A Plague Tale: Innocence has one of the most unwieldy video game titles of the year. It also comes to us from an independent developer, Asobo Studio, that you probably aren't familiar with (unless you played the post-apocalyptic open-world racer Fuel). Hence, you'd be forgiven if it slipped under your radar. But beyond the clumsy titling lies a remarkably polished and emotionally-charged game that, while not without its faults, tells a story as rich as any AAA release.
As that title suggests, A Plague Tale revolves around a rather dire situation for Middle Ages France. Like real-life plagues, this one is spread by rats. Unlike the actual plague, this plague’s rodent vectors have been nesting and multiplying underground for years, with spectacular rat-geysers erupting from the surface as the game opens. Put simply, there are a shitload of rats in this game, and for musophobes, their creepiness continues right up until the final mission.
That’s the setting, at least. The actual story concerns teenage French girl Amicia de Rune, whose landowner parents disappear in an attack by the Inquisition that coincides with the arrival of the rat plague. Amicia is then tasked with protecting her young and congenitally ill brother Hugo, taking him to safety via the France’s pastoral countryside, verdant forests and castle dungeons. Amicia and Hugo accumulate numerous comrades on their adventure, and as they escape from location to location, they’ll unravel the mysteries of Hugo’s condition, their family history, and the link between the rats and the ancient practice of alchemy.
The very first thing you do in A Plague Tale is pat a dog. Almost the second thing you do is watch that dog die. Right away, it’s clear this will be an emotional story, and indeed, Amicia and Hugo’s relationship is its central pillar, from narrative to gameplay. Asobo Studio hired age-appropriate voice actors to play the game’s two leads, and it shows: Hugo’s curiosity and innocence feels true and genuine, while Amicia’s uncertainty and discomfort regarding her new guardian status comes through just as clearly. Throughout the game, Amicia does her best to shield Hugo from the horrors of the world - but ultimately, that innocence has to be lost if reality is to be faced. In gameplay, the pair act almost as a single unit, Amicia guiding Hugo by the hand until they have to split up for puzzle-solving purposes. Every time they do, it’s hard not to feel like you’re sending your little brother to his death.
I cared about these two characters. The earnestness of their emotions, as they're presented with a life-changing, world-changing horror, spoke to me - even as they traipsed into ever-more dangerous, dire, and disgusting situations. Where the story gets lost is in its attempts to get more grandiose, particularly as alchemy and the Inquisition get looped together in a big way. Those stories still revolve around Hugo, so the focus isn’t entirely lost, but by the time you’re fighting a ridiculous-looking boss in a cavernous cathedral, things certainly look a little fuzzy. There’s more than a touch of Assassin’s Creed lore to this, and as with those games, A Plague Tale is at its best when it sticks to the personal, rather than the generational.
Not content to merely be a full-length escort mission, A Plague Tale doubles down by mixing that with the equally-hated spectre of stealth gameplay. Amicia and Hugo have little to defend themselves with, with Amicia only bearing a sling of dubious combat effectiveness, so they must get through situations via stealth, wit, and deception. Scattered around levels are stealth-game standbys like tall grass, waist-high walls, dousable (and re-lightable) lamps, and throwable and breakable objects. There’s also a preponderance of crafting items, which is handy given the importance of alchemical recipes that allow Amicia to set fire to objects, put guards to sleep, and more. These recipes work alongside the swarms of rats, whose movements are governed by light (they hate it), meat (they love it), and magic (they obey it). By the end, Amicia still can’t fight, but she can pre-empt combat fairly effectively - either by avoiding it, or commanding rats to do it for her. There’s enough variety in the techniques and level design that it doesn’t get old.
Only, then it does. Like many games, A Plague Tale contains about one act too many, its length coming to a couple hours more than what’s appropriate. The final section combines all the abilities learned prior to it, which unfortunately means the player ends up trapped juggling a crafting-wheel interface in the middle of combat scenarios. It's clumsy, and the fifteenth time you die to an enemy whose mechanics require the use of multiple different items in sequence, you'll throw your hands in the air in exasperation. At least, I did.
Asobo Studio has put a lot of work into the atmosphere of A Plague Tale, and not just in terms of lighting or textures or sound design (which are all evocative in their own right). The rats themselves create a sense of dread as much as anything else. Functioning more like a liquid or a particle effect than individual enemies, the rats move as a sea over the ground, engulfing enemies and filling spaces in a most disconcerting way. It’s a nifty bit of engineering, and it creates the sense that these already-worn environments are themselves dying. The rat infestation gets a little over-the-top towards the end of the game, but their scurrying bodies, shining eyes, and sheer numbers are ever-frightening.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is an ambitious game for an independent developer, but one that mostly lives up to those ambitions. Oddly enough, it would probably be a better game if it had been reined back a little bit. The story is engaging, and the game play entertaining, but there’s just about 25% too much of it to produce a wholly satisfying experience. A minor adjustment in focus from the apocalyptic plot to the (really effective) personal story would help, too. That said, played in two-hour stints, A Plague Tale is an engrossing narrative, with likeable characters and gameplay just deep enough to engage while staying out of the way when it needs to. If only the rats would do the same.