I’m going to make sure this review is as spoiler free as possible. Knowing very little about this game bar the general plot is going to serve you well as the story weaves its way through the action.
A Plague Tale: Innocence kicks off with a sequence about as bleak as you could imagine a video game ever beginning and threw me for a bit of a loop. I won’t share it here but what you witness isn’t something you see all that often, really in any form of entertainment medium and from the off it’s pretty clear A Plague Tale has one dark story to tell. What occurred hit me to such an extent, I considered lending the game off to another one of Finger Guns gents, because I really didn’t think I could go on playing it. If *this* was how the game was opening, what on earth were they ready to throw at me as the game progressed? For someone like me who suffers from genuine anxiety attacks and finds comfort in certain things, having them almost immediately turned against me gave the impression that from the off, A Plague Tale wasn’t going to be for me.
God thinking about it now gives me near-PTSD flashbacks. Anyway, moving on. Fortunately, what followed allowed me to venture into far more familiar gaming territory, as APT does its very best impression of every third person adventure game you could think of from the last few years and delivers a tribute act that only delivers the hits.
We’ve been keeping a close eye on APT for a while now and it’s certainly been a game that’s been on my radar. I was first in line for the review code as I hadn’t exactly been quiet waiting for this one to appear. A cracking series of behind the scenes mini-docs released by developers Asobo peaked my interest and I was excited to explore this desolate world with sister and brother protagonists Amicia and Hugo, in the hopes to keep them safe during the breakout of the Black Plague in 14th Century France in the early days of the Hundred Years’ War. It’s a gorgeous world to explore, with visuals that can rank amongst some of the very best this generation has to offer, looking particularly terrific on my PS4 Pro (from what I’ve heard the One X display is stunning).
The beauty of APT is counteracted by its dangers, in a very Last of Us kind of way. The world is desolate and quiet, survived only by those too scared of the outside world to venture past their front doors to revolutionaries burning those who they believe to be carriers of the plague at the stake, whether they do or not. The inhabitants of this broken society have turned their back on religion, having seemingly lost their faith as their loved ones succumbed to the evils which befell them. The dark, twisted adventure we accompany Amicia and Hugo is brave, with very few choosing to help along the way. Humanity is seldom found, and you learn very early on that these siblings are very much on their own.
Still you continue on, with Hugo’s young innocence imprinting belief that people can still be good, despite everyone turning their back on each other when perhaps they needed each other the most. Amicia is far older than Hugo and gutsy, determined. Bravery is in her nature, as is doing whatever needs to be done in order to protect Hugo and reach their ultimate destination. It’s easy to compare this again to The Last of Us, but the first few levels (and beyond, really) are very much stealth based. If it’s not an evil empire on the rise known as the Inquisition wanting to take you down it’s the scared humans who are looking for scapegoats, and anybody they don’t recognise from their towns are to blame for the plague reaching them. You’ll be quietly moving through long grass to avoid detection, shooting rocks from Amicia’s trusty slingshot (which you can upgrade throughout the game) to distract enemies or shooting down fire to fend off flesh eating rats. You’re always on the move and the puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but you certainly feel the intensity of the moment.
I had to tell myself to settle down at certain moments, screwing up the most basic of puzzles because I was in too much of a rush to get Amicia and Hugo to safety. From the get go you immediately care for them, and you want to do right by them.
You learn more about them as the game progresses, and Hugo’s initial resistance to Amicia is palpable. It’s clear they haven’t got the strongest bond, but Amicia will do whatever needs to be done to protect him. The game features a neat crafting mechanic which benefits from your keen eye, having a nose around each level to find various tidbits that Amicia can throw together. Throughout you’re building ammunition for your slingshot, which becomes so utterly essential as the game progresses. If I can offer you any kind of advice before jumping into APT, it’s keep an eye out in each level for as much ‘stuff’ as you can. You’re going to need it.
The broken world that engulfs the siblings world is beautifully designed, with absolutely gorgeous and hugely believable locations ravaged by conflict and pestilence. A nation so close to absolute collapse ensures that you’re fighting against every possible element, the visual splendor of your locations counteracted by the darkness that Amicia and Hugo endure. Whether it be watching innocent people burn alive, cowering through underground sewers full of half-eaten corpses, enduring a sea of plague-infested rats. I hope some kind of therapy is available for these kids. It’s broken, battered and brutal. The world is unwelcome to those who just want peace, as this doesn’t even seem to be an option.
Let’s talk about those rats for a second. Bloody hell, there are a lot of rats in this game and they are vile. Their combined evil is displayed in the immediate moment they appear on screen. Within seconds they have torn the flesh off their victim, working in tandem to demolish absolutely any living thing they can prey on. And there are so many of them, the most rats I’ve ever seen in a video game in a single space, that’s for sure. They merge into a sea of black, with their red eyes focused only on you when they’ve got the smallest inclination that you may be nearby. If you’re in darkness and they’re nearby, all you can do is run. And in some of the games more blockbuster moments – of which there is not enough, because they’re spectacular – that’s exactly what you’re going to be doing. Any source of light is like water in a desert. You have a single goal, a goal I may have failed at a few times – I’ve watched Amicia been eaten by rats far more times that I dare to count – and that’s just to get the ever living hell away from this plague infested vermin as fast as humanely possible.
In these moments light sources are your only source of comfort, as they will scurry away any fire source, allowing you to move through them with little issue, even if they are far too close to you (don’t stand still) at any given moment that you never particularly feel at ease with them nearby.
It’s difficult to not be impressed by them though. I cower in fear whenever I know I’m nearby a swarm of rat bastards, and they’re fantastically ferocious. In certain moments you’ll need them to get past guards, using misdirection to have them tear over to guards to rip them to pieces so you can shoot past. They’re so insanely, ridiculously evil that at times it did take me out of the game a little, enforcing reminders that it is just a video game after all. The unfathomable violence throughout APT can make your hairs stand on end, and the brutality of the rats is almost too gratuitous at some points. Put it this way, they never get any nicer. Yeesh.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg to what an outstanding technical achievement A Plague Tale is. Besides the aforementioned beautiful world that surrounds you and the evil madness of the hundreds and hundreds of evil vermin at any given moment, I came across very few bugs or glitches that took me out of the game. Whilst in cut-scenes the visuals are naturally kicked up a notch, the facial animation isn’t as fantastic as I was expecting it to be, given how terrific everything else is presented. It’s a small thing, and when the faces are motionless, they’re glorious. Dialogue can scupper this a little, but it’s hardly a complaint. Honestly, I’m reaching.
Then there’s the music, which is incredible. The entire score throughout is beautiful and terrifying, striking a perfect balance in much a similar way as the game does. The cello sequences – which normally means rats are nearby – are enough to keep you up at night. Swelling up just at the right moments. The game offers few jump scares but the music demands your attention, it feels like the Joker’s Theme in The Dark Knight is playing throughout. If that doesn’t unsettle in a game based during a war when the Black Plague has ravaged a nation I don’t know what will. I will be purchasing the soundtrack the moment I find it. I’m getting shivers down my spine just thinking about it.
From a gameplay standpoint I certainly found A Plague Tale repetitive, though it all made sense given the circumstances Amicia and Hugo are based in. It can feel somewhat linear in places, and whilst you’re effectively repeating puzzles throughout – no more than would in say an Uncharted or a Tomb Raider, mind – the games locations and its sheer variety in surroundings makes each stealth moment feel fresh. Amicia has the option at all times to get brutal with enemies, though it certainly works out better if you slowly work your way through. There’s not a huge amount of variety in ways you can attack a scenario, but fortunately you’ll have something on hand that you can use.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a simple recommend. The game blends the terrific stealth-like elements of games like The Last of Us with a story that’s dark, brutal, highly emotional and at some points just plain batshit crazy with two wonderful central characters who you immediately want to protect. The setting is stunning and feels wholly original. It’s polished to within an inch of its life and feels like a premium product around every corner. The gameplay mechanics are somewhat limited, but the setting, characters and the visuals more than make up for a very small observation.
It’s intense, searing with tension and absolutely nerve-shredding, whilst telling a hugely powerful story that hit me hard a few times over. There’s a tremendous depth in this game that I wasn’t expecting, but I’m so glad it’s there. It makes you care for this brother and sister duo who are doing everything they can to stay alive in impossible circumstances, and given everything you’ve had to put them through to reach some kind of other side, you want to see them succeed. Every free moment I had was given to this game, I had to know how it all ended. Amicia and Hugo deserved my time.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is easily one of my absolute favourite games of the year so far.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Asobo Studios
Publisher: Focus Interactive
In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any of our other content please consider supporting our Patreon.