14th century Europe is a time in history that saw some of the greatest widespread death in recorded history. Having most likely, according to history reports, been brought over on fleas travelling upon black rats on merchant ships, the Black Death’s rampage eliminated a enormous portion of the European population regardless of the physical, religious or political borders that humanity had set up. Taking place between the summer in 1348 and the winter of 1349, the daughter of a noblemen, Amicia De Rune, will set out on a journey of pain and suffering as she searches for a cure to her brother’s disease that doesn’t relate to the effects of the Black Death.
I will preface this now, there will be a fair amount of spoilers ahead
A Plague Tale: Innocence is probably one of the best story driven adventure tales that I’ve played in a long time. Starting off at about the breaking point of the plague being spread, things are calm giving you a chance to slowly learn the ropes but also experience what it’s like for Amicia in her daily life of a teenage girl in the middle ages. Headstrong to the point of even her father giving in, Amicia is still free of marriage unlike a lot of other girls her age would have been for that time frame and is pretty capable. This shows in her personality as she is not someone meek who gets walked over and her tale is not one of growth but one of survival by any means necessary and the evolution of this path is a marvel to behold.
Starting off by testing her prowess with her sling in a “knight’s test” with her father out on their property, you get to see that not only is Amicia headstrong, but she’s also very capable and she knows how to carry herself. Acting as a bit of a tutorial, you are put through a few paces of learning how to handle Amicia’s sling and how you can move around the lush forests as you chase after both the boar you were hunting and Leon, the family dog, who outpaces you with his four legs and canine grace. This is about where things turn to proverbial shit.
Chasing after Leon, the lush forest turns to rot and decay and the boar you were chasing after is already rotted down to its bones and what little sinew is left. Panicking, Amicia calls out harder for Leon and you hear a whine just further off in the distance. Hearing you faithful companion, you run to him to find him severely injured before something takes him dragging him underground and snuffing out his life. Running away from whatever is chasing you without looking back, you learn how to move and move fast. Amicia is just a normal human and no match for whatever is behind her as she runs back to the safety of the family homestead.
Leading up to the “chase” acts as one third of the introduction to A Plague Tale. It teaches you both patience and action as there’s a time to wait and there’s a time to run. Getting back to the family home, your father tells you to go find your mother as he needs to talk to her. Already getting an idea that things aren’t so well between any of you and her, you head off to find her only to almost be outright dismissed before she tells you to go see your brother that’s been basically locked away from you for years because of a sickness that he possesses. Still reeling from the horror and the loss of Leon, she does as she is asked and from this moment on, the stage is fully set for the second of three styles.
Having run away from the horrors, new horrors arrive in the form of the French Inquisition. Murdering your parents and those that worked for them, Amicia takes her little brother Hugo and hides. Amicia, as strong willed and as resourceful as she is, is still a teenage girl and with a frailer smaller brother that is essentially estranged, she’s in no position to fight back so the two sneak off in order to find help. Moving in stealth, moving in silence, is honestly up there in how it was done. Moving too fast will make noise, moving from cover to cover could get you spotted all depending. That said, Amicia with her sling has access to plenty of stones that can be used in order to create distractions. While they may not work on everyone, they will work plenty over the course of the journey if you play your cards right.
Finally the last element comes into play the first real night that Amicia and Hugo have to live through after having just lost everything. In history, the plague was spread by the fleas that traveled upon rats which in turn is how they made it to humans. In our current tale, the plague is the rats and the horde of screeching vermin is its own brand of horror as they can break the ground and appear out of nowhere. Fire is about the only safeguard and even then, often it will only keep you safe for so long as even that can burn out when lighting up stacks of hay.
These elements, along with the hiding and the planning your path through are elements that I truly appreciated as Amicia from start to finish is never, and I mean never, a “hero”. She’s a girl, with a sling and a little brother who’s sick and needs help. She’s never once in a position to smash her way through hordes of enemies or superhero jump over obstacles and the shear stress of certain moments is enough to warrant taking a pause afterwards wondering how you really just made it through all the hell that you just ran through. There have been plenty of experiences in which if you get spotted you’re almost dead, but she can still dodge backwards in order to hopefully avoid being stabbed with a sword, sideways in order to avoid a spear or arrow, and all to buy her a little more time to prep a rock in order to throw it.
Only adding to the stress is that materials are always limited. This makes the question as to whether or not you should take aim and fire at something much more important as if you’re spotted you may need to use that stone you just threw to defend yourself. Keeping with the built reality is that Amicia can upgrade her equipment but never is it in the vein of making her more “powerful”. You can upgrade the sling to make it quieter, you can “upgrade” your shoes to make them quieter because you took out the wood soles and replaced it with strips of cloth. You can upgrade your material’s pouch that will let ingredients be more potent and burn longer if needed. You also don’t even need to do these if you don’t want to as while they help, they aren’t necessary to complete the adventure.
Finally something else that I felt was well done and done well. It takes a while before Amicia is forced to take a life. Prior to that, you cause distractions, you try to keep as far away as possible from anyone that could easily end you or your brother’s life. Taking a life should never be easy and the effect that it has on her is anything but light. She does it because she has to, not because she wants to. From this point on, you can take lives if you so choose but often there will be questions as to whether it really was the right thing and not because another guard or enemy spotted the body dropping. Seeing that theme carried through added to an already properly crafted ambiance that the developers created, which is why what I’m about to say next kind of sucks.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is almost perfect up until chapter nine. It could have ended at chapter nine or ten and I could have almost given it a perfect score. The blend of the elements, the well crafted dialog, the scenery and the environments that you traveled through. Even if you were doing a certain type of gameplay style again, because of how it all flows together, never felt stale. Even with the rats being a little supernatural, and the hints to other supernatural elements, it was never enough to break the mystique that was crafted up until that point.
*Massive spoiler alert*
Amicia saved her brother. Or at least saved him for the time being. The ending wasn’t perfect but that’s life. It isn’t perfect and it was perfect in its imperfectness. You find out right before the end that your mother is alive. She was never killed in what you thought had happened as the sword that went through the door all that time ago was through another that served your family. Amicia knows this, and even then, protecting her brother from those that chased him is still the most important to her. She weighs the danger and she makes the hard choice. To stay. To protect. That would have been the best possible ending in this time of horrors. But it isn’t and then all the mystique and the well craftedness falls out the window and the remainder of the experience becomes nothing more than just another action / adventure title.
Taking the supernatural elements up a notch, Hugo starts to develop powers that can control rats. This, while he’s with Amicia, takes away most fear and stress of being swarmed or even attacked as you can now send the rats to take out any soldiers chasing after you. You don’t really need to stealth around anymore if you’re quick enough on the trigger to aim at light sources and then switch back to controlling the rats which is exactly what happens when you are forced into your first of two boss fights that fall into their own traps. The law of three. You need to hit them three times and each time only gets harder to do. It doesn’t fit.
The adventure up until then was a well crafted mix of elements and with the whole, ok now there’s superpowers and loads of ammunition and crafting supplies, it just becomes another action / adventure title in which you “save the day” with a happy ending. While it may have been the direction from the beginning, it feels out of place because of how drastic the turn in direction was. The controls remain smooth, the graphics remain just as crisp and the writing / dialog is still great, but the theme I felt didn’t work and acted as a disservice to what I had just previously almost already crowned Game of the Year.
One of the last items that I really want to highlight is the dialog as I switched between two of the three available languages from start to finish. Starting off the English felt “off” and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I switch both the audio and the subtitles over to French. The developers at Asobo Studio are from France and I can only assume that, taking place in France, and being designed in France, that the first language would be French. Great for me as it’s my first language. From there the switch between the two was seamless and I can only praise the job that they did. I cannot comment on the third language available however as I do not speak German.