There’s a sweet spot in video games today that I really like, where the artistry of independent development meets big budget production. Recently that little slice of the industry has begun to expand, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory has a lot to do with that. There’s a market for mid-budget games from world-class developers, where great stories and beautiful art can shine. A Plague Tale: Innocence is exactly this kind of game.
Having watched the trailers or pre-release footage, you might have put together a picture of what this game is. We all do it, you see a new game and your gamer sense kicks in. At face value, this might look like another dour adventure game with some tacked on mechanics, but A Plague Tale: Innocence is so much more than it lets on.
A tale of a loss of innocence
On the surface, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a story-focused adventure game made up of stealth and action scenes, all set pieces with clear guidance. Player freedom is limited for dramatic, scripted scenarios. Your hand is held a lot through the first few chapters, but as you progress through the game more and more freedom is afforded to you. This is what I mean when I say this game is more than it appears because you’d be forgiven if you wrote A Plague Tale: Innocence off as another walking simulator.
The early stages are heavily focused on stealth, but as the game progresses the focus shifts more towards combat. As Amicia, you are armed with a sling and as many rocks as you can find. During the first few chapters, you are encouraged to use rocks and pots to distract enemies, allowing you to sneak around them.
The crack of the sling is loud, so it can’t be used to silently take down guards. In fact, the game implies using the sling is a last resort. Shots are slow to line up, and it can only take down guards without helmets. You’re a teenage girl, not a trained killer.
This is where I want to talk about one of the strengths of this game, how it amps up as it progresses. As I’ve said, the game prioritizes stealth early on and gives you little recourse in a fight. However, there is a gradual shift as the game goes on from stealth to combat.
Essentially, from non-lethal to fully lethal. I mean, you play as a young woman thrust into an unthinkably horrible situation. She’s not prepared, but she has to learn quickly in order to survive. Throughout the game you gain new tools, alchemical creations to dissolve enemy helmets or attract plague rats. At no point does this game tell you when to start killing people, it simply puts enemies in your way and it’s up to you when
your survival becomes more important than theirs. I can guarantee you, there’s no way to get through this game without taking lives. Your only choice is how many. There’s no incentive to go one way or the other, no Big Boss rating for beating the game with no kills. You will have to do some unpleasant things in this game, it’s up to you how far you take it.
I have played a lot of games that play off the morality of killing, that gives you the choice. Not one of them has implemented that idea as fluidly, as integrally as A Plague Tale: Innocence has. This game strips back the layers of video game nonsense and gives you the messy truth; simply do or do not. You’re not going to get a shiny medal for choosing correctly, you don’t get the good ending for being a moral crusader. The only weight to your actions is the weight on your conscience, and it’s sublime.
A Plot of Innocence
Let’s talk plot. Amicia De Rune is the daughter of a French knight, circa 1340. France in the 14th century means two things, the plague, and the Inquisition. Throughout this game, you are tasked by both. When the Inquisition shows up at the De Rune estate, things go south in a hurry. Amicia barely makes it out alive with her little brother Hugo in tow.
The newly orphaned siblings must now make sense of life when their home is destroyed and the world they are thrust into is hostile, to say the least. Townspeople in the first settlement they encounter are suspicious and confrontational.
The plague is taking lives by the dozens, so two outsiders strolling into town are treated as an infection to be stamped out. These poor kids really cannot catch a break! Though things will eventually get a little better for our heroes as they make friends with other outcasts, they still must endure hardship after hardship in an unforgiving adventure. A Plague Tale: Innocence earns its subtitle, telling a moving story of a teenage girl forced to into immense responsibility and a little boy who clings to his childhood in a world rapidly tearing it away from him.
The game isn’t a total bummer, though. The De Runes do make some good friends along the way, starting with Lucas. Lucas is an apprentice alchemist, he gives you a lot of the formulas you need to craft your various concoctions.
He’s basically your Q-branch. There are Mellie and Arthur, twin thieves who are handy when a door needs unlocking. Then there’s Rodric, son of a blacksmith. He tends to be the muscle of the group. What brings these characters together is loss, grief, and strife. They have all lost those who once protected them, and barely have the time to register their own pain before the harsh reality comes for them too. The only relief they have in their situation is each other, their monumental struggle is really only possible through solidarity and co-operation.
I almost forgot about the rats! Oh boy, there are a lot of rats. Too many rats, you might say. Being the namesake of the game, the plague is a key factor in this story. Wherever you go, the plague is prevalent. Rats fill each and every patch of darkness and devour anything foolish enough to enter that darkness. During the day they are rarely seen but at night they are everywhere. Your only means to combat the rats is light, swinging torches and lighting fires will keep them at bay.
The game is interspersed with light (get it?) puzzle sections in which you must traverse an area while avoiding becoming a midnight snack. I’ll warn you now, the rat swarms are unpleasant to behold. If you are in any way squeamish about these kinds of things, might need to avoid this one. One thing to note, always be wary of the rats at night. Even when you’re nowhere near any rats, standing in a dark area while a rat has a clear path to you and they might just take it. More than once I was eaten by some overzealous rats who decided to trek halfway across the room to get me.
There are no spoilers in this tale
It’s hard to talk much about the later game without giving away some spoilers that I really recommend you see for yourself. Seriously, this game goes places. Pretty early on you’ll catch on that there’s something a bit supernatural going on here, what with the alchemy and so on. The Inquisition is after young Hugo for a reason, an unusual reason at that. You’ll have to go see the Grand Inquisitor yourself to find out what that is.
That pretty much says it though, I want you to go experience this for yourself. I had decently high expectations for this game and it exceeded them on almost all fronts. It looks and sounds amazing. The stealth is a bit by the numbers but it serves its purpose well.
Crafting in your tale
The upgrade and crafting system was something I thought would feel tacked on and out of place, but it doesn’t at all. This game is a lot more action, a lot more involved than your typical artsy think piece. Someone should show this to David Cage, maybe he’ll put more video game in his video games from now on. It certainly has more emotion than anything he’s made. Seriously, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a hell of a journey with some lovable characters who will break your heart if you let them. Give it a go.
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