During Focus Home Interactive's What's Next event last week in Paris, we were able to see all of the games that the French publisher has coming in the next couple of years. Among the titless we were already well aware of there was also one or two that we don't know much about at all, and of those, there was one in particular that caught our attention. A Plague Tale: Innocence, developed by independent studio Asobo, made quite an impression on us. This wasn't the first time that the game had been on display (as a matter of fact, it was shown off last year at the same event and then again at E3) but information about it has been thin on the ground and its development remained shrouded in secrecy. Asobo, a studio that has already worked on games like Fuel and Quantum Break, is building an adventure that definitely won't be to your tastes you if you're afraid of things that scurry. Here there are swarms of rats everywhere; a technical challenge imposed by a dark, melancholic, and stressful story.
There's no open world here, and the story is very much scripted. In this moody adventure, Amicia, 14, and Hugo, her 8-year-old brother, are on their own in a nightmarish world. The plot takes place in the southeast of France where a terrible plague is ravaging the population. Rats, feeding on the corpses of local citizens, are taking control of the streets. Luckily, the rodents are afraid of the light, which is just about enough to prevent them from devouring you on sight. In order to maintain a semblance of order, the Inquisition patrols the area, arresting lone travellers. You can't rely on a sword here, nor magical superpowers; being smart is the only way to save these siblings.
Kevin Choteau, the game's lead designer, talked us through part of chapter 4, and the first thing we noticed was the graphics. The developers wanted to make a beautiful, precise, detailed game and they have pretty much nailed it. In particular, we noted some impressive work in terms of lighting effects. But the photorealistic rendering we saw is also helped by a cinematic style. It's reminiscent of The Last of Us, or more recently Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. The movements look real, your surroundings are detailed, and the scenery impressive.
The gameplay demo revealed a huge battlefield where corpses of lifeless soldiers littered the ground; a real feast for the rats that swarmed the area in their thousands. Despite the sheer number of the rodents on screen at any one time, they don't seem to collide with each other and they looked terrifyingly genuine. Regarding the mechanics surrounding gameplay, as mentioned before, they are essentially based around managing light sources and staying out of the darkness and therefore harm's way. To get through each area you have to light torches, campfires, and any of the flammable objects that might be scattered around the vicinity. The light of the flames scares away the nearby rats and therefore opens up a path. You'll still have to be very cautious, as the rodents will feast on your flesh if you venture into darkness, and therein lies the challenge offered by the game.
Amicia, the only character you control directly, is armed with a sling with which she can light certain elements from a distance, or even neutralise Inquisition guards carrying breakable lanterns. Then, without light to protect them, the unfortunate guard will be eaten alive, creating a very useful diversion in the process. In some cases, the lanterns are unbreakable; when that happens you'll have to target the helmet and then land a headshot. Stunned, they won't realise their misfortune until it's too late. Our concern, however, is that these mechanics, interesting as they may be, might not be enough to carry the whole game, and we hope there will be more in the final game, like when additional characters are introduced. One example of that is when Amicia and Hugo were joined by a third character, a boy named Lucas. He is barely older than Hugo but older enough to be wiser. Without revealing too much of the story we can say that they have to enter the city by following an aqueduct, with an introductory scene showing the three children on a boat navigating a misty river.
Narrative seems to be at the heart of the game and could potentially compensate for any lack of variety in terms of gameplay. Throughout the demo, the protagonists were talking to each other, and the relationship between sister and brother is constantly highlighted; she often takes his hand to guide him, when they have to step over corpses for example, or even takes him in her arms. If you leave him alone for too long, he will end up feeling afraid, and thus he'll need to be comforted. Amicia and Hugo's love for each other is clearly one of the strengths of the game. On this note, the developers openly acknowledge the resemblance with Brother: A Tale of Two Sons and even The Last of Us. Both games are also built on the link that unites their two main protagonists, although the similarities end there.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a particularly well-chosen name. It blends a nightmarish and morbid tale with the naivety of childhood. Innocence in a hostile environment. Asobo is taking a risk by putting two children in such a dark world filled with constant tension and fear, but the theme that emerges from that tension is beautiful, at least as much as the game itself. If the developers manage to surprise us with the script, or better still with original game mechanics, it could well turn out to be one to watch. The graphics are top notch as demonstrated by the thousands of rats swarming as far as the eye can see, and the lighting effects are worthy of the biggest triple-A productions.
The devs also predict a running time of around a dozen hours and told us that they want to release the game in early 2019. Judging by the ambitions of the studio, we're hopeful that they can deliver something special on PC, PS4, and Xbox One next year.
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