A Plague Tale: Innocence Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One and PC
There’s a section of A Plague Tale: Inoccence’s tutorial chapter where you wade through mud at a near-glacial pace and, sadly, it’s an ominous metaphor for the first five or so hours of the game. It starts slowly, opting for immersion and realism over fun, and only when you progress into the second half of the title does it really come alive. The first few chapters feel like an entirely different game, and there’s a compelling story to be found in A Plague Tale: Innocence, if you persevere.
Set in 1340s France, at the pinnacle of the Great Plague, A Plague Tale: Innocence tells the heart-wrenching tale of the De Rune family. Primarily following Amicia and her younger sibling, Hugo, we learn of an ancient evil coursing through the family bloodline that has awoken inside Hugo. You have to avoid vast armies of rats, as well as the French Inquisition and the invading English soldiers, on your quest to cure his ailments. The stealth aspect of the opening chapters is painfully tense, with no option but to hide and run. You’re only a young girl, after all, who can’t put up much of a defence when a sword-wielding guard spots you.
There’s also a powerful message during the early hours of A Plague Tale: Innocence; we take for granted just how horrible death is, and normalise the sickening act of taking a life. Amicia doesn’t want to kill, actively begging one attacker not to force her hand. She immediately shows remorse when she does kill someone, even though it was in self defence, praying for repentance soon after. It’s a game where you’re forced to confront the brutality of survival; for you to live, others must die on more than one occasion, but it’s not a decision you make lightly. Even the tooltips don’t want to admit the harsh realities, one item saying it will “put enemies to sleep for good”.
This soon fades, however, as Amicia becomes jaded and vengeful, throwing her conscience aside as she takes lives as retribution for her damaged soul. She’ll do anything to protect, rescue, or defend those close to her, and this is a commanding evolution of Amicia’s character; another perfect display of the horrors of death, able to corrupt an innocent girl into a resentful murderer. The latter portions of the game also put an increased focus on combat, though stealth is still very much the pertinent genre.
Checkpoints are, for the most part, frequent enough that you never feel the punishment is too harsh if you’re seen. You’ll have normally made some progress and spawn close to where you died, though there are a few tough segments where you go several minutes without seeing a checkpoint. Dying during those is a slap in the face, as you’ll have to keep hearing the same dialogue lines over and over after each restart. You do unlock interesting tools as you progress, though, which allow you to disperse or attract rats, including alchemic elixirs that light and extinguish fires.
This isn’t the only way in which A Plague Tale: Innocence feels like a game of two halves, however. In the beginning, Amicia is petulant, a reluctant big sister who snaps at the smallest step that Hugo takes out of line. At one point, she yells at Hugo for making noise with a wooden mallet while they’re hiding for their lives. So, rather than just taking the mallet off of him, her response is to make more noise and escalate the situation. It’s infuriating to watch, like the idiots in a horror movie that slowly walk up to the obviously creepy door, despite hearing a bloodcurdling scream from the other side. I tried to be sympathetic, but for the first quarter of the game, the characters are thoroughly unlikeable.
Hugo sulks and runs off repeatedly, which doesn’t really fit the personality that we first see of a meek, frightened boy who has to be coerced to spend seconds away from his mother. It was also bizarre to me that he never sheds a tear, despite being surrounded by gore, death, and danger. Maybe toddlers were made of stronger stuff in 14th century France, but most children in his shoes would have bawled their eyes out hundreds of times.
That’s the crux of my issue with the acting, large chunks of their reactions - both to the tragedies they see around them, and to dialogue between themselves - just weren’t believable. One interaction was so decidedly dry that it stood out, with no real feeling from either side during what should have been a touching moment, and dialogue lines that abruptly cut across each other. I went back and watched the same scene in French - just in case this was an issue with the English dub - and though there was slightly more emotion in the deliveries, the sentences still overlapped. This was an unfortunately regular occurrence that slowly ate away at me; characters kept responding immediately during conversations, leaving no room for natural pauses or organic reactions.
Some of the cutscenes are awkwardly animated, too, with stiff movements that don’t quite look human, as well as the occasional vacant, lifeless stare where you’d expect the eyes to behave naturally. I also got stuck inside scenery or behind invisible walls a few times, but A Plague Tale: Innocence is more than capable of showing its quality. The corners of the screen blur and sound fades away when Amicia first witnesses a murder, which was an excellent portrayal of her shock and fright, albeit one that’s sadly never used again. There are also some scenes where Hugo’s face is rendered in surprising detail, the frame rate was consistently smooth, and the textures and lighting as a whole are impressive. There’s meaningful character development through the later chapters, too, even if some of it seemed implausible.
The soundtrack was another high note, heavily featuring stringed instruments that amplify the anxious tone, with short, sharp flurries portraying tension and panic. The accompanying sound effects are believable, too, with your rapid breathing being the most prominent audio when guards are nearby. There’s also realistic shortness of breath pock-marking conversations while you’re maneuvering heavy objects, which was welcome attention to detail.
- Playstation 4
- Xbox One