Dark, grim, and especially daring, that's how I would describe A Plague Tale. The French developer Asobo Studio has been working in the industry for years, but mainly has small-scale Disney licensing games on the resume when it decides to make a name for itself. This very ambitious game is the symbolic baptism of fire for the developer and the talented people at Asobo have survived without getting burned. The result is a game that once again underlines the power of story-driven single player games.

No knights in shiny armor or magicians in lavish robes adorn the cover of this game. In A Plague Tale: Innocence you control fifteen-year-old Amicia at the time of the Middle Ages, when the Black Death seized itself in France and left millions of victims behind. The corpses are piling up and the survivors are looking for a sin block. They find that in five-year-old Hugo, Amicia’s brother. Hugo has been suffering from a mysterious illness since his birth and lives separately from his sister, until the Inquisition comes knocking on and he barely escapes with Amicia.

Amicia and Hugo, luridly robbed of their peaceful lives as little Lady and Lord of the De Rune family, suddenly find themselves alone in a world torn apart by war and illness. With Hugo by her side, Amicia has to stay out of the hands of the Inquisition and other evil-minded parties by sneaking around unseen and leading soldiers around. You do that for example by throwing stones with her slingshot, but later you also learn all kinds of alchemy recipes that lead to more creative solutions.

These creative solutions often go hand in hand with a different kind of evil that only shows its razor sharp teeth when it gets dark. The Black Death gets its own face in this game, or rather, thousands of faces. We are of course talking about the rat plague. They throw themselves over fields like a tsunami and crawl out of holes in walls like a jet-black waterfall. With literally hundreds at a time, they crawl across your screen, which is just as impressive as it is disturbing. The only thing they shun is light; everything in the shade is eaten to the bone.

Initially the rats are an extra obstacle for Amicia and Hugo and you have to find a safe way through darkness through torches, but gradually you also learn to manipulate light sources and you can even use the rats to your advantage. For example, smash the lantern of an unsuspecting soldier and watch him be devoured alive while you sneak past Hugo. It is a tough world in which you must be willing to sacrifice everything in order to survive. It is clear that Amicia is not that innocent.

One thing is clear, no matter how tough she is, Amicia is not a fighter and she will not win a direct confrontation with a halberd-wielding soldier. The entire game, which roughly takes p fifteen hours, you are therefore mainly concerned with stealth, interspersed with simple puzzles and exploring the beautiful nature at your leisure during quiet moments. There is a fine balance between those three elements and thanks to the division into chapters, you can clearly feel how long you have left when the snapping, puzzling or exploring starts to get boring. Moreover, the redemption always seems to come at exactly the right time and the chapters never feel too long or too short. It is a small detail, but that makes playing A Plague Tale feel like reading a good book.

Although it is difficult to lay down the controller, there is also plenty to notice about the story. Amicia and Hugo are credible characters, but in the beginning the story pinches itself in weird turns to push the plot in a certain direction. For example, Hugo is a smart, well-balanced boy for his age, which means that an unhappy timed outburst of anger comes out of the blue. And although Amicia and Hugo and their later allies look very human and undergo character development, the villains remain one-dimensional until the end. There had been more to it.

The power of the story of A Plague Tale is therefore in the small things. The whispered conversations between our heroes as you sneak through a hostile camp, Amicia’s increasingly louder heartbeat as a soldier approaches her hiding place; the spontaneous violin swings that scare you when sparkling red eyes emerge from the darkness, everything contributes to creating an immersive experience.

The graphic beauty of this game also plays an important role in this. Thanks to a soft, diffuse light, the enchanting landscapes, castles, cathedrals and villages that you pass get an almost supernatural look. You would almost forget that under that beauty there is often death and destruction. Contrasting with the beautiful nature you will find rotting carcasses, teeming rats and rivers of blood. In A Plague Tale, beauty is treacherous. It is a horribly beautiful, beautifully horrible game.

Fortunately, these environments are not only for walking from point A to point B, but you are also encouraged to explore the levels well. In every chapter, all kinds of collectibles are hidden, such as flowers  and objects that give more context to the time in which the game takes place. Consider the scourges of flagellants or a rosary. The game cleverly responds to the secluded upbringing of Hugo, which makes him ignorant and curious about everyday things. Amicia is fortunate to explain to Hugo about these objects, and by extension the player.

A less well elaborated element is the crafting system for making alchemy brews and upgrades for your equipment. Anyone who has played a survival or open world game lately can imagine this, but the concept does not fit well with this game. This way you can make the decision to sacrifice many valuable materials for a strong remedy that can save you from a painful death, but due to the many checkpoints you can better invest those materials in a good upgrade of your slingshot. In addition, the game always ensures that a neat stack of materials is ready to solve the next puzzle, so there is no reason to use alchemy sparingly. The absence of a heavier degree of difficulty to make the materials more scarce and thereby offer additional challenges, therefore feels like a loss.

That does not mean that A Plague Tale: Innocence has become a beautiful game that continues to fascinate you from start to finish and is wonderfully consistent. Nothing about the game is really weak, but all elements reinforce each other and make the whole experience exactly that, an experience. It is an incredible debut for Asobo Studio and a win for the single player genre.



+ Exciting ambiance thanks to atmospheric graphics and sound.
+ Varied and refreshing gameplay
+ Compelling story

– Occasionally falls into clichés

Review |