Reviewed on Xbox One
A few hours into A Plague Tale Innocence, our journey takes us to a quaint little farm. Getting here took a lot of effort: we’ve sneaked past Inquisition soldiers, sprinted away from angry villagers and avoided endless streams of disease-ridden rats. But this is merely a fraction of the troubles that child protagonists Amicia and Hugo De Rune have seen.
Unlike our other unfortunate destinations, this farm is supposed to be a safe haven for us. We’ve been told that an alchemist called Laurentius can help to heal Hugo from a mysterious sickness, one that neither of us know or understand.
As we continue our walk up the path towards the farm, the feeling of safety washes away. No longer are the fields simply drab. Lifeless colour and decaying flowers would be enough foreshadowing of oncoming danger, but that’s only a tiny part of the imagery. As the farm gets closer, corpses pile up, the dead flowers replaced with fresh death as far as the eye can see.
If you think you’ve witnessed scenes of slaughter in a video game, you haven’t come close to the horrors that the De Rune children are cursed to see. While the farm may only be populated with the deceased hordes of livestock, that sight alone is haunting. Piles upon piles of slaughtered pigs line a path to your destination—the mounds of corpses are so high they climb halfway up the farm’s still windmill.
Maybe developer Asobo Studio intended for set pieces like these to be a simple case of childlike exaggeration, a hyperbolic superlative of what the grounded situation would be. But then, maybe not. The world the De Rune children exist in is fantastical in some elements, despite being thoroughly decrepit in its actions. Either way, hyperbole or not, it’s an unsettling vision; the farm isn’t even the most shocking scene in the game.
It’s a stark U-turn from the luscious, colourful forest in which A Plague Tale opens with. While the macabre settings in later chapters are undeniably, but unsettlingly, gorgeous, it’s the short-but-sweet opener that sits in my mind the most. It feels intentional; every part of the game’s beginning scene is picturesque to the point where it feels too good to be true. The forest is full of life, the hilly outside is unbelievably gorgeous, Amicia, her dog and her father are having a great time. But from this point on, normal life is over for the De Runes.
After an attack on their home by the Inquisition, Amicia and her brother Hugo are forced to run away. While the opening felt safe and homely, most of the remaining sixteen chapters are spent in some form of danger.
While Amicia and Hugo could never take on any of their threats in hand-to-hand combat, they both have their strengths. While Hugo is mostly used just for sneaking through small gaps to solve puzzles, Amicia is armed with a sling, a weapon which she uses to one-hit-kill helmetless enemies with a rock to the head. Later on, after a partnership with a boy called Lucas, she even learns alchemy to throw other forms of projectiles.
While a lot of the game is sneaking past soldiers and occasionally boinking them on the head with a rock, A Plague Tale also offers a variety of simple-but-effective puzzles throughout most of its levels. A lot of these revolve around light and shadow: with most of the environments riddled with disease-ridden rats, you’ll have to manipulate light in order to pass through their deadly hordes.
Rats are scared of the light and are most definitely afraid of fire. While you’ll start off simply finding illuminated paths to avoid the rats, you’ll start working with them more and more as the game goes on. Using Amicia’s sling, you could break the lantern of an Inquisition soldier, destroying their light and summoning the horde upon their flesh. It never stops getting unsettling, and that’s for the good, although end-game sections will see you using the rats in very unique ways. There’s really no game like this.
Throughout, A Plague Tale features an engrossing tale of family. It has a decent supporting cast and an unsettling main villain, but its strongest moments rest in the interactions between its main familial couple. There are moments which will make you scoff and the finale leaps headfirst into the fantastical, but it’s incredibly memorable. It’s far from what you’d expect, but it’s remarkably enthralling.
A Plague Tale Innocence is a surprise hit from developer Asobo Studio. It’s a gorgeous and macabre tale that doesn’t shy away from its more fantastical underlying narrative. It’s not a perfect game, it definitely feels rather last-gen in some of its moment-to-moment gameplay, but an unforgettable story and unique mechanics hold it up high. If you’re a fan of narrative adventures, get this game