A beacon of hope.
A Plague Tale sits at the precipice of the games industry. Thanks to vile, odious business practices from billion-dollar corporations intent on squeezing every possible drop from the udders of the medium, it’s increasingly difficult for games to survive on ideas. Good ideas, importantly. Therefore, it is up to perhaps more modestly less notorious publishers to take a chance on creativity – a contemporary scarcity.
One of these publishers is Focus Home Interactive, who seem to be in the midst of their own renaissance of sorts. With games like Vampyr, The Council and Call of Cthulhu under their belts – three interesting, quality titles – their latest game is one of the best they’ve took on this far. A Plague Tale: Innocence, a third-person action adventure, is an excellent journey that is made with passion and care with a singular vision. With fantastic storytelling, wonderful characters and writing, and tense and thrilling gameplay that maintains its identity over its lengthy story, it’s a brilliant experience that defies all modern AAA trappings and is easily the best game of the year so far.
Developed by Asobo Studio, A Plague Tale is set in 14th century France and follows Amicia De Rune who must escape a tragic assault on her home with her younger brother, Hugo, and seek help from a doctor who can aid Hugo’s mysterious condition.
As the daughter of a noble aristocracy and pursued by the Inquisition, Amicia is sadly a product of a brutal and horrifying world, where the Black Plague has decimated man and corpses constitute roads and paths. It’s remarkably adept at creating a constant sense of atmosphere and dread.
The story has some fascinating developments and, along the way, introduces us to new, interesting and well-written characters who juxtapose the setting. In fact, the writing overall is excellent. Dialogue is natural and NPC’s have a surprising amount of conversation when exploring. Each character feels real and has their own charm, making them incredibly likeable.
This is helped immensely by the voice acting, which is outstanding. Each character is played with skill and talent, and the emotional depth each actor brings to the role is admirable. This could well be some of the best voice work in a long time.
The world of A Plague Tale is dark and scary, but it’s also beautiful. Asobo’s talents are on full display, as the vivid art direction sells the atmosphere. It’s harrowing yet hopeful in its composition, and characters look great save for some lesser lip syncing.
Environments are large and detailed, and texture quality is impressive. As a main gameplay element, lighting is appropriately great, and highlights the developer’s artistic merits perfectly.
Adding more to the immersive nature of the world is the music, courtesy of Olivier Deriviere. Having experienced his work on Remember Me, Get Even and Vampyr, suffice it to say Deriviere is slowly becoming one of the top composers in the industry and, judged by the merits of this game, that claim is completely justified. The score is moody, tense and thrilling, and I would love it to receive some recognition come awards season.
A Plague Tale is broken up into three key areas: stealth, puzzles and action. Each aspect of the gameplay is distinct in its focused design, with little in the way of shoehorned elements. Asobo clearly polished these areas to a quality standard, and that shows through the feel of its controls and its mechanics.
The stealth is tense and often very scary. Using Amicia’s slingshot – her primary source of offensive capability – you can fire rocks at armour and weapon crates or hanging chains to distract guards while moving through the environment. This is best featured in the opening level, which does a good job of introducing you to the mechanics as well as the commands you can use for Hugo.
Using the down button on the d-pad, you can order Hugo to stay in his position while you go ahead and distract guards of open the way to the next area, then press the same button to regroup with him. Later on in the game, you can use more commands with other characters with varying abilities to find secrets or eliminate enemies.
As a young girl with an even younger brother, Amicia isn’t as strong as the Inquisition so she will die in a single hit if spotted, so distracting guards and using cover is all but essential. Later levels provide more ways to move through undetected, so the game often evolves alongside the player.
Enemy guards are intimidating in themselves, but even scarier are the rats. The Black Plague decimated millions and tore a hole through the fabric of humanity at that point, and highlighting the role of the rats in this game is one of ingenuity. They are ghastly and will have you unnerved upon every encounter. As swarms, they are impossible to fight, so Amicia must either run from them or use light – the game’s main source of defence.
Amicia can Light sticks and torches in order to move through littered areas, and this provides tension as the sticks in particular are often a limited source of light. Lighting braziers is key, as they never extinguish and are a safe haven. Many environments have torches and braziers scattered around, and is often a case of running to light each one as quickly as possible. These chase sequences, both soldier and rat, are some of the most tense and thrilling moments of the entire experience and will have you on the edge of your seat.
The aforementioned slingshot has different alchemical abilities such as lighting things on fire, exploding a rat swarm and, one of my favourites, distracting rats to a specific area, particularly enemies. Speaking of the latter, enemies walk around rat swarms with lanterns or torches, and you can throw a rock and knock out those lights or use an ability that can extinguish light, in which rats will run and consume the soldier. It’s unsettling but oddly satisfying.
The slingshot and Amicia’s own abilities can be upgraded. Using workbenches around each level, as well as materials you can scavenge from every nook and cranny, Amicia can extend her ammunition capacity, move using less noise, and make the slingshot more powerful, in addition to many more. It evolves the gameplay and makes things more fun and flexible, and feels like a natural progression of Amicia’s growing experience.
The puzzles are also a highlight. One standout is when need Amicia must move lit braziers using pulleys in order to maintain a safe path through a massive rat swarm. Another one involves using a beam of light to eliminate rats while moving a trolley through a graveyard to climb out.
I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s story, writing, characters, sound and gameplay work as a cohesive whole. It’s a lengthy 15-18 hour journey and will keep you engaged through every minute. It’s a byproduct of a studio who had an idea and put their heart and soul into every detail of the world, sound cue and gameplay element. Don’t be put off by its lack of AAA status. This is the year’s best game so far.