I recently got to try out the first couple of hours of A Plague Tale: Innocence, the upcoming adventure/puzzle game from Asobo Studio. As the title may suggest, it is not a story of happiness and sunshine. The game is set in 14th Century France, a land gripped by war and disease, and is centred on Amicia De Rune. You’re introduced to her as she’s walking through the woods with her knightly father, off to practice her already impressive sling skills.
Amicia’s frolic through the forest soon turns into a day to forget, however, especially once her family receives an unexpected visit from the Inquisition. Amicia is forced to flee her home with her younger brother, Hugo. The two barely know each other, as Hugo has been effectively quarantined with his mother due to a mysterious illness. The two have to start relying on each other though, and quickly, as it soon emerges that their world is dark and full of terrors.
The most obvious thing about A Plague Tale is that its visuals are amazing. The outdoor environments are deliberately reminiscent of classical landscape paintings, while the interiors vary from rustic houses to gothic church buildings. Where it really shines though is in its facial animations, which are as good as any I can recall. My feeling is that this isn’t just for show either; it really helps to build emotional engagement with the narrative. A Plague Tale clearly wants you to care about the De Rune children; in fact, it really needs you to care. Looking at Hugo’s sad, perfectly realised five-year-old face, it’s difficult not to feel for him.
It’s worth noting though that having Hugo tag along doesn’t mean A Plague Tale is one long escort mission. Although he does occasionally get himself (and by extension, Amicia) into trouble, he is far from useless. He can squeeze under walls and through windows that are too small for Amicia, clearing your way forward. The AI seems pretty solid too – far closer to Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite than Natalya from Goldeneye 64. Apparently, the De Runes encounter other runaway kids along the way, and it will be interesting to see how they fit in from both a story and a gameplay perspective.
The bulk of that gameplay is based on environmental puzzle solving. Amicia and Hugo spend most of their time on the run, and need to sneak around to avoid capture (or worse). You can distract patrolling guards with noise, hide in long grass or dash past when they’re not looking. The game does a good job of introducing you to the basic concepts early on and, at least in the parts I’ve played, Hugo offers up suggestions if you’re taking a while over any one problem. Of course, if you’ve seen any footage of the game already, you’re probably aware that angry men with swords are not the only threat to the De Runes. There are also the rats. Lots of rats.
To be clear, if you have a fear of rats (musophobia, for the record) then you will not enjoy A Plague Tale. Think of that bit in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, except with rats that can strip a man to the bone in 30 seconds. Fortunately for Amicia and Hugo, the rats avoid fire. This in turn forms the basis of the other main puzzle mechanic, i.e., how to traverse environments without getting devoured by bloodthirsty vermin. It’s a creepy and impressively implemented twist on similar ideas from other games (stay out of the shadows/light/lava, etc.). I’ve seen footage from later in the game where the two puzzle systems overlap, forcing you to account for both soldiers and land-piranhas at the same time.
The biggest potential hurdle I can foresee A Plague Tale facing come its full release on 14th May is its presentation of Amicia. It feels like it’s trying to walk the same tightrope as the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. That game portrayed Lara Croft as frightened and vulnerable, but also a highly resourceful killing machine. While Amicia doesn’t appear to be quite as lethal, she’s far from helpless. She’s capable of head-shotting guards and knocking armour off of hulking soldiers. There’s a crafting system in place, allowing Amicia to upgrade her sling and the creation of special ammunition. Although all this makes sense from a gameplay perspective, it jars somewhat with her age and background.
That’s a relatively minor gripe though. And the only other one is that I experienced a few technical issues – but this is preview code, and given the overall quality of what was on show, I’d be very surprised if these weren’t resolved by release day.
On the whole, I was very impressed with what I saw. It looks great, the story is interesting and the characters are engaging. I’m looking forward to finding out where the plague has come from and just why the Inquisition is so interested in the De Rune family. The puzzle design will need to be good to prevent it from becoming too repetitive, but I’m hopeful that Asobo Studio knows what it’s doing. To be honest, A Plague Tale: Innocence was on the periphery of my wishlist beforehand, but I’m now eager to see how the full release will turn out.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is being developed by Asobo Studio and will be released on 14th May 2019 on PC, Xbox One and PS4.
Disclosure statement: Preview code for A Plague Tale was provided by Koch Media. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.