A Plague Tale: Innocence review – People often expect the French Inquisition

You know it is damned unfortunate that I’ve seen the comparison of A Plague Tale: Innocence to The Last of Us and the most recent God of War, because I only got about halfway through the former and an hour into the latter and so can’t really make much of said comparisons. It has to be said though that these days the theme of “looking after someone small and defenceless” has become the new go-to trope for games wanting to do some emotive story-telling. Admittedly the joke now is that because so many games make you play the gruff, beardy, father figure, this time around they kill that guy off right at the start and so you play as the semi-innocent having to protect the even MORE innocent and defenceless…

The game is set in France in 1348 where you play as Amicia de Rune (a girl with a serious case of protag-name), daughter of a French nobleman. At the start of the game you discover that France is being beset by a plague which may or may not be somewhat supernatural in origin, and then your family household are slain by a branch of the Inquisition who are trying to hunt down your younger brother Hugo. From this point on the game is primarily about protecting Hugo, with Amicia and him all alone in the big bad world. This is made more difficult because Hugo has been kept in isolated quarantine his whole life due to a mysterious affliction his mother spent years trying to cure, and so Hugo and Amicia are almost strangers.

Much of the plot from this point on follows on a pretty logical series of steps. First attempting to find a doctor who can cure Hugo, then attempting to find a place of safety they can hide from the Inquisition and then working towards assembling a cure for Hugo. During this period the two youngsters are aided by other adolescents they meet along the way, forming a sort of rag-tag group of Merry Men to go with Amicia’s Robin Hood.

Despite what I said at the start and what seems to be so often touted, the game actually most closely resembles Hellblade: Satsuma’s Sandwich. Even right down to the unnecessarily long title with the colon… Indeed, initial impressions actually led me to believe it would be a walking simulator along similar lines, albeit with stealth elements. Also similar is that this is a pretty outrageously grim game, full of human misery and suffering.

The first impressions actually turned out to be pretty incorrect, and the comparison to Hellblade is quite useful here. Hellblade felt like it was primarily story-first, with a token combat system tacked on at the last minute so that it could actually describe itself as a game and not a film. A Plague Tale on the other hand actually feels like the gameplay part of it had a good deal more thought and effort put into it. Unfortunately while the story is clearly also supposed to be the focus, it also had a good deal more contrivances and plot holes, so there was must have been some kind of trade-off happening here.

Now, as a bit of rambunctious fun which doesn’t take too much thinking about, then A Plague Tale is pretty excellent. There’s a solid villain in the Inquisition which is hunting Hugo for reasons that only become completely clear towards the end. The stages for Amicia to follow all seem pretty reasonable in that she is first trying to find safety and then find a cure for the otherworldly affliction which has gripped Hugo. There’s room for collecting the Merry Men and for elements of drama and intrigue in trying to figure out the link between Hugo’s affliction and the plague.

The discovery and transition of the plague from a realistic disease to one with more supernatural leanings happens gradually throughout the early stages.

On the other hand, the writers seem occasionally to be in just too much of a rush to get the story moving along. There are some very clear examples pretty early on which spring to mind, so this will include minor spoilers. Essentially right at the start as you try to escape the Inquisition you complete the tutorial of the game under the guidance of your mother, who then tells you that you must run off and reach Hugo’s doctor. Yet, for some reason she doesn’t come with you. The scene plays off with her opening the door to the outside world and telling Amicia and Hugo to run, without her. She has no possible way of holding off the Inquisition, and when spotted she even seems to make no attempt to try, plus she has plenty of time to escape with you! And yet because the game demands that Hugo and Amicia be isolated, the mother essentially abandons them.

I actually was genuinely left scratching my head staring and wondering if whoever wrote that particular cut-scene hadn’t made it clear enough to the animators that Amicia’s mother was supposed to be prevented from joining them in some way. Y’know, instead of just casually going “Well time for you two to make your own way in life!”

Along the same vein, you would think that the main purpose of games like this is to draw you into the world and the story by making you gradually grow attached to your ward as the main character does. So, as Amicia becomes closer to her estranged brother you would too. Except, it feels like almost immediately Amicia and Hugo actually are very close. It was another weirdly jarring element where you are told through exposition that your characters have basically never interacted together, but then after some token awkwardness they are perfectly happy to chum it up together. This also makes a few moments where Amicia and Hugo fight feel completely unearned. It’s not the awkward growing pains of love between two siblings, instead it’s an attempt at MELODRAMA because there needs to be a reason for Hugo to run off or something. Baffling stuff.

In case it’s not clear I would say that for the most part of A Plague Tale I was pretty gripped and engrossed. Partly due to some extremely solid atmospheric work and partly due to some excellent environmental design and set pieces. In fact a lot of the environments, while absolutely stupidly over-the-top, were genuinely incredibly good. For instance, I have seen a battlefield scene in particular be lauded for how incredible it looks whereas for me I found it a little unrealistic how there were literally mountains of dead bodies stretching all the way to the horizon. That said, it actually carries across to how good-looking the game is in general. I think broadly it’s just extremely well-designed and “pretty” (in a gruesome, horrific kind of way). Plus there might be an argument to be made that as this is through the eyes of children everything seems much worse than it might really be. It also does succeed in being pretty atmospheric with Amicia dragging Hugo through dark caves and ruins and towns which have been overrun and decimated by the plague.

The game is just let down with the way it tries to segue between different sections where it seems almost like the writers came up with the different stages of the plot and then had to work hard to find some reason that they do happen like that. Planning the individual set pieces first and then connecting the dots later.

In terms of gameplay, the game is 3rd-person stealth action. You need to creep around avoiding guards and soldiers of the Inquisition. There are a few standard methods of distracting guards by throwing objects and there are a few different types of guards which require different methods of dealing with them. I say “dealing with them” because I actually kept forgetting for big portions of the game that Amicia is perfectly capable of one-shot headshotting any baddie not wearing a helmet.

Have at thee tiny, little, girl!

Yeah, she’s a bit of a Rambo… Plus there’s a completely shoehorned in crafting system for different ammo types to boot! Now you’d think this would make for a complete absence of tension, but I suspect many people might play the game like me with the constant assumption of Amicia being mostly defenceless and avoiding conflict wherever possible. Although I say this after having watched parts of another playthrough in which the YouTuber turned Amicia into a lethal weapon and left nobody alive in his wake and managed it fairly easily too. This did make me wonder if perhaps I was playing the game wrong… After all there’s no moral choice system at play here, it’s just topping dudes left right and centre or don’t…

By the end though the killing does gradually become a more necessary part of the game but it did never stop feeling surprisingly overpowered. After all, Amicia is ostensibly the teenaged daughter of a noble armed with nothing more than a slingshot, so being able instantly kill a significant portion of the enemies was somewhat bizarre.

Finding crafting mats is also stupidly easy so I’m not really I understood the necessity of including this.

While the “combat” is perhaps a touch ridiculous and the stealth is fairly bog-standard, the game’s real shining gameplay element is something I haven’t even touched on yet. Throughout the game you are encountering a rat plague which seems to go along with the disease infecting France. As part of this you encounter segments where the ground is literally carpeted in rats.

On a technical aspect alone this is remarkably impressive the way that the game renders thousands of rats swarming around on the floor. It’s also consistently eerie and disturbing, the way the rats will explode from the ground or come crawling from holes pretty much always makes one’s skin crawl.

The game then has the rats form the centre of many puzzles in that they are deterred by light and so you will have to carefully navigate the sea of little monsters brandishing a gradually dimming torch or redirect streams of them using beams of light. Similarly you can also extinguish and light torches as you travel to protect yourself and set the rats on enemies.

Rather than cleanly knocking them on the head, this also often felt grim and gruesome.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this is where the game really shines. The darker and more confined segments where you need to creep through a sea of scuttling rats is just faintly disgusting in an awesome way. In fact these quieter and more atmospheric moments are those few and far-between parts where you might almost think that the game could be considered a horror, although it only ever manages to be kind of grim rather than scary.

The game isn’t above some more over-the-top action set-pieces towards the end, which were at least semi-enjoyable on their own, but for the most part it’s primarily about feeling hemmed in and trapped on all sides by darkness. That constant itching concern that if the light in your hand goes out, then you’ll die rather unpleasantly. It’s just pretty damned effective and enjoyable and really raises the game up from the stumbling mess that is the story.

Without spoiling anything, it is unfortunate then that towards the end the rats become less of a threat and somehow you even are given more power against them. It was a decision I felt was a bit of a mistake, despite allusions to why it happens the whole game, because it really removed whatever sense of threat was left from them. And where the best part of the game was the constant foreboding threat of the rats, that means they essentially removed the best bit of the game for the end.

Overall though I think I would give Innocence a recommendation when the price drops a bit. The plot is flimsy and full of contrivances and the ending starts to drift into more ridiculous territory, but it’s saved by the solid atmosphere and the set-piece design.

I do suspect though that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Innocence. The use of the subtitle in the name (as all games must have these days by law) and the way it ends leaves me to think that we might be seeing more of the series in future.

 

Rating: 72/100

Verdict: SALE

 

Pros Cons
·      Absolutely rock solid atmosphere combined with genuinely stellar level design

·      Use of rats is unique, iconic and initially rather exciting

·      Puzzles are not particularly complex but are engaging

·      Stealth is passable and has its fair share of tension

·      Set pieces were fun with a few memorable ones here and there

·      Plot absolutely chock full of contrivances and inconsistencies, to a near unbearable degree

·      Amicia’s talent for murder doesn’t quite seem to fit with the setting and style

·      The relationship with Hugo, arguably one of the main focuses, is not well-built or explored

·      Towards the end, much of the tension and atmosphere feels negated by the apparent strength of Amicia

 

 

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