I think the biggest compliment you can give a horror title is that it made you scared of something. Jaws made you afraid of the ocean. IT made you afraid of clowns. The Bye Bye Man made you scared of movies that release in January. The list goes on. It’s easy for a movie or game to frighten us when it’s about something we’re already scared of. Instilling a brand new fear in us requires some serious craft. Having seen A Plague Tale: Innocence twice now, I’m starting to get some seriously uneasy feeling about rats.
When I first saw A Plague Tale: Innocence back at E3 2017, I was blown away by the sheer amount of rats they were able to pack onto the screen. Flowing like a black tide through the windows, the pile of rats grew and swirled with a macabre fluidity. It triggered something primal within me, a deep fear of the unending swarm that made my heart catch in my throat. I did worry that the presentation was a glorified tech demo, and that the final product wouldn’t hold up to that level of fidelity. Having seen the game in action once again, I can say that it holds up. It definitely holds up.
Taking place in a plague ravaged 1349 France, A Plague Tale: Innocence tells the story Amicia and Hugo. Orphaned early on by some plague/inquisition shenanigans, players fill the shoes by the elder sibling Amicia. Seems like Hugo has come down with a bad case of the mysterious illnesses, and it’s up to Amicia to guide Hugo through the various challenges in search of a cure. Along the way you’ll team up with other orphans, who I’d put solid money on meeting a ratty fate.
The developers over at Asobo Studios are still being infuriatingly vague about the plot of A Plague Tale: Innocence, but for some reason or another the inquisition is after you. Seeing as how the inquisition employs grown men and Amicia is barely a teenager, you won’t be stabbing your way to victory. Instead, you’ll rely on stealth, your wits, and a trusty sling to puzzle your way through.
Showcasing the gameplay is really where this year’s demo shined. Taking place in a field of rotting corpses, it was up to the player to suss out the different safe paths and hidden secrets. Rats are allergic to bright lights, so much of the game revolves around that. Sometimes the way forward is rather obvious, with torches and bonfires just waiting for you to light them with fiery projectiles from your sling. Even in this short demo, I could see the faint glimmer of hidden items and secret stashes in the distance. Resource management is the name of the game here, as some paths will require you to use consumable items to temporarily clear the horde of rats.
You’ll have to work together with Hugo and the other orphans you come into contact with to complete a number of the puzzles on your path. Hugo is much smaller, and better suited for crawling into small spaces. Sometimes you’ll just need an extra pair of hands, as the demo showed one puzzle where Amicia will crank down a trebuchet for Hugo to ignite. At other times, Amicia will need to go it alone. Hugo isn’t one of those invisible companions like Ellie in The Last of US, so it’s sometimes best to leave him behind. However, Hugo isn’t as brave without his big sister around. Leave him alone for too long, and he might whimper and reveal his location to the patrolling guards.
Just because there isn’t combat in A Plague Tale: Innocence doesn’t mean you have no way to deal with the guards. While the rats are deadly to you, the mindless hordes are just as lethal to the agents of the inquisition. Their only protection against the swarm are the lanterns and torches they hold. Man, that sure is a nice lantern you have there. Would be a shame if someone were to… sling a rock into it. Not all of the puzzles will have a murder solution, but sometimes the best strategy will be luring your enemies away from the safety of their braziers. Once in the open, a quick rock to the skull can quickly turn them into rat food.
Now while they were being intentionally vague about the plot, I was able to get a few details from the developers after the demo. First off, there’s a supernatural element to things that they just refuse to be specific about. They want the game to be rooted in reality, so all of the technology and locations are period accurate. However, there is something different about the rats. Whether it’s a malignant force or just a generalized evil, there’s some greater menace to the swarm.
One thing that wasn’t ambiguous was the tone. This is a dark, gritty, and deeply disturbing game. Early on, Amicia and Hugo are forced to trudge through a field of rotting bodies. Rats crawl from the corpses, feasting on the decay and bursting forth from the pustulent pile of gore. Destroy an enemy’s torch, and the rats will overwhelm them in a way that genuinely makes me feel bad. Towards the end of the demo, Amicia is forced to use a torch to push a wave of rats away from her and towards a helpless stranded soldier at the other end of a broken carriage. As the horde flooded over him and silenced his screams, I was left deeply unsettled.
In a year’s time, A Plague Tale: Innocence has grown from a beautiful tech demo to a full fledged game. Though I wish I could get some more specifics about the plot, I can understand their desire to stay mysterious. And hey, how many games do you get about orphan children in 1300’s France avoiding swarms of plague ridden rats? I’m just glad that a game with this original of a plot also looks so damn good.
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