.
Gameplay focuses on third-person stealth because Amicia and Hugo are so weak that should any enemy get within five feet of them, it’s game over. As such, encounters are built around distraction, carefully monitoring line-of-sight, and the occasional use of Amicia’s deadly sling.
There’s an impressive amount of depth to the gameplay. Along their journey, the duo encounter other orphaned children with skills to teach and roles to play in specific missions. Starting with just simple stones, Amicia gradually expands her arsenal to include tools to weaken foes, set and dousing flames, and most importantly, the ability to manipulate Innocence‘s most abundant resource — hordes of demonic rats.
While it’s true that the sheer number of corpses involved in any plague situation will encourage rats to breed in vast numbers, the main threat of A Plauge Tale is on an entirely different level. Each of the nighttime sequences is covered in a blanket of writhing, red-eyed creatures. They erupt from fissures in the ground, scurry through cracks in walls, and crash over characters like black waves, stripping the unlucky to skeletons in moments.
Most of the puzzles revolve around rat manipulation. Setting fires to move them away from key paths, dropping corpses to distract them as the pair sneak past, and eventually inventing a pheromone cocktail to weaponize them against foes. It’s some of the most inventive use of environmental hazards I’ve ever seen, and it feels viscerally wrong to see a writhing ocean of hungry creatures constantly clambering atop one another in their desperation to get even the slightest taste of flesh.
The only downside to the rat mechanic is that it limits player options somewhat. Rats follow simple rules — they’ll attack meat and they’re afraid of light. Each area the players traverse generally has a clear trail to follow, usually indicated by torches waiting to be lit. Success is built around finding the proper path and following it, and while said path usually isn’t too hard to suss out, it’s restrictive and linear. Each level may be fairly large, but huge sections of them will be blocked off by rats, forcing the player to stick to a limited corridor.
Interactions with the rats are always horrifying and thrilling to overcome in equal measure, but there’s a predictability to them that gets old around the campaign’s mid-point. Luckily, the last few levels fix this problem by opening up the world and empowering the player to take on a series of open stealth arenas in nearly any way they choose. While it may lag a little in the middle, Innocence ends on a strong note… before completely botching the final battle.
It’s a cliche for stealth games to have terrible boss fights, and Plague Tale falls into the classic trap. There’s an awful one right at the outset that feels incredibly out of place, functioning only as a justification for including a dodge button on the controller which is completely useless for the rest of the story.
The final two battles feel more of a piece with the rest of the game, but they don’t work especially well. Both are built around following specific patterns that are impossible to anticipate, so rather than calling on players to use all the skills they’ve learned over the course of the game, they’re expected to die until they’ve memorized the correct pattern. Luckily, Innocence features a denouement after the final battle, so the story doesn’t end at its weakest point.
Despite the disappointing boss fights, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a wonderful adventure — though it’s one that only the strong of stomach will be able to endure, of course. It’s thrilling and affecting in equal measure, with plot twists that keep things interesting and a relationship between the two siblings that provides heart to the experience. The finale isn’t satisfying, but A Plague Tale: Innocence still has plenty to be proud of.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Asobo Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive. It is currently available on PC, PS4 and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 Pro.
Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Strong Language, and Violence. No kids anywhere near this one, please. Constant swearing and constant brutal violence are the orders of the day. As I split someone’s head open with a sling bullet, I wondered if things were going to be much worse. Then I saw an arrow go through someone’s eye onscreen, and realized that I hadn’t seen the half of it. It’s relentlessly vicious, and absolutely adults only.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played much of the game without sound, and had no troubles. There are subtitles for all dialogue, which helps keep objectives clear, but more importantly, there are clear markers at the edge of the screen letting the player know the awareness level of onscreen threats, so you don’t need to be able to hear a guard alerting to know it’s happening. One note, though — there’s a ‘cinematic’ visual mode that removes most onscreen indicators, which will make playing the game far more difficult for those with hearing difficulties.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.