There's something quite thrilling about adventures set in the distant past, and it's a little surprising that there aren't more games that look to the pages of history for inspiration. We've seen Assassin's Creed visit a number of different eras, and recently Kingdom Come: Deliverance took us back to Medieval Europe for a little jolly through the feudal system. Now it's the turn of French outfit Asobo Studio, a developer that up until this point has specialised in collaborating on family-friendly adventures built around known IPs. A Plague Tale: Innocence is far from the studio's first project, but it does feel like a watershed moment for a developer looking to make its mark on the industry.
Things start off in an encouraging fashion. We're introduced to the basic controls during a tutorialised introduction where we meet Amicia de Rune, our young protagonist and guide through this plague-riddled adventure. It's a smartly executed opener that helps us get to grips with the general controls as Amicia goes on the run with her younger brother, Hugo. Things escalate quickly and it's not long before we have to start dodging the gaze of angry guards as we scurry through the maze-like gardens of the de Rune family estate.
That early momentum carries on throughout the adventure and Asobo deserves praise for the overall pacing of A Plague Tale. Chapters rarely overstay their welcome and everything is balanced in a way that decent progress is relatively assured. Some might bemoan the lack of challenge at times, and it's true that at certain moments we wanted a bit more friction, but the relatively gentle difficulty means that the storytelling can take centre stage.
Aside from the odd spike, the player isn't really challenged all that much, at least not until near the end of the game. Before that, we felt firmly held by the hand with obvious solutions presented to us at regular intervals. Much of the time A Plague Tale falls back on fairly rudimentary stealth mechanics, with light puzzles thrown in to mix things up. Towards the end of the adventure, your reactions need to quicken and your mind must sharpen, but Dark Souls this ain't. One of the chief culprits is the poor quality of the enemy AI, with easily exploitable guards that boast some of the worst peripheral vision ever seen in the middle ages.
The upside of the simplistic stealth is that the pacing of the story remains relentless, and while we lost count of how long it took us to complete the game, it didn't feel too short and was more than 10 hours long. During the campaign, we visited a range of interesting locations, including castles, towns, battlefields, and rural farmsteads. This whistlestop tour of medieval France is punctuated by the introduction of several characters who join Amicia and Hugo on their adventure, and this motley crew of survivors really is up against it.
The great pacing of the story is helped by some excellent villains and the constant threat of deadly rats that like nothing better than to swarm over and devour any person foolish enough to step too close to them. The rats react to light, which is the foundation of the game's many puzzles, and over time you unlock a series of potions that have various effects on the rats and, in some cases, NPC characters. It's once you've unlocked a bunch of these options, such as the ability to douse fires or lure the rodents to specific locations, that the gameplay shines brightest (pardon the pun). This is helped later on when we're given increasingly complex areas with extra guards that have their own tricks that render certain abilities useless, requiring you to think more creatively with the tools at your disposal.
The whole story is very mysterious and even after watching the credits roll we're not 100% sure about everything that we witnessed. Indeed, the narrative stumbles through some early potholes, but things at least come together with a bit more clarity by the end even if it's not completely coherent. The rats and their behaviour bring a dash of fantasy to proceedings, and they're a constant, dangerous presence that will punish mistakes with a quick and painful death. Just as sinister are the human enemies, with the heads of the ominous Inquisition doing all that they can to hunt down the siblings and their friends. All things considered, it's an engaging and well-told yarn that we enjoyed from start to finish, although the youth of Amicia, Hugo, and their friends leaves this feeling a little like a teen drama at times, the kind of experience that proves that kids can be heroes too.