Ever since previewing the game on PC back in March, we’ve been itching to rejoin Amicia and Hugo De Rune, the noble siblings orphaned and destitute in A Plague Tale’s opening chapters. After replaying those harrowing first hours on Xbox One X, we picked up where we left off on the journey to cure five-year-old Hugo’s undiagnosed illness.
A complete and uncompromised story, which gradually builds and builds towards an almighty crescendo.
You’re at least afforded a degree of control in telling your ‘main’ companion at any given time to wait, preventing them from getting in the way or meeting any misfortune during combat; unless you leave poor Hugo for too long, that is, in which case he’ll panic and unwittingly attract Inquisition guards.
Rats are too numerous to fight head-on, so when we say combat it pertains to humans, who take no issue with running Amicia through with a sword and snatching up her younger brother. You can dodge incoming attacks to open up a counter window, though most often it won’t come to that since encounters are incredibly easy with a few early upgrades under your belt. There aren’t multiple difficulty settings, either, which makes toggling the incredibly generous aim-assist and HUD off the only ways to inject some challenge.
Ms. De Rune’s weapon of choice - the humble sling - at least unleashes projectiles with a satisfying thwip. As well as slinging rocks, you’ll routinely need to craft and chuck alchemical concoctions to turn the tides in your favour, for example corroding an armoured helmet in order to expose the wearer’s dome for a lethal headshot. Alternatively, you could take a more indirect approach, maybe breaking a lantern as means to ring the delicious dinner bell on an all-you-can-eat rat buffet.
Should you need to conserve resources (which we always had in abundance), it’s also possible to opt out of the murder game for the most part. More likely to have you playing pacifist are the instances where your actions are questioned by the impressionable young cast, which, in the absence of a concrete morality system, serve to make you think.
Following a guilt trip, it’s time to engage with the familiar stealth systems. Checkpoints are pretty frequent, so you’ll most often just need to memorise set enemy patrol patterns in digestible chunks, maybe throwing a few odds and ends to manufacture helpful distractions along the way. Getting spotted can result in an instant fail state, necessitating some trial and error to discern the best routes, probably to the frustration of some. There’s no real cause for concern though, since you can get away with basically sitting in an enemy's back pocket while crouched.
There’s no sneaking past rats, on the other hand, who’s beady red eyes can number in the on-screen thousands. These black-furred vermin tirelessly scuttle over one another in their endeavour to escape light, so you’ll often need to utilise makeshift torches to cut a path through them and between more substantial stationary light sources. In the later stages you’ll need to use advanced alchemy and your sling to set and extinguish specific fires from afar, herding and trapping them to facilitate your safe passage.
These lite light puzzles feel rewarding, despite the fact that you'll never really need to pause for thought, rather tackle them instinctively. As the rodents grow to become more aggressive, however, some set piece moments require you to switch off your brain and run for it; here the evocative original soundtrack is perhaps at its best, accelerating from sombre to breakneck as the orchestral string section frantically work up a sweat, inducing absolute panic in the player.
Much like the soundscape, A Plague Tale’s visuals are diverse and affecting, reveling in displaying the gnawed and gnarled reality of widespread death through a liberal littering of ravaged corpses. You’ll wade through human and porcine viscera, as well as slimy rat nests that almost reek right through the screen. It’s unpleasant, but outstandingly so, with exquisite lighting and textures telling a story which justifies the lengthy load times.
Much like the soundscape, A Plague Tale’s visuals are diverse and affecting.
Thankfully, the same is true at the other end of the spectrum, where A Plague Tale’s changing locations and weather effects can segue tone at a moment’s notice. These effective shifts don’t just mirror the current mood, but reiterate the wider theme of perseverance, and emphasise the extreme ways in which the sheltered De Rune children experience the world outside their estate for the first time. Rarely is a game’s presentation this meticulously considered, making it a real shame when character models and animations don’t meet the high bar now and then.
Their first original project following a history of ports, A Plague Tale: Innocence has put developer Asobo Studio on the map and almost certainly secured their creative future. Aided by Focus Home Interactive, Asobo have crafted a memorably melancholic adventure with a life-affirming side of joy.
If you fancy playing A Plague Tale: Innocence, be sure to enter our giveaway before 23:59 on Friday 17 May 2019 for a chance to win an Xbox One copy.