“Who is this for?”
I ask this out loud quite a bit — even if no one else is around. Usually, this is a conversation between my wife and I, mid-movie, after stumbling upon some Netflix abomination late at night. Like the ones that bill themselves as comedies but then are just about bummed-out actors exchanging long glances, or the kind that tells the story of Ted Bundy as if he was the real victim. You know: content for no one. I rarely have to ask The Question in relation to video games, because video games are often defined by their systems of play. Even if I don’t get what the creators specifically intended, I usually glean the target audience according to genre (shooter, RPG, etc.).
Well. You can probably guess that this is not the case with A Plague Tale: Innocence.
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A Plague Tale: Innocence is a grim, historical fiction with vaguely supernatural elements. It’s a story that would be a difficult sell on its own, but complicating matters further is that this narrative has a half-dozen different kinds of game genres attached. When my editor asked me to describe the early gameplay — what kind of game it is — I just looked at our chat window for several minutes. Then I made fart noises with my mouth.
French developer Asobo Studio is mostly known for making Pixar movie tie-in games, such as Ratatouille and Up. The company also made one of many console ports of the board game Monopoly. They are, perhaps, not the first name you’d associate with visceral body horror, or stealth puzzlers about using alchemy to bring down the Spanish Inquisition. To be fair, though… perhaps there is no developer you’d associate with such a game. Did I mention the game is one long escort mission? Oh, then there’s some crafting. Can’t make a game these days without crafting! This sounds awful, doesn’t it?
This game looks like a big, weird mess. This game is a big, weird mess. “Who is this for?” Well, the equally big, weird answer is: “I think it’s just for me.”
[Light Spoilers for A Plague Tale: Innocence Follow]
Hack and Slash
A Plague Tale: Innocence opens with you petting a dog. Yes, you get to pet the dog in A Plague Tale. Within the next two minutes, however, your dog is torn to pieces and sucked, screaming, into a gaping hole in the Earth. It feels important to mention this. Nothing could sum up the whiplash of emotions on display throughout the game quite so succinctly as this bracing introduction. I was so upset that I put my controller down and went for a walk. The sequence got under my skin, and my skin is quite thick. Rough start.
You return to your family’s village. You’re Amacia, the oldest daughter of a wealthy family, and you’re close with the dozens of people that live around your little castle-homestead. Everyone is busy being so happy to be alive, but they get caught off-guard by the Spanish Inquisition (as one does). And as happens throughout A Plague Tale, you meet everyone for exactly two minutes before they get murdered while trying to help you. Between all the swords and decapitations, it feels like this might be the perfect methadone for those looking to wean off the Game of Thrones finale.
Amacia connects with her younger brother Hugo, who only lives a few doors down from her, but who she has not seen in years. He’s got a mysterious disease that gives him migraines. Said migraines might be the start of a supernatural power. Though they also result in him being a loud, screamy-boy, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to hide from an entire countryside of murderous zealots. Those zealots are hacking and slashing their way through your friends and family in search of the boy. So, you grab your little brother by the hand and take off into the woods.
As the game begins, you come to understand this is going to be a stealth escort mission. Hugo and Amacia, hand in hand, sneak through rubble and hide in tall grass and hop over walls. Amacia has a sling she can use to launch rocks at piles of debris, causing small noises that distract guards. Sometimes you break a pot. It’s a bit tedious, in a late 2000s game way, but it’s not overtly bad. Then you’re outrunning an entire European village that somehow knows who you are and wants to tear you to pieces.
I know there are “chapters” in this story, but I do not remember which one switches the action from Metal Gear to the opening of Resident Evil 4. You’re doing box puzzles and murdering men. There’s even a rampaging mini-boss that you defeat by shooting weak points in his armor.
I eventually noticed that, all this time, A Plague Tale was using a number of world-building tricks. Your little home-schooled brother has questions to ask about everything he sees, which allows Amacia to explain historical details you might not remember from high school history class. These include the physics of The Black Death, the Crusades, 14th Century politics, brutal massacres in war with the English, and medieval medicine. But alongside this exposition is a well-done relationship between siblings that carries frustration and bonding in equal measure. Like… real siblings! I’m the last person to defend escort missions (especially with useless children). Yet I was pretty invested in my little bro’s precarious escapades.
One Thing Leads to Another
Then the earth exploded all around us, as gigantic holes teeming with millions of flesh-eating plague-rats burst to the surface, devouring entire cities. I do not remember this from high school history class, either. From there on out, each chapter became a new location with a new major set-piece. The two siblings went on to manipulate light sources and meat (like enemy soldiers) to distract an infinite swarm of tiny nibblers.
This game is so goddamn weird.
Despite the disparate tones and mechanics, though, everything here works very well. A Plague Tale is always clear about where you can stand and where the moving rat-floor will devour you. The same goes for knowing exactly how your stealth choices affect your environment. There’s a crafting system that allows you to upgrade your equipment, but the resources you gather for this can instead go into magic potions or alchemy. I don’t… I don’t fully understand that part, but it can be fun to incinerate objects or silently murder the trickier Inquisitors. The search for those limited resources is also a worthwhile motivator for exploring every corner of the world. That’s difficult when the world is trying to eat you. Sometimes your little brother is the better candidate for hunting equipment and pulling levers, as he can reach places you cannot. Point being: There are all these systems and they all feel polished.
It’s that polish that makes A Plague Tale: Innocence work as well as it does. There are a few graphical errors (including some delightful glitching into and out of holding your brother’s hand), but for a puzzler with levels of this size — not to mention a shifting game of “The Floor Is Lava” going on around you — I never died in a way that didn’t feel like my fault. (The puzzles, incidentally, meet my perfect level of complexity; not too easy, not too hard.)
Who Is This For? Well…
The story manages to keep you guessing as it bucks traditional structures. The game itself is longer than I expected, but never overstays its welcome. Finally, the soundtrack from Olivier Deriviere builds on his work from Vampyr — burying every moment of this title under a thick, oppressive fog of dirge.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is disarmingly good. But the question remains: “Who is this for?”
It’s an historical, yet supernatural body horror experience that combines flesh puzzles like in Limbo, with companionship maneuvers like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. But they’re wrapped in a story like Tremors with 1300s rats instead of sandworms…
Who is this for? Me, it turns out. I love it! After a rough first hour spent finding its feet, A Plague Tale: Innocence buried itself into my heart. Perhaps that’s all I need to concern myself with. It’s not my job to sell anyone on what seems like an otherwise unmarketable product. It’s a Gothic adventure that leans hard on family and puzzles and nothing in this sentence sounds like anything I would ever play. But if none of the aforementioned bleakness or violence scared you off, I can’t recommend the game highly enough.