It wouldn’t surprise me if you haven’t heard of Asobo Studio. Other than mediocre racing game Fuel, they haven’t created any high-profile releases. ReCore is the only game of note, and even then, they assisted with the project instead of being part of the core dev team. A Plague Tale: Innocence, published by Focus Home Interactive, is about to become their most well-known release. In an industry rife with big budget releases, A Plague Tale: Innocence might be one of the best lesser known titles of the year, even if it deserves to be.
A lot of games take a while setting up the characters and story, especially in titles set in the earlier years of civilization. A Plague Tale does away with that narrative device of introducing a bunch of characters early and building their motivations. This is a tale of personal growth, and much like 2018’s God of War, it’s a tale of children being forced to learn about themselves as well as the importance of family.
The setting is 14th century France. After a hunting day in the woods with her father, Amicia De Rune’s dog is killed by a mysterious entity. After returning home to warn their mother, the Inquisition attacks, looking for Amicia’s younger brother who has been sick since he was born. Amicia doesn’t know her brother because he has been sequestered since he was young. The two are forced out of their home, fleeing for their lives as they try to escape from the religious zealots in the Inquisition.
I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoiling the story, because I want others to experience it the way I did. I went in fresh, knowing little about the game, and that’s how everyone should go in. This is a well-crafted narrative, with only brief calm moments of respite littered throughout. These children are forced to grow up far quicker than they ever should be, and the moments between the two siblings are often tender and emotional.
Throughout my playthrough, I kept forgetting that these two don’t know each other well. Other than the familial ties that bind them, they have no connection. Amicia knows she must protect Hugo from the plague that is ravaging the country, carried by swarms of rats that are often gnashing at their heels.
A Plague Tale: Innocence doesn’t try to be more than it is. It’s part stealth game, where it’s better to sneak past enemies than to fight, and part action game when you are spotted, with primitive weapons like a sling are available to take down enemies. Honestly, both aspects of the game are aggressively mediocre. They aren’t bad, but they don’t do (or even attempt to do) anything new. Instead, Asobo Studio decides to double down on the narrative. There aren’t side missions here, instead using the narrative to propel players forward.
More often than not, there are many enemies in each area, meaning players don’t really have the option to explore. There’s no purpose for stealth takedowns in an attempt to clear an area, because there isn’t anything to do in each area other than continue onward. This forced progression is very deliberate, and it allows the story to help build the world.
As players progress through the story new characters will end up with the De Runes on their travels. Often, these characters help propel the story forward, instead of just ending up alongside them on the path. Each character in A Plague Tale is meticulously crafted, providing a sincere sense of purpose for the journey.
When players aren’t sneaking past enemies or getting new snippets of story, there are environmental puzzles to solve. Party members can be sent to specific points to assist in these puzzles, and most of them are pretty basic, but they do help to break from the linearity present. Hugo can be left alone at any point during the game, but leaving him alone for too long will cause him to panic and alert enemies.
At first, I was worried. I’ve played plenty of escort games in my day, and most of the time the AI isn’t great, but Hugo is constantly attached to Amicia’s hip. That’s part of what makes his character so endearing. While Amicia is still very young, she knows how to hunt and handle both herself and her weapon. Hugo is even younger, and has barely been outside before now. Having Hugo constantly at Amicia’s side is a smart design choice for A Plague Tale, and my playthrough wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if I was constantly babysitting.
The world is well detailed, and lush forests can quickly give way to body-ridden battlefields. Upon coming across waves of dead enemies and animals Hugo is inquisitive and sad. The characters are extremely well written and believable, and Hugo’s child-like questions often made me sad that he was going through what he was.
In terms of quality, this is very clearly a mid-tier title. The AAA story can’t hide all its faults. The world is beautiful, but poor animations for characters often pop up. Characters are well acted, but character models on some of the side characters aren’t always up to par with the De Runes. A Plague Tale is better off for these concessions though, focusing on the things that matter to the narrative more than the ones that will be gone a few moments later.
The sense of atmosphere is pervasive throughout, and a great musical score gives way to some intense moments of rats bursting through the ground to pursue our protagonists. It’s this foreboding sense that at any moment you could be sprinting to a source of fire to scare away rats that keeps players on edge throughout the story.
To keep things interesting, there’s a basic crafting system here to help players both take on enemies and stay safe from the rats. Some craftables include an incendiary to light embers and create more safe zones, while others assist with stealth options. The game menus stress the importance of being deliberate with the crafting system because of the items it takes to make them, but I never had a problem finding enough items.
These same items help Amicia upgrade a few pieces of her gear. Her sling can be upgraded for accuracy and draw speed, and extra pouch upgrades can increase carry capacity for ammo and crafting materials. I often found myself not able to pick up a lot of crafting materials though, because some items for the equipment upgrades were a bit rare, so I focused on getting those done first.
I feel like it’s often hard to create a strong single player-focused title that isn’t a AAA release in this day and age. Asobo Studio has done just that, and then some. The narrative of A Plague Tale: Innocence is the strongest I’ve played this year, and the French studio should be commended for it. Even though the core gameplay of this stealth-adventure title is pretty standard and generic, the narrative is top notch, and anyone with a penchant for story driven titles owes it to themselves to check this one out.