A Beautifully Written Journey
In an endless sea of looter shooters, multiplayer battle royales and microtransaction-riddled titles, Plague: Tale Innocence is a breath of fresh air. With a simple, 10 hour narrative and a well paced story, Plague Tale backs up its compelling plot line with some cleverly evolving gameplay, with each of its deliciously dark chapters an absolute delight to play through. Created by a passionate team of 40 or so people, Plague: Tale Innocence is a reminder of what this medium can produce with a bit of creativity and passion, leaving this reviewer saddened when the journey ended. Despite the visuals not quite matching traditional blockbuster game standards, the atmosphere and general aesthetic of the game more than makes up for this, making Plague Tale: Innocence one of the best games of the year.
Set in the 1300’s with the threat of the plague looming ever nearer, the game sees you take control of Amicia, a young girl whose thrust into a conflict with the might of the Inquisition, who are hell bent on taking your estranged younger brother Hugo for reasons that become clearer toward the end of the game. After seeing her Father butchered outside the house, leading to a tense escape where you leave your Mother behind, what follows is a journey of love, friendship and courage as the game takes you on a stealth-heavy journey through 1300’s England in a bid to save your Mother and survive the plague.
It’s an exceptionally well-paced journey too, with each level mixing things up with a combination of action, puzzles and stealth whilst cleverly changing and evolving mechanics as the game progresses. Although the ending is a little abrupt and the finale devolves into the usual maniacal world-ending plot you may expect here, it’s easy to look past this given the excellent work achieved up until this point.
When you first start playing Plague Tale: Innocence, it becomes apparent that the general gameplay is split between two predominant styles; outright stealth encounters with the inquisition guards and more puzzle/action segments with the rats. You’d be forgiven for thinking Plague Tale would adopt the same rigid technique seen with Naughty Dog games, with some levels exclusively focusing on the rats and others with the guards. Although the first few chapters do admittedly take this approach, as the game progresses so too does the gameplay, as both rats and guards combine to make for some challenging but rewarding gameplay. This constantly evolves as you acquire more abilities, boasting a really organic style I wish more games would adopt.
Although each level is linear by design, the tense stealth is deliberately paced because of this, with slow animations and a one-shot kill approach reminisce of games like Alien: Isolation that use this same technique to heighten tension. To begin with you’re pretty much defence-less against these guards but as the chapters progress, so too does Amicia’s ability to fight back, eventually opening up to boast numerous ways to stop guards. This plays back into the organic gameplay as you learn to utilize your slingshot, and surroundings, to your advantage.
Along with a number of collectables dotted around the environment, Plague Tale encourages exploration for materials as these can, in turn, be used to upgrade your equipment in the fight for survival. From extinguishing fires (which we’ll get to shortly) and sleep potions to silently take out guards, it’s certainly advisable to scavenge as much as you can across the levels. These abilities also become invaluable in your encounters with the rats which are, quite frankly, terrifying. As they swarm and surround you, the crazed, maniacal rodents lunge forward and their hive-mind make this a formidable foe that feels as unique and alive as any enemy you come up against in the game.
Your one real weapon against them comes in the form of fire. Whether it be explosive blasts with the slingshot or igniting fires and torches smouldering in the landscape, Plague Tale: Innocence stretches this mechanic as far as it possibly can, before mixing things up with some very cleverly implemented puzzles that turn this whole concept upside down. It’s a momene that genuinely surprised and impressed me, as everything you learn up until that point is suddenly turned against you as Hugo’s purpose becomes clear. For spoiler purposes I won’t divulge this here but suffice to say these later levels are some of the favourite in any game I’ve played for a very long time.
Throughout the chapters, environmental hazards, puzzles and a mixture of torch-wielding guards and difficult segments to navigate make this a dream come true for stealth fans. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of the genre and I’m not very good at them either. I died multiple times here, partly thanks to my own ineptitude but also at times the game isn’t always clear over where you need to go or what you need to do next. It’s not a deal-breaker but a few times I found myself puzzled before glancing in the distance and noticing a small target high up that I needed to hit to progress forward.
Despite these minor gripes, Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the best games of 2019 and a must-play for anyone who likes narrative-driven titles or stealth games. The constantly evolving mechanics and cleverly implemented level design work so well against the story and despite a few hiccups with the end of the story, Plague Tale remains compelling and engaging right through to its final epilogue. It’s a reminder of how amazing this medium can be and whilst it doesn’t quite hit the narrative excellency of games like The Witcher 3 or The Last Of Us, Plague Tale: Innocence certainly finds its home alongside these illustrious titles.