Nobody really likes rats, do they? I mean, sure, some of them can be pretty cute and I’m sure everyone got a lot of love for Master Splinter, but the hordes you just KNOW are living in the sewers underneath you? No thanks. Well, back in the olden days they were a lot more common on the streets and they even caused the spread of one of the deadliest diseases the world has ever seen: The Black Death. All in all, it probably wasn’t a good time to be alive…
Fortunately, players can encounter all of this in their video games instead, with A Plague Tale: Innocence telling a heartfelt story of a pair of young siblings who find themselves in a desolate situation during this time. With swarms of deadly rats to avoid, a group of knights hunting them down, and a few supernatural elements thrown in for good measure, their journey to safety is certainly a treacherous one. Luckily, it just so happens to be an enjoyable one too.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is set in fourteenth-century France, with the country finding itself in a dire state thanks to the spread of the plague and the influx of rats that are swarming the land. You play the role of Amicia, a young lady of the upper class who finds her life taking a dire turn when soldiers cause chaos at her home whilst seeking her brother Hugo, who just so happens to suffer from a strange illness and has been confined to his bedroom for most of his life. Between the influx of soldiers hunting you down at all costs and the deadly rats, you both head out on a dangerous journey to try to find safety and a cure for Hugo’s ailment.
The game tells an emotionally driven-tale based around hardship, but it also emphasises how people can change. Amicia might seem like she’s not fit to survive in the desolate situation she finds herself in at the start but it doesn’t take long for her to adapt, whilst Hugo’s sense of wonder at the world grows as he becomes braver. You’ll see how the world and the trials they both face shapes them though, with neither feeling like their former selves by the time you reach the finale. It’s something that’s very nice to witness, whilst all of the intriguing twists and turns you encounter and characters you meet during the tale make it easy to find yourself completely absorbed in what’s going on too.
A Plague Tale: Innocence’s gameplay is mainly played out through stealth, with the player tasked with sneaking through levels whilst avoiding the many guards that are lurking around. There are typical stealth mechanics in place, with players able to hide in grassy patches, cause distractions with objects in the environment or their trusty slingshot, and take enemies down with a close-range stealth attack. Alternatively, the aforementioned slingshot can also take down enemies if you manage to smash them in the head with a rock, which is certainly an effective way to wipe enemies out – of course, you’ll want to make sure they’re out of sight of other guards first though, otherwise you might find yourself giving your position away and meeting a grisly end.
For the most part you’ll simply be focusing on finding the right route to follow and avoiding guards’ movement patterns, though the fact you can craft different ammo types for your slingshot opens up new possibilities as you progress. Alternatively, you can also use the items you find to upgrade your gear too, so there’ll be moments where you’ll have to decide if you want to use something to out-manoeuvre a guard or keep it to give yourself a permanent upgrade.
It adds a bit of flexibility to your playstyle, though A Plague Tale: Innocence can be a little too linear in design. Sure, there are some different ways to approach each scenario, but there’s always an obvious way to tackle it and a clear path to follow. It’s not necessarily a big problem, but it was something that caused the game to feel a little bit repetitive in its later hours.
I also found that the sketchy AI of the guards can leave progress feeling easy too, with it not only proving simple to exploit their movement patterns but they were also seemingly being blind to your movement at times too. There was one point when a guard was completely oblivious to my presence despite me being right in front of them in plain sight and it did break the immersion a bit.
Of course, whilst stealth plays a very prominent role in A Plague Tale: Innocence, it’s the hordes of deadly rats that steal the show. I’ve recently played Days Gone and found myself intimidated by the sheer number of zombies it sends your way at once, but the swarms of rats you’ll encounter here are something else – at times you’ll find yourself surrounded by what seems like thousands of the things. Sure, it might sound horrifying, but it’s hard not to feel totally impressed by the sheer scale of it all.
The rats bring a multitude of things to gameplay, some of which will really hinder the player and others which can prove to be beneficial. There’ll be times when you have to avoid the rats, which adds a puzzle-like element to the game where you’ll have to use objects in the environment to clear a path through – it’s nothing too tricky and it’s normally straight forward figuring what you have to do, but it adds a nice little twist to the game’s standard stealthy approach. It mostly boils down to burning things, dashing to light, or simply luring rats away with bait, so you won’t have to think too much outside of the box. That last option can work to your advantage too: it’s possible to lure a swarm of rats away towards patrolling guards, which can make for some pretty gross repercussions for the poor soul. Hey, it’s survival at all costs, right? One thing I will say though is that the game doesn’t hold back with its death sequences, so if you do get caught by the swarms of rats yourself you can expect to see a LOT of blood…
Presentation-wise, A Plague Tale: Innocence nails the 14th century France vibe perfectly, with its picturesque world not only one that’s full of beautiful sights but also one that has a harrowing undertone to go along with the dire state that it finds itself in. It’s easy to find yourself completely drawn into the world at times thanks to just how impressive each locale looks though and it certainly makes for a unique and unforgettable setting. What also adds to the atmosphere is the excellent soundtrack, which didn’t only fit in perfectly with the setting but the pace of the game too. It just all comes together to make for an experience that both looks and sounds impressive.
With its emotionally-driven tale and engrossing world, A Plague Tale: Innocence can really feel like something special at times. Heck, even the gameplay proves fun, with the blend of stealth and rat-avoiding puzzling making for some really enjoyable moments – taking down a foe with a well-aimed rock from your slingshot never gets old, either.
However, a sketchy enemy AI and the sense of linearity felt throughout can hold it back a bit. It goes on a little longer than it needs to too, with the last few hours of the roughly 11-hour adventure starting to drag a little and not offering anything you wouldn’t have done plenty of times already throughout the game.
The good certainly outweighs the bad in A Plague Tale: Innocence though and those looking for a heartfelt and genuinely enjoyable single-player experience will find one here.
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC