With the release of great titles like The Surge and Vampyr, increasingly prolific publisher Focus Home Interactive have been distancing themselves from the somewhat derogatory ‘Eurojank’ label often applied to their catalogue in previous years – so called due to a comparative lack of polish when held up to American and Japanese contemporaries. Now, in collaboration with relatively unknown French developer Asobo Studio, new IP A Plague Tale: Innocence looks set to be the final nail in the coffin for that particular adjective.
Whilst A Plague Tale is firmly rooted in reality, this particular mystery feels like it could play out in a number of... interesting ways, though it’s important to note that’s only based on speculation at this stage.
That being said, there’s definitely an element of whimsy to the visuals which is cause for our thoughts to drift towards the fantastical. In Asobo’s rendition of medieval France, the sun shines that bit brighter on lush forests of vibrant green, whilst dark areas are deeply black and weak light sources serve to highlight the grotesque. Everything is idealistically implemented, which could feel jarring or false, but transitions between extremes are gradual and really help in envisioning things from the naive perspective of an inexperienced leading duo.
Simple moments of visual splendour can spur you on during what seem like hopeless times, but little Hugo is the real driving force on that front. He’s charmingly innocent and polite, at least as far as you could reasonably expect, but those features won’t do him much good now. Factor in his sickness and you’ll quickly grow attached to the boy, which is fortunate, as the early stages of A Plague Tale might otherwise feel like an escort mission.
You’ll need to instruct Hugo to wait and follow as your situation dictates, keeping him hidden from armed guards whom he’s otherwise helpless to resist. Leave him unattended for too long though and he’ll become scared, potentially attracting unwanted attention, so you’ll need to plan and execute stealth maneuvers efficiently.
Once again small touches make all the difference here, as Amicia physically reaches out upon recalling Hugo, taking him by the hand in an effort to both calm and guide him. Frequent contact between the two makes it abundantly clear that Amicia, and by extension you, don’t just bark orders but help him through genuine concern for his well being.
Hugo can be independent though, solving many an impasse by crawling through tight spaces or travelling alternate routes off-limits to Amicia, ultimately manufacturing her safe passage. These situations are generally spelled out through the game’s heavily accented dialogue, authentically delivered by an appropriately-aged cast, which helps to keep the pacing snappy during what is, thus far, a linear adventure with a stark focus on narrative. In this day and age that’s quite refreshing, though it doesn’t mean there aren’t light puzzles to solve and optional areas to explore, which often house an array of collectibles and crafting materials.
Those materials can be used to upgrade equipment at workbenches, most notably to allow your sling - powered by rocks found within the environment - to deliver lethal headshots to exposed domes. The sling takes a brief-but-satisfying moment to reach full speed as you spin it up and align a shot, but can’t be too heavily relied upon as it’s noisy enough to give away your position. In these situations, you may want to throw your makeshift ammunition by hand to create a distant distraction.
During certain set-piece moments this choice of approach is taken out of your hands, as you run from crowds of enemies – be they human or rodent – in tense chase scenes and face a scripted boss encounter, requiring you to utilise Amicia’s dodge and backstep moves in a close-quarters skirmish.
Rats can’t be so easily avoided, infesting the screen thousands at a time as they frantically scuttle over one another in a desperate effort to devour anything flesh, glowing red eyes illuminating the dark all the while. They’re reminiscent of the Locust from Gear of War, telegraphing their arrival as the ground rumbles before they burst through to the surface, only there’s no simple means of dispatching them here.
All you can hope to do is avoid the swarm, keeping them at bay with light sources which are often quick to burn out, or, failing that, distracting them with meat - be it living or dead. They’re a plague in every sense of the word, made all the more vile during a fleeting trip below ground through one of their gnarled, oozing nests.
These finer environmental details are easy to appreciate, as A Plague Tale looks outstanding across the board; lighting and textures are a particular highlight though, even at lower graphics presets. Sound is similarly fine-tuned, with audio reverb switching as you transition in and outdoors during conversation, plus an evolving orchestral soundtrack.
The lasting impression of our time with A Plague Tale: Innocence is just how much of themselves Asobo Studio have poured into the game. It’s clearly a passion project from a developer that’s very reliably, but perhaps uninspiringly, been entrusted with handling a variety of ports before now.
Mechanics and relationships begin to develop in meaningful ways during the opening chapters, leaving us eager to see how they’ll continue to blossom in what should be the game’s remaining ten-or-so hours. The complete journey seems set to be a harrowing one, poised to deepen the siblings’ already developing scars, so we can’t help but anticipate trying to assist them in emerging unscathed come A Plague Tale’s release this May.
A Plague Tale: Innocence launches 14 May on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.