Well, THAT just happened.
I heard murmurings from people I trust in the game space talking about Plague Tale: Innocence, not to mention the bizarre press emails I’d been getting months in advance about the strangely titled game. Having glanced through them and scratching my head about how they were going to make a game about a dark plague tearing through 12th century France, I put it out of my mind. Finally, it came out to fairly decent praise, so if nothing else, I had to satisfy my morbid curiosity and give it a try.
If I had to put Plague Tale: Innocence into a summary statement, it’s a fairly grotesque one. There is a scene in the movie Schindler’s List, where a young boy dives into an outhouse toilet to avoid capture from the Nazis. THAT is Plague Tale: Innocence.
Yeah, it’s a weird one.
You play as Amicia De Rune (and the fact that I remember that without looking it up should tell you about the level of character development they have in the game), the daughter of minor nobility. You live peacefully in the French countryside with your mother, father, servants, and most importantly, your sickly five-year-old brother, Hugo. Peacefully, that is, until the rats come. The countryside literally erupts in swarms of plague-ridden rats from the ground, razing entire villages in their tiny teeth and sickness.
However, a different plague comes in the wake of the rats in the form of the Catholic church. From out of nowhere, knights from the church arrive at your family’s estate, killing everything in their path and searching for Hugo, your younger brother. You watch as your family is slaughtered before you and are forced to flee with Hugo in tow, to relative safety. The story becomes a search for answers as the siblings race from place to place, hiding from both the rat swarms and the knights hunting them.
So, a few things. First, the game is almost all third-person stealth-based with a smattering of puzzles, so for the impatient or people who complain about stealth sections in games, Plague Tale is not for you. Amicia has a sling that she’s able to take out some guards with, but generally speaking, you generally have to remain hidden. As for the rats, clever use of light and fire is used to direct the rat swarms around. This is a slow, plodding game of hiding and exposition, following Amicia, Hugo, and their downtrodden band of “Youth-Adult” companions.
And that’s another bizarre choice.
All of the “hero” characters are all 15 and younger, and there are quite a few of them. This 100% feels like it could have been a Hollywood script like a Hunger Games or Twilight, except the setting feels far too dire for something like that to work. They put these kids through hell, and where game developers generally hold children above the brutality of video games, the team behind Plague Tale is happy to swarm them with rats, have them bare witness to horrible atrocities and war crimes, and murder them in various ways.
Another bizarre factoid from Plague Tale? All of the child actors? All VERY good, especially five-year-old Hugo. Children in video games are usually embarrassingly poorly acted for some reason, with the benchmark of ridiculous child acting in Quantic Dream’s 2012 Heavy Rain, but somehow, Plague Tale gets it right with the entire cast of kids; this game would be unplayable if they didn’t, because you’re playing this game to follow the story and see where the De Rune kids and their group end up.
I don’t want to spoil the story, as it does go some places in its 8-10 hour jaunt, but I have to give Plague Tale some credit. In a 2019 universe where games are simply about guys and gals shooting each other in the face with assault rifles or bombarding people to death with microtransactions and loot boxes, Plague Tale does neither. There’s no forced in multiplayer, hint of an “extended cinematic universe” outside of the name itself having a subtitle…the developers appear to have just sat around a table with a story to tell and they told it, with some serviceable gameplay.
Plague Tale definitely isn’t for everyone, and it’s a steep price for what you’re getting. However, while you’re missing out on replayability or sick headshots, you’re definitely getting a unique experience that you won’t likely see out there right now, especially not showing up on shelves at Best Buy for $50.