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.
The experience is rather linear, although there are little pockets of story hidden just off the beaten path, so it's worth taking your time to explore while you play rather than just rushing to the next checkpoint. There are collectibles hidden around the place, but we didn't feel compelled to seek them out and this part of the game felt a little inconsequential. The lack of interesting collectibles and the absence of a steeper difficulty setting make this a game that most people will only bother to play through once, which means it pays to be thorough during that first and likely only run.
If the rats are the chief threat, and The Inquisition are the main villains, then the star of the show is the relationship between Amicia and Hugo. Hugo is such a sweet child that it's impossible not to feel protective of him, and their relationship drives the adventure forward. Eventually, Amicia will work with the other characters, each of which brings some new gameplay mechanic to the table. One of the kids, for example, is able to knock down and kill unaware guards, while another can pick locks, and the changing dynamic works pretty well. The puzzles aren't particularly varied, and those that aren't about moving rats around with the use of fire are usually The Last of Us-style traversal challenges that are easy enough to navigate with a little thought.
Combat is fairly limited, and most of it revolves around Amicia and her sling (which you can upgrade at workbenches throughout the game). Most of the time she uses small rocks to take down her enemies, but eventually she learns how to craft various chemical compounds that have a range of applications. Crafting is quick and made possible thanks to the plentiful supplies that are just sitting around waiting to be found, and your different options are accessed via a radial menu. It won't take too long before you're quickly swapping between attacks, like hitting a guard with a concoction that makes him pull his helmet from his head so you can follow up with a more deadly rock to the noggin.
Amicia can manipulate the rats with her various projectile attacks, and by utilising fire and darkness they can be weaponised to great effect. These rodents are particularly menacing and watching them swallow up a patrolling guard is harrowing. In fact, the whole atmosphere of the game can be described as such, and credit has to go to the art team who've realised a bleak and oppressive medieval world. The visuals, while not always of the highest quality, are generally strong, from the evil-looking rats and their foul-looking nests through to the designs of the antagonists, a mean-looking knight and the Grand Inquisitor himself. Even better is the dynamic soundtrack, which expertly builds the tension and rounds out the package with impactful arrangements that always work to accentuate the mood.
Despite one or two areas where A Plague Tale: Innocence doesn't quite measure up or corners have been cut, overall we came away impressed by what Asobo Studio has managed to achieve with a relatively small budget. The overall atmosphere of this moody medieval adventure is executed to perfection, and we felt compelled to see the campaign finished and the narrative explained. While it could have offered greater resistance sooner than it ultimately did, there are upsides to the simplistic approach to stealth and puzzle-solving, and we felt swept along by the adventure. There are areas where Asobo can look to make improvements in the future, but the studio has delivered an engaging adventure that we thoroughly enjoyed despite its flaws. One thing's for sure, they won't be stuck making level packs and porting games for other studios anymore, and we can't wait to see what this talented and upcoming team does next.