I survived the Black Plague and all I got was this lousy apple
That’s how I felt at the end of the emotionally raw and confronting A Plague Tale: Innocence
. I remember having a conversation with my AusGamers
cohort Kosta Andreadis
a number of years ago about the movie The Road
-- both of us the film buffs that we are, I asked him if he liked it.
“Sure, if I like being kicked in the dick over and over again.”
It’s a fair statement. The Road was a grim and frighteningly realistic depiction of post-apocalyptia that seems even more real (or possible) today than when it was released in 2009. And in videogames, we tend to have fantastical -- even enjoyable -- moments in our post-apocalyptic worlds we visit often
. In A Plague Tale: Innocence, however, this is very much a real scourge, specifically early on in the piece. The game takes place in the 14th Century
amidst the plague and with the Inquisition
at the height of its largely immoral and somewhat illegal powers. Loss is forever present in the game, as too is the lack of support or care among frightened denizens around you.
This shit was real, and A Plague Tale: Innocence does not hold back on that front.
But in a weird sort of juxtaposition, the game itself is utterly, utterly gorgeous. Art-direction throughout is incredible and the spaces, though limited and more linear than open, sell this world to perfection. However, the gameplay that accompanies all of this is equally linear and this is where things start to turn a little black
for the experience on the whole.
Before I get there, here’s the spoiler-free setup: You largely play the game as Amicia
, daughter of a nobleman and sister to Hugo
. Amicia is the older of the two and due to an ‘illness’ Hugo is plagued
with, she spends most of her time with her father, learning how to throw things with a sling. Her and Hugo’s mother, Beatrice
, spends most of her time with Hugo and has an understanding of alchemy as a result of his illness, which becomes important later.
"There’s a uniquely non gaming-like narrative here, and one that treats history and superstition from that period with rare reverence..."
“The bite” as it’s described, reaches far too close to home for Amicia and her family, and a series of events leads our main protagonist to take charge of caring for her little brother and out into the dangerous and lonely plague-ravaged wild. And I’ll leave it at that from a story and setup perspective because if you do decide to bite
into this, there’s a uniquely non gaming-like narrative here, and one that treats history and superstition from that period with rare reverence.
But I digress.
There’s a fitting metaphor tied heavily to any screens or footage you see of Amicia holding Hugo’s hand. While warming and contextually justifiable on a narrative level, the game itself is a super-heavy hand-holding experience for the player. Hard-fail scenarios come in thick and fast, and often there’s only one way to progress your movement through the game’s 18 chapters. Combat, which is largely lite-on, is clunky and frustrating. Amicia’s only tools are her sling and variable ammunition you eventually learn to craft. She walks on by lost or discarded weapons, shields and more, throughout her journey. But it’s in the sling we -- and her -- trust, and it’s one of the game’s biggest failings. Everything we see (for the most part) sells the setting and period, and in the wake of the situation that sees our hero and her little brother pushing forward through corpses, rat nests and battlefields caked in bloodied fallen, with various other weapons available for pillaging, that she wouldn’t just even pick up a dagger is detrimental to the experience. In fact, there are numerous scenarios where you have enemies running at you where aiming your sling has to be specifically at their head in order to stop them. Fail to do so and… well, hard fail
I mean, she could just stab them.
"You will find companions on your journey and they all play a large role in keeping much of the grim reality of the setting at an emotional bay..."
The game-world itself isn’t always
combat-focused though, and there is exploration as well as exposition, tied equally to stealth, to discover which enriches the spaces you visit and the period in which the game is set, while keeping you alive. You will find companions on your journey and they all play a large role in keeping much of the grim reality of the setting at an emotional bay. Though each of them would be paying through the nose to manage serious PTSD at the end of the journey, they support each other and hold everything up. Unfortunately they could have been explored more
and the streamlined nature of proceedings feels like it let down another opportunity in front of the team to really
open the whole experience up.
From an audio perspective, A Plague Tale: Innocence cannot
be faulted. “Moving”, “dreary”, “hopeful”, “suspenseful”, “alarming”, “brooding” and “bold” -- all adjectives that can be used, to describe the game’s soundtrack. But none of those buzz words can really relay the composition on its persistent level. I never once felt that the game’s audio accompaniment was out of touch with what the player was doing, or experiencing. You could argue that by having such a hand-holdy, linear experience the music team could control tempo more, and you’re probably right, but that doesn’t take away from just how
the team captured the mood of the game, which has many shades and layers. To have a soundtrack that works with -- and against -- such a bleak and grim setting with the confidence that is delivered here, is truly something special.
"A Plague Tale: Innocence is a glimpse into a future ripe for the apple pickings for Asobo [as a developer to move onto bigger things]..."
The writing and scripting for each of the game’s key characters is really very good. Both Amicia and Hugo standout, as they should, and while the studio itself is French-based, even the English VO is handled very well. There’s a lot of development that should
have gone into more time with each character, as mentioned a moment ago, but what is
here is still very absorbing; that I wanted more
of and from
them should speak volumes about the precipice that the game exists upon; a largely linear and limited gameplay experience, but one that really capitalises where it needs to in areas to elevate the experience on the whole. There’s a very bright future here for Asobo Studio
Which leaves me with the bittersweet closure of this review. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a glimpse into a future ripe for the apple pickings for Asobo. It’s gorgeous and beautifully presented, yet limited in not only its linear nature, but in how things like hard-fails are handled. Yes they still exist in many games, but this journey and story needed more than just frustrating repetition as its actual gameplay loop. There aren’t too many game out in the wild willing to be as dark and direct as this -- think Papers, Please
and you get an idea for just how Asobo hasn’t held back, but there’s a void where agency and conducive, contextual gameplay concepts and ideas should have been more fulfilling.
That being said, if you don’t mind being “kicked in the dick”, narratively, while having your hand held through gameplay, and utterly enjoy mood, even if it is sonically amplified gloom
, A Plague Tale: Innocence does deliver.