Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

A Plague Tale: Innocence Review

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14th century Europe was a challenging time for citizens.  The Catholic church was rampant in a quest to thwart heresy resulting in punishment, torture, and excommunication.  If you were targeted by the inquisitors you may be forced to leave your home, your town, or even this life.  Also during this time came several versions of the plague, specifically in England the bubonic plague that introduced a specific bacteria into the bloodstream resulting in painful boils, fever, and eventually death over only a handful of days.  The bubonic plague traveled easily in England throughout the mid 1300s via fleas living on rats, which found their way into living quarters thanks to early sewer systems and poor ventilation.  Needless to say once an outbreak occurred in your area, the death of many was eminent.  It is during this dangerous time for any living creature, especially children, that A Plague Tale: Innocence begins.

Video games have always seemed to handle story in a largely dichotomous way: either story is everything and gameplay suffers for it or gameplay is king and the story can be forfeit if need be.  A Plague Tale: Innocence is therefore a rare treat because it prioritizes the story and builds the gameplay mechanics around it, seemingly sacrificing little in the balance.  This wouldn’t be possible were it not for the plot, dialogue, and gorgeous visuals that introduce protagonist Amicia, a teenage daughter to an English lord, and her five-year-old brother Hugo.  Once the story is established and the realities of the world begin, the adventure adapts to the story that’s being told.  If you need to run from the pursuant Inquisition, you will be greeted with an action-heavy sequence whereas if you’re trying to sneak by them, stealth sequences become necessary.  This pattern continues to create a myriad of different gameplay mechanics to move the story along.  Even in sequences that have little to no gameplay, where you are simply traversing an area during a rare moment of safety, the steady banter between characters keeps it feeling alive.  There are even moments where you discover new circumstances or information along with your characters, but only when you migrate the pair or the camera to be able to see it, which made these discoveries feel like one of the entire group – both the on screen characters and the player alike.

Initially you are making your way past inquisitors and focusing on stealth and mild combat skills, complete with a crafting system that introduces more variety to any situation.  As you migrate to more populous areas you will face the second major foe in this game: the rats.  Historians will tell you that the bubonic plague, while definitely helped by the rats of England, was actually passed by the fleas they carry.  This means that while a rat may have an insect companion of danger, the rats were somewhat harmless.  This is not the case in A Plague Tale where the rats herd together and will literally eat through any and everything they can get their red little eyes on.  Against the rats of England you’ll need to employ more crafty movement that involves staying closed to the flames they fear or getting them out of your path with even more crafting options.  This is more puzzle-based at first but it definitely starts to migrate to action-focused later on.  Needless to say when situations begin to blend the two, your strength with one foe is your weakness with another and again the concept of balance comes into play.

I have to commend developer Asobo Studios for having a singular vision and never really allowing that to waver in the interest of the various challenges of game development.  From start to finish this title is a genuine delight to experience for the 10+ hours of your journey.  That’s not to say A Plague Tale: Innocence is not without its faults.  In later chapters the puzzles become more obtuse and whether it was an overlooked mechanic on my part or something not well explained, I found myself stuck with no help from the contextual clues being given.  Thankfully the versatile equipment system was my saving grace and allowed me to continue on, albeit in sloppy ways I don’t think were intended.  In one case a canned animation snuck into the next checkpoint and in another I basically brute forced my way through a tough situation.  From a technical perspective the game seems to have an unlocked framerate, limited only by an adaptable vsync, that can cause the occasional stutter as the frame pacing falls out of sync.  On consoles this seems to largely be a non-issue with only a handful of stutters creeping up when the framerate takes off, but on PC where framerates can be all over the place it’s important to get your settings locked in.  I even had to use the Nvidia control panel to keep things locked where I wanted them.  A problem largely limited to PC players trying to get the most out of a newer graphics card, like myself, but one of note if you’re not on console.

As I watched the credits roll on and my journey came to an end I couldn’t help but feel accomplished completing A Plague Tale: Innocence.  It was not my journey alone, but all of the other characters that had come with me along the way and crafted into an experience I can safely say is only properly executed in the video game medium.  I don’t mean to over sell it, but in a world where we’re being bombarded with open world icon hunting games spanning tens of hours or a replicated formula of genre-based titles all cut from the same template with different skins, this title was an intense breath of fresh air.  While I can understand those that note the single player nature of this title or the limited number of hours for the experience, plenty like myself yearn for single player campaigns that aren’t afterthoughts and I have never understood game length as a metric for value.  Most people I speak with do not value other media like books and movies based on length and video games should be no different.  If you do, you’re missing out on a unique experience that tells an historic and heartfelt story.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

A review code on PC was provided by the publisher.  A Plague Tale: Innocence was developed by Asobo Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.  It is available digitally on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and various PC marketplaces including Steam.  It is also available tangibly on disc for Playstation 4 and Xbox One at various retailers.  Suggested retail price is $49.99 on console and $44.99 on PC.  Both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One versions are enhanced with increased resolution and HDR on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X consoles respectively.  A detailed tech analysis of all ports will be live soon.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 16, 2019 at 11:00 am

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