The success of the Assassins Creed franchise has ushered in a plethora of stealth action and horror games, from the brilliant Batman Arkham Games to the terrifying Alien Isolation, each have their own unique take on stealth and how it works. Now even games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider have shoehorned in stealth, often to the detriment of the game itself. The recent release of The Last of Us Part 2 (click here for my review) was a masterclass in refinement of stealth gameplay, but one that still lacked the deep immersion of gameplay systems which feature in games like Hitman, or smart AI that the Xenomorph possesses in the aforementioned Alien game. For The Last of Us the narrative hooks far outweighed any shortcomings in gameplay. A Plague Tale: Innocence attempts something similar and with a team of around 40 people at developer Asobo, it’s a valiant effort and well worth your time. Here’s my review for A Plague Tale: Innocence.
A Plague Tale’s setting of 1348 rural France is certainly unique, following Amicia and her brother Hugo during a time of disease and famine. Early in the game you learn that Amicia and Hugo barely know one another, with her brother suffering from a strange disease that means he’s been isolated his entire life. When the inquisition come looking for the young boy it sets the adventure in motion as Amicia is tasked with protecting her brother whilst trying to find an alchemist to help with Hugo’s condition.
It’s an intriguing premise for a AAA game to have two children as it’s protagonists and their relationship is definitely the most interesting aspect. Hugo and Amicia build a bond over the course of the narrative going from annoyance and lack of trust to sharing a traumatic experience that binds them forever. Amicia’s protectiveness over her little brother is believable and will certainly resonate with other gamers with annoying younger siblings. Other teenage characters join the story as the game progresses, which ties into the stories theme of innocence brilliantly – all of them are likeable and mostly well developed. The game gives off a historic Stand By Me vibe in some ways, with these kids learning what their capable of and having to grow up quickly well before their time.
The Plague aspect of the game features heavily throughout with towns and villages ravaged by rats and disease – it’s a brilliant re-imagining of real life history and something I’ve not seen done like this in a videogame. It’s a bit of a shame that the last third of the game does away with the realistic approach and decides to go on a supernatural route – it doesn’t make the narrative fall a part but it does make the game go from an intriguing real world drama that uses alchemy for the games mechanics to a cheesy wannabe blockbuster complete with a truly terrible villain whose motives are completely ridiculous. It’s a massive missed opportunity with the setting, time period and characters there could have been a real moral quandary at play with the antagonist that could have tested characters resolve and their newly formed bond, instead it does what almost all typical videogame narratives do.
GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS
As mentioned A Plague Tale is a story driven stealth game and it does an OK job of maintaining an interesting gameplay loop through its 15 hour campaign. It’s a perfectly passable stealth game, where hiding and learning enemy routes is important for succeeding in each section. Amicia is initially only armed with a rock sling shot, it’s slow to load but packs a satisfying punch as you head shot enemies – her arsenal increases over the course of the game, but only the sling shot provides the player with an aggressive approach to combat, everything else helps you turn the tide using your environment. The rats are a huge aspect of the game and are brilliantly rendered, 100’s of the critters can populate the screen at a time – it’s skin crawling and the feeling never subsides. The rats are scared of light, which provides the game with its biggest mechanic, extinguishing lights and breaking lanterns so the rats will feast on your enemies is a seriously twisted and gratifying way to dispense of them.
The rats provide clever but pretty easy puzzle solving as well, it breaks up the monotony of constant combat but barring one genius moment at the mid-way point involving clearing rats out of a castle, it’s a real shame this wasn’t a bigger focus as it was the most memorable aspect of the game and it’s largely ignored in the latter half of the game.
Combat doesn’t quite hold up through the latter parts of the game, enemy AI is incredibly poor, with communication between them almost non-existent barring some scripted moments. Enemies will completely ignore your presence where I could run up behind them with no one noticing and then another enemy will immediately see you from miles away. Amicia controls smoothly, but her speed varies and once fully seen by groups of enemies it’s pretty much a death sentence, turning the tide is next to impossible, especially in the late game with archers shooting at you from out of range of your sling. Taking an aggressive approach also means Amicia will automatically stand out of cover and is venerable to being seen, this started to cause a lot of irritation as it meant experimenting with different tactics was pretty much impossible – her sling is also slow and sometimes annoyingly inaccurate, using an auto-lock on that would slip from target for no reason, resulting in my death – it started to try my patience as I had to redo stealth sections that weren’t that fun the first time.
Graphically the game is really beautiful, scenery is dark and dank which is perfect for a place overcome with disease and plague. France is rendered very realistically, with stunning lighting. Sunrays shine through the tree tops casting realistic shadows, clothing fabric and environmental textures look true to life – it’s an incredible achievement for a game with a team this small. Character faces are less favourable with a serious case of uncanny valley, lip-synching is OK but once again isn’t quite up to the standard of say Hellblade. It’s a shame as the character voice work is mostly excellent, with believable performances all round. The games score is a fantastic, setting the mood with haunting strings that are perfectly in keeping with the games setting.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is manages to combine a tantalising narrative with unique stealth gameplay that proves satisfying and thrilling in the first two thirds of the game. Dumb AI, slow restrained combat and a narrative that falls a part by the end sadly hold the game back from true greatness. It’s still worth your time though especially while the game is available on Xbox Gamepass. If there is a sequel to the game (and I hope there is) I could see it being a proper alternative to The Last Of Us, the characters and mechanical foundations are there, but expanding and broadening all this with a better narrative could make for an exceptional sequel.
- Generally great characters which are well voiced acted
- The rats!
- Fantastic setting with beautiful graphics
- A great puzzle at the mid point of the game
- Superb music and atmosphere
- Realistically portrayed sibling relationship
- Narrative takes a silly supernatural turn
- Long loading times
- Poor and uneven enemy AI
- Close quarters combat is messy and inaccurate
- Poor villain