Though there is no shortage of stealth games in the gaming industry, it's rare to find one that has a story that grabs and holds the player. A Plague Tale: Innocence, a new historically-inspired title set in France during the spread of the Black Plague and in the midst of the Hundred Years' War, is one of those rare titles. The game's superb narrative stands out against most other stealth titles like a shining beacon, and this, alongside the fantastic gameplay design and gorgeous visuals and music, solidifies A Plague Tale: Innocence as one of 2019's best gaming experiences.
Brother and sister against the world
At its core, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a story about a brother and sister named Hugo and Amicia clinging to each other in order to survive the perils of 1349 France, which include the invading English army, swarms of rats carrying the Black Plague, and most sinister of all, a mysterious cult called the Inquisition, which broke off from the rest of Christian authority in order to pursue a cure for the disease in ethically disturbing ways. Amicia is only a young teenager and Hugo is just a child afflicted with a dangerous condition, so as you'd expect, trying to make it through these horrors all on their own is extremely traumatic for both of them. As Hugo emotionally struggles to cope with what he's forced to see, Amicia desperately tries to do her best to protect him, all while emotionally struggling herself. To say that A Plague Tale: Innocence is 'heartbreaking' would be an understatement.
To say that A Plague Tale: Innocence is 'heartbreaking' would be an understatement.
To make things worse for the two of them, the Inquisition wants to find Hugo and capture him, thinking his mysterious condition may be related to a cure for the plague. As Amicia and Hugo try to evade them and the disease-carrying rats, poor Amicia is forced to do things that would leave people scarred for life. This ranges from simply killing people outright to tricking them into getting eaten alive by rats, just so she and Hugo can avoid capture. And as the Inquisition keeps chasing them, she's forced to do things like this more and more frequently.
This narrative, though, isn't hopeless. While the terrors that Amicia and Hugo are subjected to are undeniably awful, the bond that they form by relying on each other for survival forms a ray of sunshine amidst the bleakness. Where the Inquisition represents how horrific events like war and a plague outbreak can bring out the worst in people, Amicia and Hugo represent how love, compassion, and empathy can bring out the best in us, even through extreme trauma. This is the core theme of A Plague Tale: Innocence's story, and it's a story that was executed excellently.
While I have a few issues with how some of the story's side characters are handled towards the conclusion of the narrative, the game's writing overall is nothing short of fantastic.
A perfect blend
Gameplay wise, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a satisfying blend of stealth and puzzle gameplay, with horror elements seasoned throughout. For most of the game, you'll be staying hidden from enemies by staying low and distracting them by using Amicia's sling to make distracting noises. This classic stealth formula of watching patrol patterns and then either sneaking through them when you see an opening or creating one yourself with a distraction isn't unique, but it's well done, with the stealth segments towards the latter half of the game in particular standing out as superb.
Since Amicia dies in one hit, fighting is ill-advised, but there are times where you have to. In those moments, you have to rely on some tools in order to survive. One example of these is a special knockout drug that can be used to stealthily take out a foe. Another is a corrosive mixture that can be thrown at an armored enemy's head to make his helmet burn his skin, making him throw it off. This leaves him exposed for a lethal headshot with a rock from Amicia's sling. Tools like these have to be used sparingly, though, because they can only be crafted from materials you find in levels. If you manage to make it through stealth segments without relying on them, you're rewarded with more materials to permanently upgrade your sling, ammunition pouch, or material bag with.
The other main part of the gameplay is puzzle-solving, and this is where the rats take center stage. The core mechanic with them is that they'll eat you if you venture into their area, but you can repel them if you have a light source, such as a torch. This leads to puzzles where you have to get from A to B through large groupings of rats. For example, one puzzle tasks you with igniting dormant braziers. As you get further into the game, however, the puzzles get more complex. Sometimes you'll have to trap the rats in an area by forcing them into it with light, or you'll have to get to a place, take the item you need from it, and go back where you came, instead of simply advancing forward. All of these puzzles are expertly crafted and fun to solve, and sometimes they're really creative, incorporating elements of the stealth segments too.
Both the stealth and puzzle experiences are accentuated by a horror-style atmosphere, mainly composed of unsettling sounds and visuals with the occasional light jump scare. There are also a few boss fights that feel a lot like something straight out of Resident Evil. My favorite of these was an encounter with a huge man covered in plate armor, in which you have to target the buckles that are holding it in place on his body to remove it — all while dodging his massive two-handed mace.
Gorgeous and grotesque
When it comes to presentation, A Plague Tale: Innocence is stunning, both visually and audibly. The graphics are top-notch, and the way the developers brought both the beauty and horrors of the plague-ridden French countryside to life is incredible. There's detail to be found everywhere you look, from the bloody streets in a war-torn village to the warm glow of sunlight against an autumn forest. The musical score is fantastic, too, with tracks that add perfectly to the mood of scenes, regardless of whether they're heart-wrenching, unnerving, or scary. The voice-acting was mostly great, though there are a few times where I feel that it fell flat.
A Plague Tale: Innocence looks, sounds, and plays excellent.
In terms of performance, A Plague Tale: Innocence is awesome, though not perfect. The frame rate is buttery smooth, and the only real issue I encountered was some screen stuttering in the middle of gameplay, but it was never bad enough that it hampered my experience too much. I could see it potentially getting the player killed if it happens at a bad time, though.
Should you buy A Plague Tale: Innocence?
While there are some minor flaws with A Plague Tale: Innocence, the game as a whole is still absolutely fantastic, offering players a gripping narrative, a compelling mix of stealth and puzzle gameplay, and gorgeous audio/visuals. This is, without a doubt, one of the best games of 2019 so far, and I can't recommend it enough.
- Fantastic story
- Superb gameplay
- Excellent presentation
- Smooth performance overall
- Side characters could be handled better
- Voice acting sometimes falls flat
- Occasional screen hitching
A Plague Tale: Innocence is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
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