A Plague Tale: Innocence is a puzzle and stealth focused adventure wrapped in a disturbing yet beautiful interpretation of medieval France.
Title: A Plague Tale: Innocence
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 14, 2019
Set in a slightly otherworldly, disease and war-ravaged 14th century France, A Plague Tale: Innocence combines an oppressive world with a heavy emphasis on stealth-based puzzle solving and exploration to tell a bleak tale of survival at any cost.
Forced to flee their comfortable life in an idyllic chateau by relentless Inquisition soldiers with mysterious and violent intent, Amicia and Hugo De Rune are faced not only with finding safety but also restarting their lives in a world tearing itself apart.
Heightened by the haunting score, creeping across a village past the point of collapse or being hunted through claustrophobic streets by those with nothing left to lose, create genuinely unsettling moments that effectively set a pervasive tone to their journey.
Joining Amicia and Hugo is an ensemble cast of similarly orphaned children, each providing their own dose of normalcy to their plight. But even though the game spends a lot of time with them, their motivations and relationships are never developed beyond a cursory glance, and moments meant to provide poignant reflection end up not saying much of value about the world or its characters.
On a larger scale, the narrative structure of A Plague Tale is much more modern than its setting and themes at first might suggest. And like the ever-growing swarms of glowing-eyed rats that can clean a man to the bone in seconds, the intimate and grounded story of survival eventually gives way to a something exponentially larger in scope and consequence.
This leads to a rushed third act bogged down in a grand conspiracy that is intriguing enough to see to the end but ultimately feels unnecessary and trite. It does, however, at least commit to this more fantastical direction enough to ostensibly turn the game into a medieval superhero origin story, complete with an appropriate mechanical payoff.
Inquisition soldiers and rats are the two main antagonizing forces in A Plague Tale, with each providing their own specific set of rules. The Inquisition represents more traditional stealth encounters: hiding in tall grass, diverting enemy attention with rocks, and direct combat when all else fails.
Amicia’s primary tool, a slingshot, is slow enough that more than one target is a serious issue, but powerful enough that engaging is at least always an option. In this sense, A Plague tale tries to lead the player away from open conflict as much as possible, especially since many enemies cannot be dealt with directly until certain upgrades are acquired and will one-hit kill Amicia if they get too close.
Rats assume a more indirect role, acting as punishment for failing fire and light-based puzzles that typically require the player to create safe paths by herding them towards or away from certain areas with craftable tools and mechanisms placed in the world. Although purposely exaggerated in design, their unambiguous and limited behavior eventually strips them of the horror they initially incite.
But even with added gimmicks and twists to their formulas, puzzles and encounters barely evolve beyond the basic principles of exploiting robotic patrol routes or igniting a path of braziers.
Once the player has had time to acclimate to rats and soldiers separately, the game starts mixing them, often asking the player to pit them against one another to progress. But even with added gimmicks and twists to their formulas, puzzles and encounters barely evolve beyond the basic principles of exploiting robotic patrol routes or igniting a path of braziers.
Yet, with some simple and smart design choices they also never fall into the realm of tedium. Puzzles are concise and provide just enough resistance, there are minimal instant failure situations, the game features generous checkpoints with quick reloads, companions feel like an extension of Amicia rather than a burden, and levels occasionally open up with multiple routes to the objective.
But the game’s most effective approach to overcoming repetitiveness is also one of its most remarkable feats, which is that each chapter feels wholly unique and maintains a sense of momentum due to beautifully realized environments that often evoke depictions of medieval nature in Romanticism paintings, and distinct situations that continually re-contextualize established mechanics.
At regular intervals, Amicia is conveniently and not so subtly provided several new tools and methods for interacting with enemies and the world. These include ways of igniting or putting out fires, temporarily attracting rats to specific areas, making soldiers vulnerable to attack by removing their armor, and more.
While most of these are simply a necessary byproduct to overcome new puzzle elements, their cumulative weight begins a shift away from passivity to limited, but effectual empowerment. Stealth eventually becomes less about staying hidden for survival and more as a means to gain positional and numerical advantages, working in parallel with Amici’s growth as a protagonist.
To fuel and upgrade these items, while also providing a change of pace to the deliberate procession of events, you’ll have to explore and search the many castles, forests, and battlefields of A Plague Tale for valuable crafting materials. Luckily levels tend to be relatively compact, allowing for the required amount of this process to occur through natural curiosity.
Although supplies for crafting more common items are a bit too generously scattered about, often creating a glut of certain types, optional mini-puzzles that take an inquisitive eye to spot reward the player with rarer materials needed for more powerful tools, striking an appropriate balance between usefulness and scarcity.
Unfortunately, the upgrade system meant to create an ebb and flow of material allocation severely underwhelms. Outside of a few key slingshot and mobility options, most aren’t worth the required resources, are useless by the time you get them, or feel like artificial barriers for other upgrades.
Even with a mild penchant for exploration, there shouldn’t be much trouble getting everything you want. But to be regularly presented with the option of begrudging acceptance or abstaining from a lack of interest hampers the entire system.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.