If reading James Herbert’s seminal rodent Armageddon effort The Rats, didn’t convince me as to width and breadth of the horror that these scurrying furries can inflict on humankind, A Plague Tale: Innocence from French developer Asobo Studio most certainly does – and in doing so brings one of the most unsettling and cleverly crafted stealth horror games to PS4 in the process.
A Plague Tale: Innocence reminds us why the humble rat is such an effective tormentor
As Amicia and Hugo De Rune, young siblings belonging to a family of nobles in 14th century France, players glimpse the horror of not just the rodent menace through the titular eyes of innocence, but also that of the French Inquisition too, who seems hellbent on abducting Hugo for unknown reasons. As the rats encroach further geographically across France, so too do they also aggressively stakeout portions of our protagonists emotional well-being and soul, creating a sense of unease and shattering their innocence as they are forced to perform acts that begin drown out the purity of their childhood.
Showing a seemingly practised hand at dramatic pacing, Asobo Studio know how to showcase their bad guys and as such, the rats aren’t properly glimpsed until a good few hours in – their effect on the narrative at large showcased without ever showing them in the early going. Like the portrayal of any good villain, you are exposed to their works and misdeeds long before you see them. Indeed, in this regard, the first ten minutes of A Plague Tale: Innocence rank up there as some of the most downright horrifying of any game in recent memory – don’t say you weren’t warned.
Once they do scurry into sight for the first time, the rats are an unabated force of nature; a hyper-aggressive flood of ear-piercing squeaks, skittering claws and gnashing teeth, they burst out of the floor, the walls and pour through the smallest cracks and crevices, obsessed with devouring anything and everything in sight – their presence signalled by the sudden and dramatic use of hair-raisingly heavy, melancholic strings to mark their frequently disconcerting and horrifying appearances.
It’s a wonder that these fuzzy fiends haven’t been used in other horror titles – never mind this effectively.
Hope for our young siblings lay in the warm bosom of light and fire; two things that when employed serve to beat back the swarming rodent horde. Torches and lit braziers can be set aflame to create pools of light that act as a refuge from the rats; their swarming number pushing right up to the edge of the light as if in taunting mockery, squeaking and gnashing their rotten teeth hungrily at the frightened children who stand just mere feet from them. Amicia is not powerless – far from it, and as A Plague Tale: Innocence unfurls its grim, nihilistic story so too does she become more capable in ways that you might not necessarily expect.
A linear third-person adventure that primarily has players controlling the elder sibling, Amicia, underneath a bounty of cinematic flair A Plague Tale: Innocence is resolutely an old-school stealth title at heart. Being a physically unimposing sort who must lead her much younger, and far less capable brother to safety whilst dealing with his youthful petulance, Amicia cannot directly confront enemies, hold her ground and expect to come out the other side firmly attached to her mortal coil. Instead she must rely on distraction and misdirection in the early going to get to where she needs to go.
A Plague Tale: Innocence leverages traditional stealth in new and interesting ways
Figuring into this are the numerous soldiers, guards, monks and other assorted members of the Inquisition who are hot on the heels of the brother and sister duo, and it’s between the angry, evil humanfolk and the flood of vicious fur, that A Plague Tale: Innocence exposes a layer of sophistication that isn’t immediately obvious upon first glance.
Though being discovered often results in death for the non-sure footed, Amicia is hardly helpless. With her trusty slingshot, she can not only stun enemies, but should they be foolish enough to find themselves without helmet, kill them outright with sickeningly on-point, skull-splitting shots. The slingshot is just one way our heroine can deal with human enemies too – another, is by using the other antagonists, the rats, to her advantage.
A monstrous swarm that simply lives to feed, the rats want to consume everything – and that also includes Amicia and Hugo’s tormentors. Lure them out into the middle of a rat swarm – and watch them come, feeling arrogantly safe in their presence of their blazing oil lanterns, and then simply shatter the fragile glass lights with a well placed shot and watch the rats chew them into a fine red paste, the collective hungry squeaks drowning out the sputtering screams of their victims.
It isn’t always so easy as this – later on guards employ robust iron staves that have fastened metal chambers at the end of its length, preventing Amicia from destroying them and gaining an easy kill, while others wear thick helmets that protect their skulls from the usual headshot murder that Amicia is otherwise so very adept at pulling off. Thankfully, as the siblings antagonists evolve throughout the game, so too do the capabilities of our youthful heroes.
Upgrades are enabled through a simple collect and craft mechanic which allow you to improve the reload time of your sling, or increase the room in your inventory but really it’s in the numerous alchemical substances that you can create that offer the most significant possibilities.
The Ignifier allows you to ignite sources of fuel to create fire, Devorantis meanwhile causes a fast working acid to destroy the helmet of a soldier, the Luminosa creates of flash of fire and light in an area that rids it of rats, while the expensive to make Sommum silently kills enemies in a takedown style move, but costs a lot of reagents to make. Finally, Odoris creates a chemical compound that when thrown, attracts rats to its destination – either allowing distraction or redirection of the rodent horde.
Where the ingenuity of A Plague Tale: Innocence really comes to the fore in is in how you can combine approaches. You can toss a pot to lure a guard away from the light and then coat him in the Odoris to make for an easy kill, or, defuse lights to allow the rats to reach guards (and places) that they couldn’t before. In this sense, Innocence feels much more like a puzzle game than a stealth game, and as such should hold some unexpected allure to those audiences for whom the idea of traditional stealth causes involuntary retching.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is an opulent, delicately crafted horror
Striking an expert balance between muted scenes that border on monochrome and others that encompass a rush of colours and warm, autumnal hues in the lighter parts of the game, the French developer shows a confident command of visual tone to say the least. Boasting some of the most stunning environments on PS4, the countryside of 14th century France proves to be an evocative tapestry upon which A Plague Tale: Innocence scribes its narrative, and it’s a spectacle-stuffed story with more than a few twists and turns that for the sake of spoilers will not be touched upon here.
With some stunningly good lighting and shadow effects, great character models and ridiculously detailed texture work seen throughout, Asobo Studio have done a fantastic job in bringing this time and place to life with such verve and visual flourish. A minor gripe with the visual side of things is that, on PS4 Pro at least, some screen tearing can be observed during busy scenes, and while it’s never pronounced enough to really annoy or frustrate, it can still sometimes prove to difficult to ignore.
When it comes to the stroking of the earholes, the orchestral score that sets the scene for A Plague Tale: Innocence most certainly does not disappoint. Composed by Olivier Deriviere, the talented chap behind recent soundtracks like 11-11: Memories Retold, Vampyr and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Innocence’s orchestral score resonates pure fear, underscoring an atmosphere of impeccable horror as the deep, menacing strings accompany the rats wherever they appear.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is also a somewhat meaty affair too. With a fairly large campaign spread across some 17 or so acts, and numerous collectibles and secret areas to be discovered throughout, the Asobo Studio product is one that endures for much longer than you might initially assume.
Though imperfect A Plague Tale: Innocence remains an essential prospect
For all the successes glimpsed everywhere in its design, A Plague Tale: Innocence is not quite perfect. As a whole, it doesn’t prove to be particularly difficult – especially to seasoned stealth vets who will likely blow through the game’s distraction and assassination setups with little resistance. Elsewhere, aiming and scoring hits on enemies that are rushing towards you can sometimes seem like an incredibly imprecise affair – with missed shots that when coupled with lengthy reload times (at least early on in the game) often conspire to send our heroes to an early grave.
Arguably one of the best surprises of the PS4 release calendar so far this year, A Plague Tale: Innocence is the sort of effort one might well have expected from Hellblade developer Ninja Theory – as this game bears that studio’s penchant for deftly combining big budget spectacle with great storytelling and remarkably robust genre mechanics.
Much like its adolescent stars though, once the credits roll you feel as if to some degree at least, that the whole escapade has stained you in ways that you cannot fully grasp, so potent is the seeping, insidious brand of A Plague Tale’s heart-stopping horror. Plus, I mean, rats. Actual rats. Why don’t they feature in horror games more often eh? Let them have their day – the shambling humanoid flesh-munchers have hogged the spotlight for far too long.
A Plague Tale: Innocence releases for PS4, Xbox One and PC on May 14, 2019.
Review code kindly supplied by the publisher.