Whilst wondering ankle-deep through the remains of a plague-ridden town, the blood-soaked bones of the freshly slaughtered infected brushing the feet of my character as she desperately prevents herself from looking down at the grotesque mess of corpses, a thought occurred to me. This is the first time that I’ve been face-to-face with The Plague in a video game. Sure I’ve handled my troops during times of disease and famine in overhead strategy games and brought my tribe through pandemics in kingdom simulators, but this was the first time I’ve been confronted at street level with the horrific human cost of an event that wiped out up to 200-million men, women and children alike, across two continents in the 14th century.
To actually see the bodies of people and livestock piled up high in the streets, as well as the look of horror, grief and despair on the faces of the survivors is a harrowing, terrifying and tormenting experience. But then you knew it was going to be that when you saw the word ‘Innocence’ in the title. There is no piece of media ever created where the word ‘Innocence’ made it to the box art and the characters managed to keep hold of theirs by the closing credits.
You play as Amicia de Rune, a typical female gaming protagonist who has eschewed the traditional roles, pursuits and customs assigned to her gender, in favour of being a mother-fucking sniper with a slingshot. Not that at the start of the game she’s ever killed so much as a squirrel, but for her to hit a headshot on a moving target in high winds all she has to do is hold down R2 for a second and a half. She’s also a dab hand at crafting improvements for her catapult so she can swing more projectiles harder, better, faster; and upgrading her pockets so she can carry more pellets, each one representing a future dead Frenchman.
Whilst on a hunting trip, Amicia comes across a crop of land that has been blighted by disease. Soon after that, tragedy befalls her pet dog (tragedy befalls someone in A Plague Tale roughly once every 40 seconds) as he is swallowed up by a sinkhole, or so it would seem. Upon returning home, it appears the plague may already be taking hold of provincial France and the Inquisition has wasted no time in gearing up and cleansing the population through fire. Of particular interest to them is the de Rune household where the most elite members of the Inquisition have begun skewering servants like they were rotisserie chickens.
They are looking for Amicia’s brother and mother. Amicia, despite living with them in the same grand house, feels estranged from them both. Her brother Hugo is practically a medieval boy in a bubble, terribly sick from birth, and while she used to be fond of her mother Beatrice, since it became apparent there was something wrong with Hugo, she has had no time for her first-born daughter. Instead, she locks herself in her laboratory, practising alchemy, and attending to her sick boy.
When Amicia’s father refuses to tell the Inquisition of their whereabouts, he is put to the sword by the dreaded Lord Nicholas, the grim, humourless cousin of the Knights who say ‘Ni!’. To make matters worse, Beatrice is caught trying to escape. The crusaders of the Inquisition burn the estate to the ground, leaving the now homeless Amicia with a little brother to look after and a head-spinning with questions. What could the inquisition possibly want with Hugo? And why did her parents have to sacrifice themselves to save him?
Their turbulent relationship is the heart of this adventure. Yes, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game largely concerned with escorting a child through one of the most gruesome and horrifying scenes known to history, and no, a five-year-old will not be much help in subduing fully grown armed guards or navigating through rat infested streets, although he is not without his uses. What took me through this adventure, however, was the sense of empathy I felt with both the child and with the babysitter.
I understood Hugo’s complete lack of understanding at a situation everyone else seems to have figured out, as well as his frustration at literally being dragged through each encounter and not being included in any of these important sounding conversations the big people are all having as if he wasn’t there. I also remember the first time my own simplistic sense of right and wrong was pulled out from under me as my head smacked on the hard concrete of reality. It’s so much easier to escort someone you think of as a human being and not a braindead piece of malfunctioning code.
Amicia however, took me right back to a much different part of my childhood. Having to look after a younger sibling when I’d much rather be doing something (anything) else, whilst also having to put up with it out of some superfluous sense of sentimental duty. I felt the frustration strongly on both sides of the relationship, and good thing too, as if the balance had tipped I would have just begun guiding the offending sibling into any one of this game’s numerous and hideous hazards.
These odious obstacles make up the majority of this game’s puzzle-solving opportunities. A Plague Tale gives you a certain number of tools at your disposal to navigate (or murder) your way through the vicious members of the Inquisition, invading English soldiers, or the numerous sprawling piles of rats that will eat you alive if you so much as scrape their marked territory. The bulk of the actual gameplay comes from figuring out which one of your many options is the way to solve this particular combination of ways to meet a nasty and graphic end. Guards can be taken out with a quick headshot, except the ones who have helmets on. Those you may need to dispatch in more creative ways. Perhaps you could gas their helmets, forcing the soldiers to remove them, allowing you to finish them off. Perhaps you could just distract them by smashing a pot and sneaking past when they go to investigate.
It’s the little rules and how they interact with each other that makes these puzzles such dastardly little headscratchers. I was especially proud of myself after realising I needed to ignore all my self-preservation instincts and draw a guard closer to me, so that when he turned around and went back to his post, that was my moment of opportunity to sneak behind him and get away unseen. You can also go HAM on all the murdering bastards and give them a little murdering of your own. However, this approach will use up precious resources that you may need to solve puzzles or craft upgrades later on. Rats, in particular, pose an interesting problem as they create a floor-is-lava type situation.
Ah yes, the rats, A Plague Tale’s flashiest USP. Type the words A Plague Tale: Innocence into YouTube and you will see so many rats it will be like looking at London through the eyes of a Yorkshireman. Hundreds of them, swarming out the ground, each one scuttling in a different direction. Rats thatched so thick you can’t see the floors, chaotically clamouring over one another, constantly squeaking up a relentless wall of noise, all the while pawing at the edges of your safe zone, impatiently waiting for their next meal to tumble over the sides. If this had been five years ago they’d have used this tech to sell the new consoles.
The rats are Plague Tales’ most blood-curdling experience. From the first time they swarm out of an ancient crypt, devouring their first on-camera victim leaving him looking like the contents of Friday night’s discarded chicken shop box, they are a constant threat throughout the game, creating an unyieldingly oppressive atmosphere at the slightest mention of their possible presence. Asobo Studio did a great job at making the rats a credible threat, constantly reminding you of their devastating power every time one of the characters scream the moment they so much as dip a toe into the pool of rodents. Spend more than a second in their intimate company, however, and witness the bone-chilling death animation for your character. Asobo have pulled no punches when it comes to the visual or audible horror of a child getting ripped to pieces by vermin.
The rats, much like with everything else in A Plague Tale, integrate their way into the puzzle solving. The first rule you learn is that they hate the light and are forced away from any bright source. You can carry torches around to keep them away from you as you move from place to place, or figure out how to light bonfires and manipulate searchlights to help you clear a path. But even better than surviving the rats, is weaponizing them. The most downright despicable you will feel in a game that forces you into moral dilemma after moral dilemma, is snuffing out a guard’s light so that a group of rats will be too busy consuming every inch of flesh on his body to notice you go by. It’s a sickening mechanic and one that really brings home the themes of survival at all costs.
There are no easy kills in Innocence. Both figuratively and literally. Just as the game spares no expense in detailing the grizzly details of your characters’ deaths, the developers must have paid those voice actors in solid gold throat lozenges to get those screams from the pits of their stomachs. While the game makes no bones about the justification of the killing, it also constantly reminds you of the psychological cost of taking human life, be it the pleas of the dying or young Hugo’s traumatisation at the hands of your attempts to keep him alive. Like I said, no one in a piece of media with the word ‘Innocence’ in the title keeps theirs by the end.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the greatest tragedies I’ve ever played in game form, right up there with The Last of Us and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. No one in this small corner of this monumental plague is untouched by terror and leaves with their soul intact. It is a game that builds up the power of its protagonists, celebrates their courage and cooperation, then dashes them upon the rocks and sacrifices them to the gods of narrative. I’ve never played a game in which self-sacrifice hit so deeply. This is a combination of the writing being so authentic it perfectly captures youth and the adolescent state of mind, both the love and the frustration, the confusion and the camaraderie. It’s so hard to not spoil some of the most affecting moments that happen later on, as it’s your visceral reactions to the story beats that truly allow you to understand how good the characterisation is. When you start blubbing out of nowhere after not even noticing the effect this game was having on you, that’s when you realise how truly special an experience A Plague Tale: Innocence is.