France, 1348. Times are grim. The Black Plague has arrived—as have the Hundred Years’ War and the Inquisition. Within a decade, at least a third of the population will die. Some estimates place that number as high as two-thirds.
It feels closer to the latter in A Plague Tale: Innocence. There’s no end to the bodies—left to rot in the streets, abandoned to houses marked with a chalked “X,” piled high on foggy battlefields amid the trebuchets and wagons. And where there are bodies, worse is sure to follow.
“Des rats.” Even with the silent “T,” the French is unmistakable: Rats. Rivers of them, black fur dotted with gleaming red eyes, waiting on the edges of the light. Hungry.
A pox upon ye
A Plague Tale is an anomaly. Before we get into the game itself, I think it’s worth discussing the context the game releases in. This is a singleplayer, story-driven game—one that clocks in around 10 hours long if you take it at a fairly meandering pace. Studios don’t develop games like A Plague Tale anymore. Publishers don’t fund games like A Plague Tale anymore.
And yet here it is. A Plague Tale is ostensibly a stealth game, though even that is a pretty loose definition. You sneak under tables, behind bookshelves, through tents, and so on. Sometimes a sling factors into proceedings—a rock to the head to kill cleanly, or perhaps a rock to a lantern to kill in a more grisly manner, as rats swarm from the shadows to eat a man alive.
You play as Amicia de Rune, teenage daughter of a noble family. Amicia’s cozy life is upended by the Inquisition, which ransacks her ancestral home and kills most everyone she knows. She and her sickly brother Hugo are the only survivors, fleeing into the countryside.
Problem is, Hugo is the one the Inquisition wants. Amicia’s not sure why—he’s only six or seven years old—but he’s the object of their pursuit and it falls to her to quite literally lead Hugo by the hand through Medieval France in search of safe haven. And yes, sometimes that means “under tables, behind bookshelves, and through tents,” away from the watchful eyes of the Inquisition.
The stealth aspect is generic busywork though. It provides enough agency so nobody can derisively accuse A Plague Tale of being a “walking simulator” or whatever. Hell, maybe that was the intent, to ward off those criticisms.
If so, it’s a shame. The stealth doesn’t add much to A Plague Tale , and the combat adds even less. A trio of boss fights are the weakest part of the game, the story grinding to a halt as you go through the age-old ritual of hitting some guy in the head with rocks—three times, of course, because it’s a video game.
The rats are slightly more interesting. That’s the hook for A Plague Tale, hordes of plague-carrying rats that swarm in the darkness, forming a moving wall of flesh right at the edge of your torchlight. As such, there are plenty of “puzzles” here that involve lighting a fire, or putting one out, or moving a light source around until you can clear the rats out of your path and progress to the next area. Nothing difficult, but it’s at least more unique than hitting someone with rocks. It’s also more thematically relevant, the rats both a game mechanic and an essential part of the story A Plague Tale is weaving.
I can’t help but wish A Plague Tale landed harder on one side though, either fleshing out its mechanics into a more challenging survival-horror game or stripping them out for a more story-driven adventure. Instead it languors in the middle, and the parts you play end up feeling like obstacles you put up with to reach the parts you enjoy—by which I mean the story, and the relationship between the two de Rune siblings.
Occasionally there’s a rare moment of beauty among the bleak. Hugo is particularly adept at tugging on heartstrings (especially if you switch to the much-improved French voice acting), with a charming naivety that comes from being sheltered in a manor his entire life. He’s very excited about les grenouilles, or frogs. Flowers, as well. And one of my favorite scenes came early on, as Hugo hefted a shield as tall as his entire body and pretended to be a knight, ambushing Amicia.
A Plague Tale is usually darker though. Hugo’s shield naturally elicited a question from Amicia, “Where did you find that?” The answer came as we crested the next ridge to see a battlefield strewn with hundreds of French and English corpses. “Amicia, do we have to...walk on them?” said Hugo, and then with childish innocence, “Do you think we’re hurting them?”
It’s surprisingly effective, this dynamic. The scenarios are grisly, but experiencing it through Hugo and Amicia’s back-and-forth injects a hint of humanity into incomprehensible tragedy, prevents it from feeling exploitative. It’s harrowing, absolutely, but not torture porn. It feels earned.
The same could be said of the more supernatural elements. As you might surmise after seeing the rat swarms, A Plague Tale isn’t the most accurate retelling of the Black Plague. That said, it’s fairly adept at weaving together historical fact and fantasy, drawing upon Medieval concepts like alchemy and the role of the Catholic Church to ground its story in the era, reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.
Another close analogue is that Sean Bean film Black Death, which took a similar “What if the Black Plague were a curse, as some Medieval theologians thought?” approach, albeit with mixed results. A Plague Tale pulls it off better. The final boss fight is wildly over-the-top, but the story is so meticulously laid out, the rules so established by that point, that it still feels valid. Silly, but valid. (For a video game with a similar tone, see Hellblade.)
I do wish morality played into proceedings a bit more, given the religious overtones. There are hints that might be the case along the way. A violent violin sting plays whenever you murder the first enemy in an area, which inevitably made me feel I’d done something wrong. A Plague Tale even hands out a few achievements for taking the nonlethal approach, and Hugo and other friendly characters will comment on it, urge you to sneak past instead of attack. None of it matters though, far as I could tell. The ending is the same for everyone, which made me wonder if alternate good/evil endings were cut for time or budget constraints.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. A Plague Tale: Innocence feels anachronistic, like a game THQ would’ve released circa 2010—or one THQ might remaster, circa 2019. It’s relentlessly straightforward, and I wasn’t kidding when I said developers don’t make games like this anymore. Certainly not games that look like A Plague Tale.
I wish they would though. A Plague Tale is one of my favorite experiences so far this year because it’s an outlier. It knows the story it wants to tell and it tells it in a tight and well-paced manner—and then it ends. Given the sprawling and ultimately pointless stories we get from the usual open-world fare, A Plague Tale feels like a refreshing alternative. I’m surprised (and grateful) it got made at all, and I hope Asobo Studio’s earned another experiment like this in the future.