A Plague Tale: Innocence – Cults, Alchemy and Vermin
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The scratching in walls, the contagious diseases, the association with garbage and sewers. I think it is safe to say that no one likes rats. In fact, this is the core concept of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a game with so many rats, they had to invent new tech just to render them all. The developers know that even the hardiest of humans feel queasy at the site of thousands of rats devouring a cow, pig or even human and they have used that innate dislike to create a game doesn’t set to out to scare or terrify. Instead, this is a game that is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, a game that wants you to feel apprehension about every choice, ponder the value of life and most of all, worry about that scuttering you can hear from behind the lounge while you are playing.
I have to say though that despite how uncomfortable I felt throughout the entirety of A Plague Tale, I couldn’t get enough of what was on offer. Set in the French countryside in the 14th century, the game starts out quite conventionally, following Amicia De Rune, taking a stroll with her father. The tutorial introduces Amicia’s sling, the primary weapon in the game, and gives some background to Amicia’s family history. Her Father is a noble and her brother Hugo is quite ill, which means her mother is often secluded in his room and is therefore emotionally distant from Amicia. Before long however the Inquisition, a quasi-Catholic cult arrives, killing Amicia’s father and mother and forcing Amicia to grab her brother and dash into the forest. All the while there are tinges of something in the dark, hints of terror in the shadows. That terror would soon establish its self at the hordes of rats seen in the promotional material for the game.
From here the story is quite the wild ride. I won’t spoil any more of it for you except to say it is the primary reason to play this game. I was utterly enthralled by this tale of a somewhat spoiled girl being forced to grow up and deal with a slightly unstable sibling. Every single character I met on the way was crafted with care which only heightened the importance and impact of the narrative. To top it all off, the voice acting was nigh on perfect. At first, I found the rhythm of the conversations a little strange, until I realised it was the French accent employed by the voice actors. Once that clicked with me, the voice acting rose to another level. Amicia’s frustrations and Hugo’s innocence all conveyed beautifully by the obviously talented actors charged with bringing them to life.
As for the gameplay, there is nothing here that we haven’t seen in other games before but the way it has been packaged together is something truly special. Stealth is a huge component of the title, sneaking around and avoiding guards and members of the Inquisition is key to survival, especially early in the game. Guiding Hugo and other companions around this rat infested world is a challenge to the brain, but not the control pad thanks to the elegant companion system the developers have used. Want Hugo to come with you? Simply hold his hands. That’s it. Makes every companion quest since the dawn of time seem extra stupid right? Hugo can also help out by crawling into tight spaces and opening locked doors, as well as other more exciting abilities as the game goes on, so he isn’t just a dead weight for Amicia to look after. The game doles out abilities for both Amicia and her companions on a regular basis, mostly in the form of new alchemy recipes that can be fired from Amicia’s sling. For example, an early recipe allows Amicia to fire projectiles that will relight fireplaces, lamps and braziers, perfect for keeping the hordes of rats at bay. Other recipes put fires out (perfect for ambushing guards carrying lanterns, not so good for your stomach when you watch that guard get eaten alive), make guards take off their helmet so they are unprotected from your sling and one even acts as a rat attractor, creating traps of swarming rats. There are some even better abilities later in the game which I won’t mention because of their links to the story.
As far as looks go, A Plague Tale is right up there with some of the biggest budget titles on any system. Some of the vistas the game presents seem to be straight from a postcard, not from a game developed by a relatively small studio. Facial animations, including lip-syncing, are also of the highest level, something that a lot of studios struggle with. I cannot stress how impressive the tech here is and that is without mentioning the rats and the swarm of biting, agonising death they represent.
Now let’s get to the rats. To walk near the seething swarm is instant death. The only thing they fear is light and the developers have done a wonderful job creating puzzles using these two elements. In fact, some of the puzzles in this game are things of beauty. None are too taxing on the grey matter, but the solutions are often elegant and elicit a sense of triumph when solved. Using light in interesting ways, creating distractions for the rats with fresh meat (where that meat comes from, I’ll leave up to your imagination.) and mixing your various alchemy recipes are all entwined in each puzzle, forcing players to use their entire bag of tricks to get through.
There are a few little problems with the game, however, but I stress nothing that should stop you from buying it. There are a few rough animations here and there, especially involving the companions, and on a couple of occasions, I got stuck in walls, which wasn’t too big of an issue thanks to the excellent in-game checkpointing. The other issue I have is for most of the game there is plenty of time to gather your thoughts and approach situations ready and armed with the appropriate sling ammo. This is, except for boss battles where quick changing is often required and it is hampered by a slightly fiddly radial menu system. I imagine this would be negated if you were playing with a keyboard and mouse but on a controller, it led to more than a few deaths.
Apart from that though there is very little to dislike about A Plague Tale. It is a game that excels in the areas of storytelling and atmosphere, has rock-solid gameplay, engaging puzzles and some exceptional voice work that brings it all to life. This is a game that burrows under your skin, seeps into your mind and won’t leave you until the final credits roll. Frankly, any adventure gamer out there shouldn’t hesitate to buy this game, it is wonderful.