Reviewed on Xbox One X
The ‘AA’ market for games is a growing aspect that has the potential to put out incredible experiences of the visual quality of big budget games, but on a smaller scale and budget. The last one that I played of similar impact was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a gritty, powerful story that tackled dark mythology with very real-world elements. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a macabre story set in a grim portrayal of medieval France. It is a game with smart but simple puzzles, memorable and realistic characters, that never shies away from gruesome and brutal narratives and visual storytelling.
A Harrowing Story of the Importance of Family and Friends
The opening for any game, book or film is easy to do but difficult to perfect. It needs to hook you in, introduce the main characters, set up the story and tone all at once. A Plague Tale accomplishes all of this and then some. You play as Amecia, a teenage girl who has a strong relationship with her father, a more strained one with her mother, but an almost non-existent one with her younger brother (who you play as at some point) Hugo. The world is riddled by the Plague and we soon find out that hordes of killer rats are appearing, killing the family dog in a heart-breaking scene. After this, the narrative escalates into more death and brutality as Amecia must keep her brother safe and find help for the mystery of his own growing problems in this 10-15 hour adventure.
The two main characters, Amecia and Hugo are expertly written. Their relationship and its development over the course of the game feels so natural. They are wary and closed off to each other for the first third of the game or so, having barely spoke before everything happened. They are thrusted into a world full of death and horror, yet they are still children, how they react to all the different circumstances fits perfectly and is expected for their age and how they would cope. This realism is maintained throughout, where we see their relationship grow into something strong, Hugo trusts Amecia and she is heavily protective over him, they get frustrated with one another yet stand strong together against strife.
The people they meet along the way are equally interesting and well developed. The group of friends that eventually forms and the dynamic between these very different personalities is executed well and once again feels natural and realistic. The only downside to such a great cast of characters is the main villain. While he is definitely a creepy, unhinged and menacing presence, despite his physical appearance, his motives are plain and standard. The fight against him is the final boss, yet it is very underwhelming and easy to beat, it only took me three tries to beat once I understood his pattern (the times I died were because of unexpected instant deaths). It’s an unfortunate negative alongside otherwise brilliant aspects. The story overall is fantastic, full of emotion, twists and turns, tense moments and satisfaction.
Beautifully Gritty & Gruesome
At first glance, A Plague Tale is not the type of game that you would normally describe as beautiful. It is game full of dark, dreary sections, brutal deaths and horrific gore, yet there is something hauntingly appealing to it all. The gruesome and brilliant visuals add so much to the tone and work in tandem with the environment to provide sublime visual storytelling that not many games are successful in doing. Walking around the cluttered and dismal villages, bodies scattered on the ground and marks on the doors to represent plague infested homes, is a genuinely uncomfortable and uneasy thing to do. Carving a path through fields while the hordes of rats’ clamber at the edges of light is tense.
The environments are smartly designed with a realistic visual flare. Playing in 4K on the Xbox One X really highlights the detail of every new area you come across. The character models are also well detailed, and honestly look so much better that many “AAA” experience (*cough cough* Mass Effect Andromeda *cough*) which is another surprising aspect for a game that has a smaller budget than those very same big titles. Facial expressions add further emotional clarity to key moments and truly adds a significant amount of depth to these characters.
Hordes of Fun
While it is all well and good to have a great story full of memorable moments and characters, it is also important to make sure the gameplay is there to back it up. A Plague Tale definitely has fun if not at times repetitive gameplay. You must use a mix of stealth and light combat throughout in order to overcome the myriad of challenges that you will face. Stealth is pretty run of the mill, it is not as open ended as let’s say, Assassins Creed, however, there will usually be 2 maybe 3 different routes you could take to sneak past enemies. Despite stealth sections being more restricted in nature, they still felt incredibly tense, where it often felt you just got through with a few seconds to spare. However, towards the later stages of the game, these stealth sections got a bit too repetitive and predictable, where that feeling of just sneaking past started to wear a bit thin. It was a nice change of pace however to pay as Hugo for a bit who had no way of defending himself, therefore, there was much more risk.
Amecia is able to use a variety of items that she can craft to help her combat both human enemies and the hordes of plague-ridden rats. These are given gradually throughout the game so as to not make you overpowered at the start but aid you in the growing difficulty of segments. For example, one item draws the rats away for a brief time, one causes Inquisition soldiers to remove their helmets, allowing you to deal the killing blow with a stone from your slingshot. Speaking of which, Amecia has a slingshot that she can use to throw objects at a greater distance and power to help in certain situations. This, alongside a number of other equipment can be upgraded so to provide you with more ammo space, quicker sling charge time, etc. Unless you scour every corner of levels you will not have enough resources to upgrade everything fully, so you must choose wisely.
Throughout each level there are a number of collectibles and hidden areas for you to discover, with the latter having key resources necessary to upgrade your equipment. There is light puzzle solving to be done, but it always well-paced and scattered around that it never feels to little or too much. They almost always involve the hordes of rats, where you must find a way to get past them with fire and light or other means. These are cleverly designed and a fun little challenge to break up the narrative moments and stealth sections. There is enough variety of content here that make this 10 to 15-hour game rarely feels stale and dull.
When the credits rolled on this brutal and emotional story of a brother and older sister reconnecting and finding friends in a grim, yet grounded portrayal of medieval France, I was extremely satisfied. I became attached to these characters and their plight, and seeing its conclusion unfold before me was brilliant to watch. The incredible visuals, accompanied by tight mechanics and fun, methodical puzzles helped make the entire experience one to truly remember. It is one of my favourite games of the year so far, and I could not recommend it enough to anyone who’s a fan of gritty yet heartfelt stories in games.