A Plague Tale: Innocence is punching so far above its weight that I hesitate to waste any time qualifying it. But I’d bet if this game is on your radar at all, you’re expecting the typical B-tier showing full of cool concepts and half-baked implementation. You’re expecting a lack of polish, shallow gameplay, and awkward storytelling. You’re probably expecting something like publisher Focus Home Interactive’s past offerings (Vampyr, Sherlock Holmes, The Council, Styx, Call of Cthuhu, the list goes on). So I want to start this review by clearing the board of all of these preconceptions—A Plague Tale is, for all intents and purposes, a triple-A release, deserving of your full attention.
This historical fantasy story is set in 14th century France, amidst the infamous Black Death. You play as two children, Amicia De Rune, and her brother Hugo. The pair are driven from their home by soldiers of the Catholic Inquisition, who want Hugo because they believe he is infected.
At the outset the game eases you into some simple stealth. Throw rocks at loud objects and the noise will distract a guard long enough to slip past. But before long, Amicia acquires a deadly sling and a selection of craftable ammo-types like armor-melting acid pellets. The game encourages stealth—If anyone gets close enough to Amicia it’s game over—but it doesn’t shy away from combat either. With the right tools Amicia can dispatch any soldiers in her path. Developer Asobo Studio did an excellent job of making her sling feel truly deadly and powerful.
Shortly after their escape, the pair come across an even more disturbing enemy—thousands of flesh-eating rats—a plague that rolls through the environment like a natural disaster. The only safe place from the rat swarms is near a fire or strong light. The view of thousands of rats scurrying through the environment is both imposing and awe-inspiring, and much of the gameplay revolves around moving through these hordes safely.
Outside of keeping Amicia alive, you’re also responsible for keeping little Hugo safe. Often, that pairing can expand even further. A Plague Tale does not shy away from AI-driven protagonists. The cast of characters that join your party range from helpful to helpless, and, aside from a few hiccups, their inclusion avoids the dreaded escort mission trope that so many other games fall prey to.
It’s that expanded cast that not only keeps the story and mechanics interesting, but gives this game such an impressive depth and sense of polish. A typical sequence may include multiple patrolling soldiers with rat-repelling torches, a maze of light-sources, and an endless sea of rats waiting in the darkness. Combine that with a swath of interesting ammo-types and a companion you may be able to give commands to, and this is only scratching the surface of some of this game’s unique encounters.
The developers have cited The Last of Us as an influence, and A Plague Tale earns its place alongside a game of that caliber. Still, I’d say the puzzle-like encounter design, and the game’s incredible ability to build upon mechanics, twist the gameplay, and keep each chapter fresh and exciting has more in common with last year’s God of War.
Comparisons to the highest tier of triple-A games may seem excessive, but A Plague Tale absolutely hangs alongside those examples. On Xbox One X, at least, the game features show-stopping visuals that had me stopping for impromptu photo sessions again and again. Combining artistic beauty with technical polish, I often felt like I was navigating concept art come-to-life.
Those visuals combine with impressive world-building and emotional beats. There’s some pretty cool lore at the heart of the story, and you work to discover it alongside a loveable cast of characters. I can’t emphasize enough how much A Plague Tale benefits from a central cast that goes beyond Amicia and Hugo. The Last of Us and God of War use secondary characters as plot devices, discarding them when their utility is done. Here, you get time to live alongside this crew of resourceful teens as they protect Hugo and survive with the entire world against them. The end result was like the game equivalent of a fantasy novel I couldn’t put down.
From top-to-bottom, A Plague Tale: Innocence feels like a complete thought. Over the course of 12-15 hours I was taken on a journey that surprised me again and again. I saw incredible sights, I met fun characters, and I got eaten by about a billion rats along the way. If this isn’t the biggest gaming surprise of 2019 I’ll be shocked. This is a serious achievement.