It seems that so many games are set in one of a very small selection of time periods and cultures.
Shogun-era Japan, Ancient Egypt, Cyberpunk future, the time of Vikings and the Wild West seems to dominate so many AAA and indie games. It reminds me of a Super Mario platformer – you have your grass world, ice world, desert world and lava world. Rinse and repeat.
So it’s refreshing to see the gorgeous A Plague Tale: Innocence set in 14th Century France, during the reign of both manmade terrors in the form of the Inquisition, and a more organic terror, the plague, embodied in the multitudinous bodies of rats that dominate every scene and landscape of the game.
As Alicia, you must look after your estranged, sick, younger brother Hugo after the inquisition comes for him. The Inquisition is convinced he and his illness has something to do with the plague and millions of rats covering the land, and they care nothing for your noble titles to get to it.
Now at first after Hugo came into my care I was concerned this would be just one long escort mission, perhaps my least favourite type of game (though underwater levels are up there too). This fear was driven home after the game told me that Hugo would cry and make noise if left alone for too long, an unfortunate similarity to Yoshi’s Island. But fortunately it’s not like that at all. Hugo moves alongside you unless you deliberately send him out – such as to unlock a door or open a window – and he was rarely annoying to be with.
Part of this is due to the exceptional writing and voice acting. Both the writers and actors have done stellar jobs, and it’s backed up by believable animations. I played the game in French throughout – the game is set in France and is made by a French studio afterall, and I felt this gave the game a bit more believe ability and it suited the time period and place a bit better. It’s a bit like playing Metro Exodus in Russian, it just feels right to the characters.
A Plague Tale is at its heart a linear game, with you sneaking past enemies, occasionally taking them out and holding off the hordes of rats with whatever fire or light you can find. Alicia and Hugo are weak, and will rarely survive attacks from guards, at least at first. You’ll have to keep out of sight, and yes, in long grass to keep from being seen and killed. Alicia has a slingshot, but it’s a very situational weapon and takes rare resources and time to use. Enemies will hear the “thwack” of you using it, and will come to investigate if you miss your target. It can be genuinely unsettling waiting for guards to pass or move, and the developers have done a good job capturing what it’s like for a young, fragile teenager to be up against threatening, uncaring, grizzled soldiers.
Along your way you’ll meet others, orphans of the plague and the hard times who can upgrade your equipment, such as giving you the ability to throw fireballs from your slingshot. By the end of the game I had a fairly large pool of tools at my disposal, allowing me to open up paths through enemies or retaliate if I was caught.
This system though was backed up by my least favourite element of the game – crafting and resource management. Even though A Plague Tale is linear (though it does slightly open up later in the game), you still must scrounge around dark corners of each area for resources such as rocks for your slings, tools to upgrade your outfit and materials. This system to me seemed totally at odds to the story-heavy tone of the rest of the game. Routinely I would have to stop progressing the story to search for enough materials to get me through the next area. It could have been better to just have upgrades given to you from a person or in the environment at specific points in the story. Not every game needs crafting, and here it seems particularly tacked on, a mechanic to pad out the game length and create a bit more tension in each enemy encounter.
That said, crafting was never a really major impediment to me enjoying my time with the game. Graphically, it’s stunning where I played it on Xbox One X, the story is strong and the puzzles only get a bit tiring by the time the game is wrapping up. It’s rare to see linear, story-driven games in this age of microtransactions and endlessly-replayable live games. It’s good to see the old ways can still be found, and A Plague Tale: Innocence shows that they are a valuable genre that has life in it yet.
Without much of the fanfare that accompanied other major releases this month, A Plague Tale snuck up on me, and has gone on to become one of the best games I’ve had the pleasure to play this year.
Released: May 2019
Platforms: Xbox One
Developer: Asobo Studios
Publisher: Asobo Studios