Amicia and Hugo tip-toe across cadavers strewn about a now empty battlefield, devoid of life except for them, where men had fought face-to-face and died together.
“Are we hurting them?” the boy Hugo questions honestly, with equal levels concern and naivete in his voice that makes one feel the men might actually be alive when you know they will never be again.
This uniquely harrowing and tender sequence represents the essence of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a game in which small bits of purity often exist amidst total and utter despair. It’s a place where video games seldom have the courage to go, or fail in an attempt to do so.
Asobo Studio’s stealth-adventure isn’t like other games. Incredible, heartbreaking and often downright repulsive, the French team’s creation is a special experience that proves a game doesn’t have to be fun in order to be enjoyable. In fact, I’d argue that the struggle of playing through its jarring environments and painful moments is intentional. And precisely what makes it so memorable.
To confirm, it’s not the mechanics or systems that make it painful to play. In fact, directors David Dedeine and Kevin Choteau create fluid stealth and combat abilities, as I’ll dive into later. It’s because of the setting, its aesthetic and overall tone. Its decaying environments. The ghastly corridors. That sickening feeling of trudging through the of world and its timeline, as children nonetheless. These aspects are chilling, approaching unbearable, that I won’t be able to shake them for a long time. This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.
Set in France during the 14th Century, this interactive narrative published by Focus Home Interactive follows the children of nobles Beatrice and Robert De Rune amidst a blood plague and the Inquisition. The player controls teenager Amicia, often alongside her five year-old brother Hugo, the latter of which starts the story in quarantine at the behest of his mother due to suffering from a mysterious illness.
In the opening scene, Inquisition soldiers storm the De Rune residence looking for young Hugo. It’s here the game introduces its main features: stealth, deception and light combat elements. Amicia boasts a variety of distraction and even lethal techniques, plus can direct her companions to help clear a path or unlock areas. It’s a clever system that peels back deeper and deeper layers throughout the game, even up to its final act, and tailors Amicia’s tools based on who is with her at a particular time.
The siblings escape the estate, though Robert and Beatrice remain behind with their Inquisition captors. Robert is slain and Beatrice appears to be as well. What follows is a narrative normally not attempted in games, focusing on teenagers and children plodding through a war-torn region plagued by a number of atrocities. Albeit still very much a game, speckled with familiar mechanics and tropes within its genre.
This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.
As the pair crosses through villages, monasteries, farms and chateaus, they face the game’s primary obstacle and most notable piece of technology: Rats. Not just any old vermin. Rabid, swarming groups of rats that devour anything not near fire or light. These are plague rats, as deadly as they are disgusting.
These swarms and Inquisition soldiers become the framework for most of the environmental puzzles. The De Runes must leverage Amicia’s sling to fling rocks and specific concoctions that can put out fires, daze foes or even blast holes through large groups of vermin. This presents all sorts of options, and while the early puzzles are rudimentary, the later game opens multiple paths to allow more elaborate combinations of tactics. Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.
To supplement Amicia’s stealth capabilities, there’s crafting of different rock “formulas” via an alchemy menu. Spells have Harry Potter-esque names like Ignifier or Luminosa. Combining is essential as both human and rodent foes become more varied in later encounters. There’s also upgrade trees for her sling, equipment and ammunition, so scouring areas for supplies is essential. This and the game’s other systems are deeper than initially thought.
It’s also more open than it seems. Branching paths create a sense of wonder, creating the sensation that its spaces are actually larger than they are. Walking with a side character into a nook within a broader room gives an opportunity for private dialogue and world-building through a handful of different collectible types. While it’s linear overall, A Plague Tale: Innocence has its share of intimate, optional moments.
One minor area of frustration for me was facing off against the game’s “bosses.” These battles are so difficult to design in this context, trying to balance stealth and combat. They can feel clunky or out-of-place, as they do here. I understand why they are present, helping to signal climaxes within each act, and I appreciate the effort despite them being my least favorite part of the game.
Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.
More broadly speaking, art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time. Kudos to the team. It’s hard to even describe: Diseased corpses, decaying animals and dilapidated buildings that were once beautiful litter the game spaces. Sometimes literally under Amicia’s feet. It’s haunting, stomach-turning stuff.
Plus, the narrative. It’s hard to describe how engaging writing lead Sébastien Renard makes it, between superlative character development, a main arc surrounding the plague then to genuine twists during late game. Especially given it centers on a pair of kids and the teenagers they meet while trying to deal with Hugo’s symptoms, finding respite amidst a world that isn’t fit for youngsters.
Amicia and Hugo’s relationship begins as distant, as the latter deals with loss for the first time. It progresses in conjunction with the game’s overarching story, as Amicia decides she’s willing to do just about anything to help her brother. They grow literally alongside one another, holding hands while solving puzzles. Hugo will bravely crawl through crevices or sneakily unlock doors. This highlights his growth, as previously he was cooped up in his bedroom. A victim of his affliction.
The game escalates quickly across 10 to 12 hours, from its more modest beginnings through a robust second act then a grand finale. Grand Inquisitor Vitalis targets Hugo throughout, as we learn how the boy, the rat plague and this twisted man leading the Inquisition are interwoven. While it gets fantastical at times, it’s forever grounded in its character relationships, motivations and determinations. I also respect that there’s equal chance the game serves up beautiful reunions between characters as it does extreme punishment, akin to the style of author George R.R. Martin.
The art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time.
Even secondary characters shine in their specific roles: The alchemist Lucas, orphan twins Melie and Arthur plus the blacksmith apprentice Rodric. All forced to mature and harden themselves way too early in life, something that children should never have to do. It’s notable how well-paced the game is, too. In that, it does downtime well. Quiet times in a Middle Ages castle that the group adopts as home or branching off to find a collectible with Hugo lull into a sense of respite. Then, that false comfort is shattered.
And I never thought I’d say this about any title: The “rat technology” of how the critters move in big groups and react to environments is impressive. This tech is crucial to so many puzzles that I don’t think it’d be near as effective without Asobo’s extensive animation and artificial intelligence work.
Voice acting and dialogue are also standout. It’s so difficult to feature children in games, which is why there are very few that do it successfully. A special shout out to Hugo’s English voice actor Logan Hannan. His performance is subtle and refreshing, even hopeful.
At one point, Hugo bemoans his torment. “I’m scared of what’s in my head,” he trembles to Amicia.
“Don’t worry.” she comforts. “We’re all scared of what’s in our heads.”
It’s a tender consolation, an understanding between the siblings. A morbid sort of comical relief that draws them closer. The boy never forgets his courtesies during the play-through, throwing in “Thank You’s” and “You’re Welcome’s” in the most charming of ways, as casually as if he was back at the De Rune estate eating dinner.
(Here’s a video featuring the actors alongside their characters.)
And the sound design! Strings escalate the tension as rats rush away from a light source. Lightning snaps across the backdrop of a fortress. The attention to this kind of detail is all the more noteworthy given how small the development team is.
What ultimately makes it special is that, while it certainly has villains, it’s hardly a good against evil cliche. It’s not merely a “surviving against the odds” tale. It’s young people attempting to maintain humanity when the world is chaos. A juxtaposition of purity and destruction. The symbolism of hopefulness while despair is ever-present.
Hugo will often find flowers throughout the world, and offer to put them in Amicia’s hair. Continually reinforcing the theme of contrast. This small, touching moment embodies what it means to stay positive within a decaying world. Characters looking for anything by which to feel a sense of normality. Fighting against those that would steal it away.
As far as historical adventures within the medium, A Plague Tale: Innocence is near a masterpiece of its genre. I’m ecstatic I gave it a legitimate chance despite my reservations about its rodents. I’m still not anywhere near comfortable with the swarms and the game’s many rotten elements, and I’ve learned that’s exactly the point.
Title: A Plague Tale: Innocence
Release Date: May 14, 2019
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Recommendation: Unless you are deathly afraid of rats, or dislike excellent games, this is undoubtedly a must-play.
Sources: Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive, Screenshots from Xbox One X.