One of many games over the past decade that has taken the escort mission and made it a fully fledged game on it’s own, much like The Last of Us, Bio Shock Infinite and God of War before. Being father figure escorting a child and making the relationship between the two central figures almost as important as the journey itself. A Plague Tale diverges from this and manages to hit a subsection of this idea and explore it in a way that I never expected and really felt hit hard in many areas emotionally.
I must admit being a father myself has a profound effect on how I reacted to the story of Amicia and Hugo, the lead characters of the game. Being a much younger companionship game (Amicia is 15 and Hugo 5) I found the way the characters were written to be the strongest aspect of the game by far and being able to empathize with the character… and also call out when the Amicia specifically was acting in a way that was counter productive to how a child like Hugo would rightfully be expected to act.
Before I go to far into all of this perhaps its better to explore the game a little. Perhaps unsurprisingly; A Plague Tale is set in France during the time of the Black Death, and around the beginning of the 100 year war roughly (from my limited historical knowledge). After the inquisition attacks Amicia’s home and murders her parents she is forced to flee with her little brother Hugo in search of safety. Aside from the obviously stress just this simple act would cause in straining the relationship of the siblings they don’t really know each other that well, Hugo has a genetic condition that has had him live as a recluse for is short life so far and really only interact with his mother. Amicia knows little about how to care for him or what to expect from him in this new scenario they find themselves in. In a way this is the whole basis for where the characters shine, and the games title being ‘Innocence’ really sums up everything about these 2 characters; Hugo’s childlike innocence and Amicia’s loss of it throughout the adventure.
While the game very much sets itself in the middle of the plague, the repercussions of that are largely ignored as in the general game play deals with masses of rats that swamp across the land at a cartoonist pace, stripping skin from bones with little issue but fearful of the light. It’s all played straight but it’s made clear to the player that what you are dealing with here is of the not quite supernatural but almost ancient and skirts with the realistic tone of the world the game is set in. However what you can’t deny is that the characters react to this with the proper concern and gravity that they rightly should; that they are rats, in the millions for sure but they are an obstacle to be overcome as they travel and by far are no where near the most dangerous thing they will encounter in their travels.
Perhaps even before Amicia herself realizes in game then you will as the player that human’s, and the inquisition by extension, are the most dangerous things in the game you’ll have to contend with. While everything is almost a 1 hit kill in A Plague Tale; rats are almost a puzzle to solve more then an enemy to be dealt with. A force of nature vs the hunters that are tracking you, of more specifically Hugo. The reasons for everything that happens during game come late into the plot, while the actual exploration of the supernatural aspects never really materializes in this game (a sequel seems to be unconfirmed at the time of writing)
A Plague Tale is character driven however, and while I’ll talk about combat soon, I believe you get most out of the game by trying to get as much out of the characters a possible. There is plenty in the world that optional but usually brings character developing dialog with it. For most of the first half of the game you’ll spend the majority of you time just with Amicia and Hugo, where you see her struggle to look after him. She fails to see the innocence of Hugo’s situation; he’s never been into the world at large, everything is new and exciting and doesn’t completely comprehend the situation they are in or his condition. Watching Amicia fail as a surrogate parent and sister can be heart breaking as her physical ability (as it’s player guided) never fails her, while her decisions are what cause the downfall of much of the negative moments of the game after the initial intro levels of the game.
On the flip side however many times when Hugo wanders off to play, despite the gravity of their situation can bring such joy at how he reacts to everything.. it really hits harder then anything in any of the games I mentioned at the start of this review because of how young he is. I expect this hits so well because of my little boy who echoes so many of Hugo’s qualities, however I think the wonders of children can be seen by all players through how he acts in the world.
Hugo however isn’t the only character you’ll travel and as you get into the second half of the game you spend larger amounts of time without him, exploring with other young survivors of the plague and the inquisition developing Amicia as a character and a leader. She is more vulnerable with the other characters while dropping of her guard a little with how she reacts to everything, you get to see to sides of her; the strong force of nature at Hugo’s side protecting him either through strength or lies (her unwillingness to be truthful with Hugo is the big area where she constantly fails with Hugo) while the less hopeful and realistic side of her character.
All this and I’ve barely touch on the game play. A Plague Tale is very smart in this area. Amicia is always the underdog in every situation where almost any hit will take her down. She has a sling to throw rocks and thats all your start with and is the crux of almost everything in the game until she’s starts to develop alchemy skills through the latter half of the game. Even then your only ever getting the basics you need to survive but you do obtain quite a lot of options for how you use them to take down human enemies. Everything has a use and a very rarely does one action result in a simple kill as ever a once hit and done attack with the sling will likely attract others with the sound it makes.
The end chapters of the game flip this on it’s head giving you the chance to finally go on the attack, with a real sense of power, but you have to be smart still. There is quite the antithesis in game play though as you go from being all about using the light to removing it so the rats can do the world for you.
Unfortunately I don’t want to explore anything that might be going into spoiler territory. The game is truly worth playing so I hope that you’ll give it a chance for a rather unique experience in a setting that isn’t likely to be explored often in games.