In the age of massive online multiplayer experiences, there’s still a place for the smaller, more focused, narrative single player games. A Plague Tale: Innocence feels at home among the list of great Naughty Dog games while also being distinct. While it doesn’t necessarily pioneer anything, what it does, it does incredibly well. The result is honestly one of the best story-driven games in a while.
The game follows Amicia del Rune, the young daughter of French nobles in 1348. After the Inquisition kills her parents, she is forced to flee and take care of her sick brother, Hugo. As she struggles to keep him safe from the Inquisition forces, she also rushes to find what her mother told her to in order to help cure her brother. Eventually, this somewhat simplistic story turns into something much stranger and more elaborate.
In a lot of ways, A Plague Tale appears to draw a lot of influence from The Last of Us. Players control a character with the gist of the gameplay being to keep a computer-controlled companion safe. Stealth is the name of the game here, though there are certainly moments where action is necessary. One of the more unique components is the weaponry. There are obviously no guns, nor are there bows. Amicia is armed only with a sling and some rocks. What this means is that to “fire” upon an enemy requires a moment of wind up. That wind up creates noise, which draws enemy attention. Additionally, Amicia needs some space to sling, so you can’t shoot from cover. All this means that you need to be quick! If you are committed to killing an enemy rather than sneaking by, you best not miss!
Like in The Last of Us, materials are scattered all throughout the levels that can be used to craft items. Some of these items allow you to improve equipment. Pocket size can be increased allowing more items to be stored, ammo pouches can be upgraded to carry more, and the sling can be improved to fire faster and more quietly. Other items can be used for alchemy. Certain alchemy items are hugely significant for getting by. They can ignite fires or put them out, draw rats away from you, or help you escape if you are caught by rat or human alike – which is critical as players ultimately get game over if they’re found. You don’t “take damage” if you’re attacked; you’re simply killed. This means players should be as deliberate as possible, while also being adequately prepared should things go south.
The rats are probably the coolest element of the game. Apart from just how visually disquieting and insane the thousands of rats are when they show up, they also serve as both a danger and an advantage. Through the early stages of the game, the rats are to be completely avoided! One wrong step, or if you don’t move fast enough and the fires go out before you advance, the rats swarm and gobble you up! Rats and human enemies are mostly segregated through the levels. Eventually, however, you find yourself in the company of both.
One of the most disappointing elements of The Last of Us was the lack of enemy diversity per level. You had infected enemies, and then you had human enemies, but never both at once. In A Plague Tale, they eventually put both within the same stretches which really adds a whole new level of strategy. It’s such a cool feeling to realize that you can suddenly use the rats – creatures that were freaky and immensely dangerous to you – to your advantage. Dousing the fires that Inquisition troops confidently stood under would allow those rats to attack them! They go down while the rats become distracted with their dinner. Two birds, one stone. (Naughty Dog added a little bit of this in “Left Behind,” the prequel DLC to The Last of Us, wherein players can utilize clickers to attack human enemies.)
As a stealth game, there isn’t necessarily too much to it that fans of the genre haven’t seen before. One smart aspect, though, is that it allows for AI companions to be spotted, regardless of whether or not you are hidden. It adds a layer to the gameplay that is not commonly found in these types of games. The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, God of War: almost any game wherein players have an AI companion allows the computer to get almost comically in the way without alerting enemies. Not so much here. If Hugo runs out of cover and the Inquisition spots him, they’ll pursue, forcing players to react quickly to save him. At times, you’ll need to direct your companions to take certain actions, adding just another strategic component to the game, though sadly, levels don’t always include elements to capitalize on these abilities.
The developers at Asobo Studios said that they wanted to make a game inspired by The Last of Us and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and the influences are pretty telling. The later more so in its setting and the fact that the story is centered on almost exclusively children. (None of the core cast that help you through each level is older than teenager.) The subtitle, “Innocence,” really hammers that home, as the events that unfold really force these children to grow up far too quickly. In a somewhat refreshing change of pace, these characters actually seem to be affected by the level of violence they commit. Both Hugo and Amicia seem disturbed when they each kill their first man. (Something that probably should have gotten a little more play in The Last of Us.)
The levels can be a little underwhelming, being a bit too linear, with puzzles and obstacles a little simplistic. For a while, it can seem like the game is a bit too easy. This can be altered in the menus to something more challenging, which removes the already basic HUD, which does indeed make it trickier to navigate the levels. And, of course, the game definitely spikes in the later levels, incorporating most of the elements introduced throughout the game. Level design is by no means “bad,” but they aren’t super gripping, either. The Last of Us had a lot to look at in their otherwise linear sections, but A Plague Tale often feels like just going down one path. Then again, I barely even found 50% of the optional items, so perhaps there was indeed much more to see than what I did in my initial play (this is definitely a game I will be revisiting a bunch in the future, just like both The Last of Us and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons).
So much of the game works incredibly well, but few pieces stand out quite like the original score. Composed by Olivier Deriviere, the cello-heavy music really creates such an imposing, intense atmosphere. It is intimidating and haunting, and is every bit on par with the best in recent years.
Often, it is an uphill battle for original games to break into the mainstream. Unless one of the industry giants like Hideo Kojima is attached, most games are sequels or part of franchises. In 2019, only one game in the Top Ten Bestsellers list was an original property (the aforementioned Kojima’s weird and more-intriguing-than-good Death Stranding). For a developer to produce something that feels very much of Triple A quality that is its own original property is incredibly refreshing. A Plague Tale: Innocence isn’t particularly innovative, and it wears its influences on its sleeve, but it is supremely well executed and a very fun, tense game to play. More games like this are needed, frankly. It’s kind of a shame that something like A Plague Tale releases at a $40 price point while The Last of Us gets the big $60. The quality between the games is certainly not that great.
Reductive Rating: It’s great! (My game of 2019)