There’s a lot of unrefined, double-A clumsiness to A Plague Tale: Innocence, which you can’t quite detect from the striking screenshots and trailers. Asobo Studios has crafted a beautiful world, no doubt, full of towering medieval castles, gruesome battlefields, and ancient forests. Most impressive is the sense of scale and depth, which brilliantly emphasises how small and vulnerable protagonists Amicia and Hugo are in the face of an invading British army, ruthless inquisitors, and festering swarms of rats. Yet everything seems a little stiff in motion, a little unresponsive, and the gameplay simply doesn’t match up to the excellent environmental design. Which is a shame, because beneath some awkwardness and moments of frustration is an old-school adventure that brilliantly captures the intoxicating magic of lying in bed late at night, devouring the pages of a classic dark fantasy novel.
Amicia de Rune has good reason to dislike her little brother, Hugo. He never shuts up, is always running off, and endures a mysterious sickness that dominates the attention, and affection, of their mother. So it hardly seems fair when, after a sudden and brutal attack on their family home, Amicia is forced to protect Hugo as they flee across plague-ridden France. Armed with a surprisingly adaptable sling, a pocket full of rocks, and Hugo’s penchant for climbing into small spaces, they must sneak past armed guards and manipulate the movements of scuttling hordes of rats – the latter of which are brought to life through some deliciously ghastly rodent physics.
This is a linear, narrative-led experience, with a little bit of action and a side-order of stealth to sweeten the meal. Little Hugo is tethered to Amicia’s side for much of the early going, which threatens to make the next ten hours of third-person stealth a painful experience. Thankfully, most enemies are remarkably imperceptive – must be all that steel and chainmail – and bar a few late-game confrontations I was hardly ever spotted. There are plenty of interesting ways to manipulate and interact with the environment and your foes. Rats will rush towards a fallen leg of lamb, and disappear into cracks and crevices under the glare of lamplight. Eventually, you can craft alchemical projectiles to corrode steel helmets, then strike an unwitting guard hard in the head with a well-timed slingshot to incapacitate them. Or, if you’re feeling particularly nasty, aim for some poor soldier’s lantern and watch as dozens of rats go to town. It’s satisfying stuff, and the opportunity to fight back if a guard notices you helps alleviate some of the restrictive pressure of certain levels. But experimentation seems like a happy side effect of the systems at play, rather than an intentional part of the gameplay. There’s usually only one or two sensible distractions to trigger or tools to use, and the enemies you’ve got to kill invariably find themselves pottering about in conveniently dangerous locales.
This hardly matters when the story zips by at such a blistering pace. You’re never in the same location or with the same makeup of companions for more than an hour, and you’ll constantly discover new upgrades or ammo types for Amicia’s sling. As your armoury grows, Amicia begins to feel like a truly capable heroine, surviving and thriving in a dangerous world through wits and calculated gambits. When other characters join your party, you can order them to lockpick doors or rugby tackle guards. It’s a neat way to expand the gameplay options, whilst maintaining the integrity of Amicia’s shrewd but flighty personality.
It’s worth mentioning the Hugo of it all, of course. Yes, A Plague Tale: Innocence is essentially a ten-hour escort mission. Sometimes, it can be pretty damn annoying when you’ve got to watch Amicia helping Hugo climb each and every waist-high wall. She’s not exactly thrilled with the situation, either. More than once her frustrations boil over, and she gives Hugo a harsh talking to (that’s right – you tell him who’s boss!). The writing shines in these moments, convincingly painting a portrait of a family who loves, but doesn’t necessarily like, one another. Even so, Hugo is a little shit, and a few tweaks here and there could really help.
It’s these characters who make this journey worth undertaking, though, from Amicia to Hugo to everyone else they meet along the way. There’s a genuine charm in seeing this intriguingly historical, low fantasy setting through their eyes. You won’t come across any fire-breathing dragons or mystical elves, yet when our band of misfits discover an alchemist’s courtyard, a sky-high aqueduct, or a vast underground cave system, the sense of wonderment and awe is overwhelming. Hugo can hardly believe what he’s seeing, and his curiosity is deeply contagious.
That sense of childlike discovery is more than enough to make A Plague Tale: Innocence worth playing. As each of the games seventeen chapters came to a close, I asked myself: Where will we go now? What will we see? What trouble will befall our heroes next, and how will they escape?
I couldn’t help myself but turn the page, and keep on playing late into the night.