I’m a complete sucker for any game that is set in the past. Put me slap bang in the centre of an ancient Greek war fighting alongside Spartans, jumping over the rooftops of Renaissance Rome or stalking the alleyways of Victorian London being a vampire, and I’m more than happy. Call me old fashioned but I love it. Normally though those experiences come about via the Assassin’s Creed franchise, allowing me to get a historical fix, but a new IP has appeared, one that is found to be taking us back in time to 14th Century France. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a middle aged adventure that is beautiful to look at, with intriguing and unique gameplay mechanics and a fabulous story to boot. So are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I will begin…
The story behind A Plague Tale: Innocence is an absolute cracker, featuring some excellent writing, solid lovable heroes and a villain who is so despicable he might just be on the same evil level as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. You start the game in the French countryside in 1349, playing the role of a teenage girl called Amicia. It is her who is brilliant with a slingshot and is happy to profess her love for her family, father, mysterious mother and little brother Hugo. Very quickly though – as early as the first chapter, in fact – something awful happens, quickly followed be something even worse, and this forces Amicia and her sickly brother to run for their lives. As they venture into the outside world they soon realise that the neighbouring towns and countryside are overrun by plague and death. And as you would expect that means rats; there are millions of black rats with red eyes that will kill you if you are not standing near, or have, some light thrust upon you. The truth of how this has all come about is the heart of the story of A Plague Tale and it’s one that I flatout refuse to spoil here.
So the story is great, but how does Innocence play? Well, when you initially take in the first part of this adventure, it’s all about stealth. You play in the third person and the path you can take is very linear, but believe me, that isn’t a problem because what you get to experience is exceptional. You start by running, crouching in stealth mode and using your slingshot to fire rocks at objects to distract guards or people so that you can slink on past. But it’s not just Amicia you have to keep safe, and for a large chunk of the game Hugo will be with you at all times. And this is where things get clever as your younger brother can crawl through small spaces, unlocking doors to allow progress. Later on, he gains an amazing power – again, I won’t spoil it here – but needless to say it is a very cool and deadly gameplay mechanic. It’s not just about you two though and as you venture forth you will find other friends who can be commanded, again unlocking doors or taking out a guard from behind.
Adventuring onwards is the main draw of A Plague Tale, but crafting is also a big element of the game. Now, don’t start yawning because in this game it is very simple to use, allowing you to gain some neat little tricks and utilising your slingshot for all that it is worth. Very soon though your world will be populated by these plague-fueled rats, who are happily destroying the world and those around you. When they appear in the world your only protection is to stay in the light, but thankfully you can carry torches around with you. Of course, these might get put out after a while. You can however be clever and light a cart up with a burner on top, pushing it through a crowd of rats to ensure your safety. Soon though you’re able to craft items that will let you use your slingshot to shoot off fire shots, lighting far away torches. Or you can craft another shot to put out fires so nearby enemies will be surrounded by the rats, using them to your advantage and destroying your foes. There are so many interesting and unique gameplay mechanics when dealing with both the environments and the enemies that you can easily deal with a situation in multiple ways each time you play. In fact, there are so many inventive ways that your skills will develop that I hesitate to go into too much detail because it would just spoil the experience ahead.
There are however moments in the combat situations where, if I had to be really critical, then A Plague Tale: Innocence can get annoying, with guards overpowering you quickly. It is here where you will probably find yourself having to take in the same scenario just one too many times for my liking. See, doing this, and repeating certain actions, takes you away from the strong narrative, even bordering on pushing you away from the game altogether. But the lure of Innocence will always win over, particularly as you know that just around the next corner may be a few entertaining boss battles.
It’s usually about now that I dip my toe into the visual waters, and I’m not going to change that this time around. In one sentence though, A Plague Tale: Innocence on Xbox One delivers a stunning world that you will just love spending some time in. Lush countrysides, brilliantly rendered interiors and of course the characters themselves are all beautifully created. It’s a real mixture of locations and backdrops with a great colour palette, and I would happily wander around 14th Century France for months on end. Visually it is stunning, and I haven’t even mentioned the rats yet. It is this swirling tangle of evil rodents which are the centrepiece of Innocence and the development team have succeeded in constructing a horror that never fails to impress. The rats are superbly designed and, later on the game, use some amazing gameplay mechanics that is unlike anything you would have ever seen before.
Sound wise and it’s nearly as good, with an intelligent mixture of a wonderful score that responds to the highs and lows of the gameplay, along with a highly emotional narrative. The effects are excellent as well, from the clunk of rock on some amour to the weird eerie noises of the rats in a frenzy. The voice acting is top notch too, with some wonderful performances giving the game some real heart and soul.
Overall and A Plague Tale: Innocence delivers a brilliant story, innovative mechanics and truly immersive gameplay. I love the feel of being in 1349, moving through the countryside and into the towns in France. I love and loathe the rats in equal measure, and I adore the mixture of puzzles, combat, and exploration. Yes, there are the odd little problems with some of the latter stages of the game, and the whole dying and repeating exercise occasionally borders on the the fine line of annoyance. But when you consider the visuals, the audio and the experience as a whole, I would highly recommend this journey into the past.