Medieval France is the setting for an unexpectedly bold mix of stealth adventure and rat-infested horror…
Video games are a nightmare for arachnophobes. Spiders are almost as common a foe as zombies, with most of nature’s other most unpopular animals never seeming to get a look in. But if you suffer from musophobia then we’d say straight way that you should not, under any circumstances, play this game. Which is a shame, because for anyone that doesn’t have a disproportionate fear of rats this is one of the most interesting video game releases of the year.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is set in southwest France during the Hundred Years’ War. That’s not a good time for the country, as not only have the English just invaded but there’s a plague of rats that threatens to spread, well… the plague. (And even if they weren’t no one wants hundreds of thousands of rats hanging around, whether they’re carrying disease-ridden parasites or not.)
You play the game as a young noblewoman named Amicia de Rune, whose five-year-old brother Hugo has a strange ailment that has kept him confined to their estate. When their home is raided by Inquisition knights specifically targeting their family the pair are forced to go on the run, contending not only with the Inquisition but the hordes of rats that seem to be everywhere.
A Plague Tale is essentially a stealth game, but one where you are almost always on the defensive. You’re not trying to the hide in the shadows so you can jump out and garrotte someone, you’re doing it simply to stay out of sight and escape. Even without the unique setting that’s an unusual thing for most video games, and as a result A Plague Tale’s focus is less on action and more on puzzle-solving and storytelling.
Although the game has one foot in historical truth the tone of the game is purposefully off-kilter from the very start, with the rats portrayed more like a demonic horde than a natural infestation. We’re not joking about this being nightmare fuel for musophobes, as even if you actively like the real things the creatures in the game, with their horrible noises and ability to strip people to the bone, like land-born piranhas, are horrifying by any measure.
Hugo spends most of his time understandably terrified, so it’s up to you, as Amicia, to guide him to safety – literally. You have to keep holding Hugo’s hand or he’ll start screaming out if left alone for too long, which obviously creates problems when you’re trying to get things done. If your escort mission radar has just gone off then you need not worry too much, as the game is careful not to fall into the more obvious pitfalls the idea presents.
Instead, each set piece works more like a self-contained puzzle, where you use the fact that the rats hate the light, and especially fire, to either avoid them or place them in the path of the Inquisition. This can get rather contrived at times, and the game does a good job of pretending you’re in more danger than you actually are, but the mechanics and setting are more than interesting enough to excuse the smoke and mirrors.
Amicia and Hugo aren’t entirely helpless, with Hugo able to fit in small gaps that no-one else can and his sister possessing a sling that can knock out, stun, or even kill soldiers. She can also load up with alternate ammo that can start or put out fires or attract rats towards a certain spot. Combat is still a minor part of the game but there are what are essentially boss fights at the end of some of the chapters, and the last one in particular is very impressive.
Despite the original script presumably having been written in French, the dialogue is surprisingly good and the characterisation of Hugo, the primary reference of the subtitle, is especially good. Not only does he avoid being an irritating burden in terms of gameplay but he’s a genuinely charming character to be around. As obviously traumatised as he is, his childlike wonder at the less disturbing sights he sees are very endearing, as is his unconditional love for his sister.
Hugo’s ability to find beauty and companionship all around him, despite all the many terrors, is genuinely uplifting and far more subtly illustrated than many more high-profile games. The voice-acting and the graphics, particularly the animation, are also much better than you might assume and create an atmosphere of Lovecraftian horror that is not at all what you would expect from a game about two children in Medieval France.
A Plague Tale is a welcome surprise all round, but it’s the atmosphere and the portrayal of the two leads that impresses the most, and immediately makes us wonder why Asobo Studio has been stuck making unremarkable children’s movie tie-ins for most of their existence.
Although maybe it was that experience that gave them such insight into how children think and act. Whatever they case, they’ve put themselves on the map with this game and we’d recommend A Plague Tale: Innocence to anyone. Well, anyone that’s not scared of rats that is.
A Plague Tale: Innocence
In Short: An impressively unique stealth adventure which mixes a gothic horror atmosphere with a touching tale of two siblings surviving against the odds.
Pros: Excellent characterisation of the leads, in terms of dialogue, gameplay, and animation. Interesting gameplay elements meld together well, with some surprisingly good boss encounters.
Cons: The puzzles can feel contrived and rather shallow. A little too linear at times.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Asobo Studio
Release Date: 14th May 2019
Age Rating: 18
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