There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.
Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.
Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.
From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.
Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.
Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.
It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.
The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.