Blending fantasy with the Black Death, A Plague: Tale Innocence succeeds in telling the heartfelt survival story of two orphans, Amicia and Hugo. The dynamic between the siblings shines against a grim backdrop riddled with corpses, Inquisition soldiers out for blood, and thousands of Bubonic Plague-carrying rats. A Plague Tale does an admirable job of making its young protagonists appropriately vulnerable to the surrounding dangers as you move through them from a third-person perspective, but the stealth gameplay and puzzles rarely feel imaginative. As a result, the stakes of this seemingly perilous world are undercut.
The siblings had never had much of a relationship growing up as mid-14th-century French nobles, but when Amicia is suddenly forced into the role of young Hugo’s protector, they quickly need to learn to trust one another. This theme drives the story in interesting directions and is also smartly reflected through the gameplay. The majority of the 17 linear chapters see you controlling Amicia, with Hugo holding onto your hand by default. You can let go to move quicker, but if you leave him for too long he will scream and attract the attention of soldiers. Besides a few puzzles, I very rarely felt the need to let go.
Like many other “escort mission” games where you protect a smaller, weaker character, you can send Hugo to complete tasks like climbing through windows to unlock doors. Unlike most escort missions, though, Amicia and Hugo usually act as one. Hugo is helpless, but you don’t have to do anything more than hold his hand. This works on a thematic level as the story develops. I liked the simplicity from a gameplay perspective, too. Escort missions in some games can be pretty darn annoying.
One of the best aspects of A Plague Tale is its world, which has an ominous emptiness to it. Well, at least when it comes to living things that aren’t overwhelming waves of terrifying rats. It’s not uncommon to come across mass graves of those who died from the Plague, and in one particularly somber sequence you actually have to walk across an entire field of bodies. Most of the living that you come across want to kill Amicia, Hugo, and various companions that help you throughout their journey. This foreboding atmosphere matches the dreariness and depravity of the areas you’ll explore, from darkened forests to abandoned castles to ghostly villages to Inquisition camps, though they all look far more dangerous and daunting than they actually are.
A Plague Tale has the illusion of being pretty open, but you’re often guided towards your next simplistic task by bits of dialogue or on screen clues. This helps to streamline the story and completely eliminates filler activities, but I found myself wanting to see more of the world and to be tested by it in more meaningful ways. A Plague Tale sometimes feels like it’s nudging you forward to safety rather than letting you get the full picture of its fascinating environments. Still, none of the levels look are feel the same and all are richly detailed. What is shown of the setting, at the very least, helps cement a tone that elevates a story that mixes real history with bits of fantasy in surprising ways. The ups and downs of Amicia and Hugo’s relationship is the star, but the world around them further heightens their already compelling tale.
A Plague Tale is stealth gameplay in the purest sense: much of your time is spent sneaking past soldiers using various objects and concoctions, and every single human enemy kills you in one hit, and you have very little ability to kill or neutralize them. To keep them out of your path, rocks can be tossed at glowing metal objects to create diversions and pots can be thrown at the ground when metal isn’t in the vicinity. Stealth detection is fair, with indicators over enemies’ heads displaying their awareness. I never came across a scenario where an enemy unjustly spotted me, but I also never shook my head in disbelief when they didn’t see me after barging into a room.
While sneaking is king here, Amicia does have a weapon at her disposal: a sling that whips around and flings rocks at enemies to kill or knock them unconscious. Since it takes a moment to wind up, makes noise, and only does damage to enemies’ heads, the sling plays into the stealth emphasis. Its power is also limited by the presence of helmeted soldiers, who must first be hit with a special concoction that forces them to remove their helmet before flinging a rock. Stealth kills are possible, but they require an unlockable alchemist skill that can’t be used frequently. Sneaking past a pair of guards is always a cleaner way to go about business than taking them out.
Some sequences, though, particularly in the closing chapters, require aggression rather than stealth, but most of these combat sequences resemble puzzles more than anything else. Instead of relying on fast reflexes and expert aim, it’s about figuring out the ideal sequence in which to dispatch a group of enemies so you aren’t seen. This is where Amicia and Hugo’s vulnerability is most apparent, because drawing the attention of one soldier typically brings the cavalry. You have to think carefully before you act. Unfortunately, these genuinely tense moments of are almost entirely reserved for the final few chapters of this 15-hour adventure.
There are a few boss fights, but they feel somewhat awkward because they abandon the puzzle-esque progression in favor of fighting in enclosed spaces. But while you should be at a severe disadvantage because of it, that’s not the case. Bosses move slowly to give you time to make the right moves, effectively nerfing themselves in the process. The exception is the final boss, a fantastic fight with ridiculously impressive animations and an interesting layer of strategy. It’s easily one of my favorite bosses of the past few years.
Where things get really interesting is when rats are added to the equation. I wasn’t alive during the Black Death, so I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure A Plague Tale: Innocence embellishes the rat population just a tad to create its grotesque hordes of vermin. Rats flood areas by the hundreds, probably thousands, completely obscuring the ground. The ceaseless hissing and scampering was enough to make my skin crawl, even as I neared the end.
Rat infestations serve as the main puzzle mechanic, and the orphans are only safe from their gnawing clutches when surrounded by light. These puzzles are always visually intimidating and pretty gross, but they aren’t nearly as demanding as they look. Carrying torches and lit sticks repels rats, but the latter’s flame fizzles out fairly quickly, forcing you to move purposefully to the next safe area before time expires. Throughout A Plague Tale, Amicia learns useful alchemist abilities related to fire and the rats, such as Ignifier, which can be flung or tossed at lanterns or fire pits to create safe zones from a distance, and a contrasting ability can extinguish flames to sicc rats onto soldiers who are pursuing you. After a handful of chapters, the rats were more of an unpleasant nuisance than a challenge to think my way through, even when I needed to move beams of light and use mechanisms to switch the position of fire pits. When no light sources are around, another pair of alchemy abilities do the trick: one that can create a temporary attraction point that all of nearby rats flock to, and another that will completely kill a small group.
These alchemy mixtures gradually unlock in progression that makes sense. I cannot discuss the coolest ability of them all here because of spoilers, but it fittingly rounds out the useful array of skills Amicia learns. Unfortunately, even as areas and puzzles grow in complexity, it’s typically very clear which ability you need to use. While there is room for improvisation here and there, puzzles are often set up specifically for one ability or a sequence of abilities. They were never complex enough to stump me for more than a few minutes.
Crafting materials that make the alchemy skills are plentiful – a bit too plentiful, with no way to adjust the difficulty level. Because you can find more than enough supplies throughout each level, A Plague Tale never really encourages you to think about making your strategy for clearing a puzzle efficient. You can be careless and wasteful and still make it to the next area, where you’re certain to find more. Workbenches contain upgrades for your sling and abilities, which inevitably makes resource management even less important. A Plague Tale’s use of these crafting and skill systems isn’t time consuming or tedious, which I appreciate; that said, both features lower the stakes by making everything too convenient and removing the need to make tough decisions.
While avoiding the Inquisition and searching for a new place to call home, Amicia and Hugo cross paths with several other kids from different walks of life. These companions help in various ways at Amicia’s command, such as turning cranks to help solve puzzles, picking locks, and knocking out soldiers. The companions don’t really add additional depth to the mechanics, but their presence really helps the unfolding story. For instance, the young scholar Lucas offered keen insights into the fantastical, such as the rats and alchemy. The dialogue, from critical cutscenes to small talk, is well-written and acted.