A Plague Tale: Innocence Review - The Ties That Bind And Shape Us

A masterful blend of wonderfully honest storytelling and engaging gameplay, and great life lessons to boot.
9
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • Action-Adventure
2019-05-14
A Plague Tale Review
Amicia and Hugo sharing a moment of respite after harrowing ordeals. Focus Home Interactive

(Review is as spoiler-free as possible, however, some of the characters may be introduced later in the story, which could be considered a spoiler for some people).

If there’s one thing I learned while playing A Plague Tale: Innocence, it’s that there are no limits to the things we are willing to do for the ones we love.

It’s such a simple, yet incredibly complex thought that pierces through every aspect of the A Plague Tale. Developer Asobo Studios has been keen to point out that the game is about the loss of innocence in the face of immense hardship. While they aren’t wrong, I believe that A Plague Tale: Innocence is more of a lesson in the strength of familial ties, and how we spare no expense in doing everything for family, even at a heavy cost.

I must confess, that while I am a firm believer that gameplay must take precedence over story unless it’s point-and-click adventure title (or a visual novel, for that matter), there are instances when they can complement one and the other in order to form a cohesive and thoroughly engaging game. While not very rare, it’s still impressive to know that there are developers who take the time to master that craft, and I am very happy and pleased to say that A Plague Tale: Innocence now joins these ranks.

Story, setting and themes

A Plague Tale Story
A Plague Tale: Innocence tells the story of Amicia and her brother Hugo. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

A Plague Tale: Innocence tells the story of Amicia de Rune and her brother, Hugo de Rune, children of Lord Robert de Rune and Beatrice de Rune. The de Rune family is French royalty, holding titles and land. The story begins in November of 1348, at the early onset of the Hundred Years’ War between the English and French. This is one year into the peak of the Black Death in Europe.

You play the game as older sibling Amicia ,as she escapes with Hugo after the war finally reaches the de Rune household. What’s more, a tragedy strikes their family, leaving the two alone with nothing. To make matters worse, Hugo is suffering from a mysterious progressive illness that constantly debilitates him. Out of luck, and with the war nor the plague not caring for the plight of orphans, Amicia and Hugo must do everything that they can to survive. At the same time, Amicia must figure out Hugo’s illness, and find a way to cure him.

A Plague Tale Nicholas
The Inquisition's armies are led by Lord Nicholas, a shadowy figure with connections to the de Rune family. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

The Inquisition, a paramilitary organization with roots in the Catholic Church, are after Hugo, and the organization’s nefarious intentions are made known as the story unfolds. The Inquisition acts as the game’s primary antagonists, with their armies all hellbent on capturing Amicia’s brother.

At the same time, Amicia and Hugo must deal with creatures of the plague, rats. These aren’t just ordinary rats, though. These creatures number in the thousands and are rabid enough to consume everything and everyone that’s not in the light.

The game’s story, although cliched at times, is a delight to play through. A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the few recent titles I’ve managed to sit through and enjoy, often for longer hours than what I’m accustomed to. The tale is very well-crafted, there is emotional weight to every narrative piece, and there are no fillers to pad it out into a tedious mess. Asobo Studios knew what they wanted in the story, and stuck with, which played exactly to their favor.

A Plague Tale Care
The game gives great focus on Amicia's struggles in her newfound role as Hugo's sister. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Amicia’s hardships in taking care of Hugo in spite of her young age, mixed in with the horrid hopelessness that – pun intended – plagues the timeline and the setting is atmosphere at its finest. Likewise, Hugo’s awareness of his sister’s trials which are all for him is examined and played perfectly. In a sense, A Plague Tale: Innocence is all about family, and the things we are willing to do for them. It ties in quite nicely with the loss of innocence in a war that ravages all, while also keeping true to the theme of finding humanity in a place that has long abandoned it.

The game’s good storytelling isn’t just centered on its protagonists. A Plague Tale: Innocence also shows the dangers of overzealous beliefs through its portrayal of the Inquisition. The Inquisition made for very good, somewhat relatable foils to Amicia and her group; despite their brute nature and obviously questionable practices, they believe in saving the world from the plague. It just so happened that their actions are extreme and somewhat self-serving.

A Plague Tale Lucas
Lucas, a budding alchemist and one of the orphans you will meet early on in the game. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Throughout their journey, Amicia and Hugo meet several other young ones, orphaned by the war and left to fend for themselves. These characters all get very satisfying arcs as well, each one contained in a small episodic format. The game has 17 chapters in all, and the story never feels tired or overused. There is actual development as each character, especially Amicia, learns to grow into bigger shoes and face their doubts as a child transitioning into a young adult. At times, I felt like I was enjoying a really good book; it knows what to put into the foreground, and when to let the background speak for itself.

I did feel uneasy at times, because I honestly think that the supernatural elements may overshadow the great story, but I can honestly say that these elements are not prominent until the story’s third act. If I can find something to fault A Plague Tale’s story, it would be that the third act felt like a downgrade in comparison to the first two, as those were absolutely amazing. It’s still great, mind you, but if I had something to nitpick from the story itself it would be A Plague Tale: Innocence’s final act.

All in all, if you’ve come to A Plague Tale: Innocence for its story, you won’t be disappointed. It’s thoroughly engaging and weaved perfectly with the themes, settings, and even gameplay. The story is one of the game’s true highlights, and I applaud Asobo Studios for doing it proper justice.

Gameplay and level design

A Plague Tale Gameplay
Gameplay features traversal through dangerous environments by using puzzle-like aspects. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

If there’s one thing that can convince me of the merits of a good narrative being as important as gameplay, it’s gameplay that serves to complement said narrative. And that, A Plague Tale: Innocence does with ease. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a third-person action adventure title with some stealth and puzzle elements. Amicia has access to a sling and various ammunition, though her tools place a greater emphasis on traversing levels without resorting to violence. Sure, your sling can kill people without helmets on, but you have to take note of the fact that it has a long wind-up time to shoot even once, and it makes a lot of noise, which can give away your position before you even let loose.

As it stands, A Plague Tale: Innocence is kind of like a strategic title where every move should be calculated. For the Inquisition, that mostly involves keeping out of sight and distracting enemies with your tools. Killing should always be a last resort. The rats, however, are a bigger threat; they are afraid of the light, and most of the game takes place during the night, where they roam the lands freely. Thankfully, you have tools that can help you illuminate certain sections, allowing you to traverse without being eaten alive.

A Plague Tale Upgrade
There are workshops scattered throughout the game which allows you to upgrade your equipment. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Amicia’s equipment is all upgradeable thanks to various materials scattered about in the game world. Amicia’s ammunition, can also be crafted and made while on the go, which is kind of nice because it allows you to stress out over the important aspects instead of how many shots you have left,

At some point, it is inevitable that you will face both the Inquisition and the rat swarms at the same time, so why not get creative? The Inquisition are human after all, and as such they are vulnerable if robbed of their light sources. It’s amazing how much freedom you have in tackling the levels, and each encounter is different than the last. There is no single way to complete any chapter, and it is up to you how you want to play.

A Plague Tale Kill
Is it brutal? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Even though A Plague Tale is largely linear in design, it’s anything but boring and tedious; you start at point A and end up at point B, but there are several branching ways to reach the end. There are areas hidden from sight where you can discover secrets, such as various curiosities, gifts for the other children, and flowers for Hugo and his herbarium. There is also a wide variety in terms of level design, as Amicia and Hugo go through many places in their journey. From forests, to small villages, farms, and cathedrals – there’s no shortage of levels to satisfy your need for variety. A particular highlight for me was the aqueduct, and below it a marsh filled with the bodies of dead soldiers – it really highlighted the grim reality of what the two children are facing.

Hugo isn’t just a sick kid, stuck on the sidelines. What Hugo lacks in strength, he makes up for with his nimbleness and courage. There are certain sections of the game where Hugo is needed, be it entering small windows and holes or taking items while Amicia is handling another task. I was quite surprised by how intuitive Hugo was. He never bugged out or did things that were annoying, which I often see in some games where there’s an AI-controlled partner. Hugo isn’t the only one you’ll be partnered with, though. Throughout the game, Amicia and Hugo encounter other children, orphaned by the war and the plague that help them on their journey. Each has a different skillset necessary to complete some of the levels, adding another layer of variety to the already in-depth gameplay.

Characters and voice acting

A Plague Tale VA
The voice acting is superb, with most of the VAs instilling life into the characters. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

The cast of A Plague Tale: Innocence is relatively small, and that does wonders for its narrative structure. Each character manages to get its own arc along with a satisfying ending (some sweet, some bittersweet). What’s really great about the side characters is they thoroughly complement Amicia’s story as a whole, while also serving as nice little slices of subplot themselves.

Amicia is believable as an unwilling child thrust early into a role of responsibility. Over the course of the story, she grows into a very capable young woman, whose greatest strength is not physical or combat prowess. In the end, it is her resilience that sees her and Hugo through the toughest of times. So many times you hear how awesome women characters are, or how badass they are, and most of the time they’re just emulations of what is seen as masculine traits. It’s nice to see that there are still some writers who can write competent female characters without needing to resort to just making Amicia hold her own against enemies twice her size in combat. Amicia, for all intents and purposes, is just a young girl whose primary strength is her love for her own brother.

A Plague Tale Hugo
Kids and their questions. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Hugo is quite the kid as well. He was a bit annoying at first, and I just wished he would shut up when he talked. As I played more, I realized he was designed to be that way. Eventually he grows on you, mostly because he is really incredibly well-written as a kid. He asks the stupidest questions, and he’s always excited about things that are not that exciting, but then you kind of smile to yourself because that is how a kid would most likely act. In the end, he becomes so endearing, and you learn to appreciate the moments when he’s just running around chasing frogs or talking to animals.

The voice acting is really well done, for the English localization that is. I really liked the performance of Amicia’s voice actor, and her cute French accent. Hugo’s was grating, but I think that’s just because I think that all kids’ voices are at some point in their lives. The true standout in terms of voice acting, in my opinion, was Grand Inquisitor Vitalis, the leader of the Inquisition. The first time you hear Vitalis, you notice how sinister and evil he is without even getting a look at him. His ramblings at the very end of the game are top-notch, and I think that the performance should get praise for how well done it is.

Art design, graphics and performance

A Plague Tale Art Design
A Plague Tale: Innocence features great diversity in its art design, which ranges from breathtaking countrysides to horrific village scenes. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Another exemplary aspect of this game is its art design, which is really faithful to the setting. The structures in the villages and towns are really well done, and the tension they create is palpable. I played on a PC, and on Nvidia cards you get access to the Ansel feature, which lets you take some very beautiful screenshots of the game. I know for a fact that the PlayStation 4 Pro also carries a snapshot mode, so if you try it out for yourself you will see what I mean.

There’s this huge contrast between scenarios in A Plague Tale. At night these dark and foreboding levels are filled with disgusting and often horrific imagery like dead bodies and the frantic scurrying of a thousand plague rats. Then, once the sun rises, you see the beauty of the French countryside. There’s light peeking through the leaves of trees, and various flowers abound as far as the eye can see. There’s a castle later in the game that Amicia and her group will bunker in, and it’s easily one of the best areas in the game. It’s large, but overgrown with plants, and there’s this general feeling of ease due to how calm it is away from foes and rats.

A Plague Tale Dark
The scenery can change in an instant, deep in the forest, where little light enters. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Technically speaking, the game runs pretty well, although I can’t speak for framerates on consoles. I’ve managed to run it on my 144Hz monitor with all settings set to high and with very occasional frame drops, although none below 90. It’s pretty optimized as well, with almost no stuttering. Cutscenes play out at 60 frames instead of the usual 30. I didn’t encounter bugs as well. It can get a bit dark, though, and I had to set the brightness two clicks higher than the usual setting. This is on a case-to-case basis though, and there were never any times where you felt that you can’t make out anything on the screen.

Music and sound design

The music is top-notch, and I have to give props to Olivier Deriviere for composing such moving pieces. Very rarely do I notice the music in video games, because most of the time they’re downplayed. In A Plague Tale: Innocence, original compositions feature prominently, instilling emotions into whatever scene they’re playing in. That’s not to say they overpower everything else, though;  good background music should learn when to practice its subtlety, and when to let loose, and that is what Deriviere did; the peaceful silences are accompanied by the lightest of tunes, while chases and moments of tension are compounded by highly suspenseful notes.

Accompanying the incredible music is of course the equally wonderful sound design. I played this with headphones and found myself really immersed because of how well the sound effects were done. Crackling fires, boots on solid ground, that clean, high-pitched clanging whenever you hit something metal with your sling – all of it is really well done. The highlight,is the rats. They can easily overtake any other sound once they’re frenzied, which causes you to feel more tense and alarmed. It’s another level of immersion I’m really grateful for in this game, and just goes to show how much work was put into sound effects and music.

Length and replayability

A Plague Tale Collectible
There are tons of collectibles in this game, which fleshes out the game world more and triggers some neat interactions between the characters. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

A Plague Tale: Innocence is not a $60 game, which is pretty much evidenced by its length. You can finish the game is less than 12 hours on your first playthrough, and this runtime drops on your subsequent playthroughs. I think that for the price A Plague Tale is worth it, and there’s still reasons to play it again if you look hard enough. There are curiosities to find, gifts to discover, and flowers to collect, which can help reveal some interesting backstories about the time and setting of the game. I like that instead of some expository codex that nobody ever really reads, A Plague Tale: Innocence instead incorporates this information into the game itself. Getting these collectibles also triggers Amicia to say some information about whatever it is you found, followed by Hugo’s often comedic and childish remarks on it. There’s also quite a bit of secrets to be discovered, if achievements are anything to go by. As a completionist myself, I’m now on my second playthrough, scouring through anything I might have missed.

If your taste in video games is for a one-time playthrough then A Plague Tale: Innocence is built for just that. It doesn’t really offer much player choice, and the narrative is fixed, but it has very strong foundations in a well-crafted story. The length is just perfect if you’re coming home after a long day; the chapters aren’t overtly long that they feel like a chore to finish, and they’re not so short that you feel robbed of your money.

Overall

A Plague Tale Overall
A definite shoe-in for the best narrrative-driven title I have played this year. Photo: Focus Home Interactive

If you haven’t guessed by now, A Plague Tale: Innocence is an amazing title, and in my opinion one of the best – and probably most underrated – multiplatform releases this year. Even on my second playthrough I am finding things to be impressed with, which is surprising given the game’s length and linear design. It features an evocative story rich with atmosphere and very relatable characters, wrapped up in themes of early adulthood and the price we pay for the things we do. The gameplay complements its narrative really well, and the art and sound design are both wonders to behold. A Plague Tale tells its story really well, with the proper focus given on its aspects, taking liberties when it should and subtleties when it’s proper. What I loved most about it, though, is the fact that it tackled the themes of familial bonds really well, and showed just how much people are willing to sacrifice for the ones they love. In the end, at its finest moments, it’s a lesson on humanity, siblings, friends and family – and the way these concepts last, even through what seems to be the end of the world.

(Review copy provided by Focus Home Interactive; review of the game is based on 12 hours of playtime, with three hours coming from a second playthrough).

REVIEW SUMMARY
A Plague Tale: Innocence
9
A Plague Tale: Innocence - The Ties That Bind And Shape Us
A Plague Tale: Innocence is an example of storytelling and gameplay meshed together right. It's honest, brutal and incredibly hopeful all at the same time, and it does so without being naive. Ultimately, it teaches us that even at the point when everything seems lost, and the end approaches without respite, going on is easy so long as we have even just one person to call family.
  • Amazing, heartrending story.
  • Solid, relatable characters.
  • Impressive voice acting (Vitalis in particular was a highlight).
  • Incredible visuals, character design and splendid animations.
  • Top-notch music and sound design.
  • Intuitive gameplay that complements the story really well.
  • Third act of the story, while good, is considerably weaker than the first two.
  • Not a lot of replayability.
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