You will never be able to look at Roland Rat the same way after playing A Plague Tale: Innocence, the new adventure from Asobo Studio, who are taking a decidedly darker turn away from their younger demographic of recent years. The plague-ridden France that you guide a sister and her brother through is grim, though there’s also great beauty to be found here that shone through during a preview build playthrough I had with the game.
A Plague Tale: Innocence pits you as Amicia, the daughter to a lord in times of great strife across the land. Things start off peacefully enough with a tutorial to guide you through the ropes (it doesn’t seem to be an especially complex game from early impressions) in a lush forest. Before long, you must guide your effectively estranged brother, Hugo, through the dangers of a country on the verge of collapse.
The most obvious touchstone is The Last of Us based on the familial themes at its core and the desolation all around the two main characters. Amicia and Hugo don’t really know each other, but by the end of my three chapter playthrough, I was pulling for them to make it through. There’s more room for them to grow and their bond to strengthen, but so far their voice actors and the script have established a connection worth caring about, even if Hugo may be a whining Nelly at times (all the times).
The majority of my time with A Plague Tale was spent stealthing around, which, honestly, was nothing revolutionary at all. It ticks off a checklist of conventions for stealth games — thrown objects as distractions, barely tall grass somehow making you invisible, waiting behind cover for an enemy to turn around — and not much else, which gives the game a bit of a lull in its first hour. It also repeats itself too often in such a short space of time with chase scenes in abundance that don’t excite after the first couple of setpieces, but the end of my playthrough promised plenty more variety to come.
When the dreaded rats arrive, A Plague Tale morphs into a tense puzzler as you try to figure out how to use fire (and also big chunks of ham) to keep the hordes at bay. And there are hordes of them piling in and out of cracks in the walls without warning — I was reminded of the Moria orcs scene in Fellowship, such was the volume of the little fiends. Walking an inch out of safety from the light can cause Amicia to get gobbled up in pretty convincing fashion within seconds, which makes for some uncomfortable viewing.
Dependable “passenger” AI for companions, especially for those who are vulnerable without you, is something that a lot of games fail to provide, or at least not annoy with; think Emma in Metal Gear Solid 2 or Ashley in Resident Evil 4. Luckily, Hugo sticks like glue to Amicia when she’s walking through troubled streets and decaying buildings with him in tow also not feeling like you’re guiding around a fridge. Asobo have smartly made Hugo feel less like someone weighing Amicia down, more akin to a second skin for her instead. You can ask him to stop or follow you and also climb through holes, but that’s about as complicated as it gets based on what I played.
Amicia has a slingshot at her disposal that she can use to distract enemies or even for combat, though the relative scarcity of “ammunition” to use with it means that she isn’t exactly Hawkeye. The slingshot can also be used to drop things down from the ceiling, such as crates or the aforementioned ham, with upgrades available the more materials you collect. Crafting is a thing in A Plague Tale, though I can’t say I noticed it being too central a mechanic in the preview build. It’s something that may deepen once the game properly gets going, but it was still a neat little touch based on the small bit of upgrading I could do.
It’s odd to say that something so ugly can be also be beautiful, but A Plague Tale really is a gorgeous game beneath its gruesome exterior. The lighting is impeccable, the dungeons being so full of life despite also being completely dead, and the overall composition of some of its scenes make A Plague Tale a screenshot factory. Someone at Asobo must have a background in cinematography because there’s so much to gawk at and take in when it comes to the little details, making me constantly think of Hellblade: a similarly budgeted AA experience.
It’s a pity, then, that the facial animations are nowhere near as good as that game, neither of the main characters having much expressiveness beyond the basics. This is offset somewhat by the hugely stirring score that drives the emotion when it needs to and broods during dangerous situations, but those put off by the stiffness seen in Vampyr and Call of Cthulhu (other Focus Home published games) may be left underwhelmed.
Two hours just wasn’t enough time for me to spend with A Plague Tale: Innocence as it only really started to open up as things were concluding. From what I’ve played, it’s certainly a solid adventurer with a duo worth caring about, but it will be interesting to see how Asobo balance its many spinning wheels and keep the action varied for the full release on May 14th.