It seems every year in video games there will always be that one title that most will look at and pass by. The sleeper hit that goes unnoticed by most because everyone is so fixated on the next Fortnite or Call of Duty or Triple-A mega hit from the bigger companies. Sometimes the best thing you’ll play is often released by some company you may never have heard of before with a title that has garnered no buzz or press of late. Last year, we got that surprise late with the release of Gris, and that’s pretty much what happened with A Plague Tale: Innocence, which scooted by completely under the radar and cemented itself as the biggest surprise of 2019.
A Plague Tale: Innocence sets itself in 14th century France and stars a young girl and her little brother. At the outset of the game, you’re hunting with your dad, and before you can take in the atmosphere of family bonding and nature, your dog is killed, so are your parents and the Plague rears its ugly head…not only as the horrible disease we know about thanks to history, but also in the form of swarming and seething rats that devour everything in their wake. Couple that off with the presence of the Inquisition as they’re on the hunt for you for reasons unknown to you early in the game’s story and we have the makings of an intriguing narrative that spans nearly 10 hours of gameplay across 17 chapters in a well-paced and provocative single player experience.
This strong opening and early heartbreak leads into a very linear stealth action-adventure game as you must dodge the hunting eyes of the Inquisition and avoid the fatal swarms of rats. Amicia, the young girl and your player character, does her best to protect her little brother Hugo, who for a long time has been battling a mysterious illness. She is armed with a sling that can throw rocks, and it can be upgraded as you move through the game. She will hold Hugo’s hand and even protect his young eyes from the horrors of the Plague with all the dead bodies and gore strewn about. The first thing you’ll immediately feel from this is the impact of the horrors that these children must go through in their quest to survive. You’ll even acquire companion NPCs that add to the adventure and assist you in your undertaking. It becomes painfully obvious that as children there is only so much you can do, but survival is the only option…and survive you must.
The oppressive atmosphere and moody lighting do great favors to the dark and gritty tone of the overall story, and at times it’s balanced with peace and tranquility during specific chapters. The game’s narrative is incredibly well paced, giving you breathers exactly when you need it and inducing horror and concern to move the story along. All of this is done with a graphical fidelity that is beautiful in its ugliness, because for every wonderfully detailed tree and foliage filled area we encounter, we also see equal parts sewer, grimy castle rampart and strewn about dead bodies (whether by the Inquisition or venerable rats themselves). The voice acting is serviceable, and the dialogue makes you feel like you’re really in the time period complete with proper accents for all the major characters. It’s all backed by a soundtrack that always matches the onscreen mood, with creepy violins doing their part to instill fear when needed, and a sweet melodic guitar letting you know when it’s safe to roam around. That such a small studio pulled this off is a testament to the quality found within when many a Triple-A company can barely get their games to load properly.
The narrative is only held back by the linear nature of the gameplay. Many of the stealth sections and puzzles have one specific solution and the game will penalize you if you are incorrect in what you must do. If you were supposed to throw a stone at a guard’s head but didn’t, that guard will notice you and chase you and alarm the other guards, forcing you to be caught and killed and restart the section. Fortunately, all the puzzles have simple solutions so nothing is too brainy, and the best ones usually involve you figuring out how to abuse light sources (the rats are afraid of fire and bright light) to maneuver through an area. The game does a great job of first making you fear the violent swarms of rats as they chase you, to embracing their existence as you utilize the puzzles to have the rats take down a guard or two, their agonizing screams and death animations as the rats envelop them and chew and…yeah, this one isn’t for the squeamish.
Another aspect of the gameplay comes from Alchemy that allow you to craft different properties for the rocks you use as ammunition. By combining different ingredients, you can make a bomb or light an area on fire. You can create a concoction known as Odoris that burns the metal of guard’s helmets which forces them to remove it, allowing you to follow up with another sling shot of a rock into their face, killing the guard. At first Amicia is squeamish about taking a life, but as the circumstance and story progress throughout, so does she as she learns to “survive or die.”
That this survival story is presented through the lens of a teenage girl and her five-year-old brother is the biggest draw to the overall narrative. Their experience becomes your experience regardless of what your age is and elevates the story to be both visually beautiful and emotionally affecting. Strong characters and their arcs are fully fleshed out from beginning to end and if there is any complaint that could be assessed at all from this game, its that the gameplay variety doesn’t stray too far from what is learned from the beginning of the game even with the upgrade system that is in place. However, none of that compares to the lead-in to the climax, as the best mechanics come at the later point of the game. I won’t spoil it here (though I DID play through it over on our Twitch channel if you wish to review it over the next two weeks from this review’s publication), but it offers some of the best gameplay moments in a title full of quality gameplay moments. Admittedly, it can get a little finicky during some sections, and this is most notable during the game’s two climactic battles against the antagonists.
Some may also find this game easy in terms of difficulty, but this isn’t a game you’re trying to play for challenge: this is a game that’s focus is on impressive storytelling in a stunning setting and goes hard on its premise of a sibling relationship during a dark and dreary period in history. The story might rush to its conclusion and not really give you a sense of who Amicia and Hugo really are as people, but the game makes up for that with inventive game play mechanics that grow more and more ambitious as the game moves along its incredibly amazing story.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is easily the sleeper hit of the year thus far. While we’ve had some stellar single player games already with the likes of games like Resident Evil 2 and Devil May Cry 5, A Plague Tale: Innocence deservedly belongs mention amongst those titles as a “must play” and “don’t miss.”