‘A Plague Tale’ Review: A (Grim) Kind of Alchemy’
‘A Plague Tale: Innocence’ is a game about change. True to the alchemical concepts upon which much of the plot rests, the game represents an arc of corruption, distillation, purification and sublimation.
Set in a nameless corner of France that draws heavily on the Bordeaux region home to the game’s developers, ‘A Plague Tale’ opens in the summer of 1348, as pestilence and war ravage the land.
“’A Plague Tale’ opens in the summer of 1348, as pestilence and war ravage the land.”
Amicia de Rune, the teenage daughter of a noble couple is mostly sheltered from these horrors, however. She’s more interested in learning how to use her sling and hunt with her dog, Lion, than anything going on outside the walls of her manor.
It’s only a matter of time, though, before Amicia’s life is upended. After a raid by the Inquisition ravages their home and kills her parents, she is forced on the run with her brother, Hugo, the carrier of a strange malady slowly turning his veins black. He is the target of the Inquisition’s troops and they’ll kil anyonel to get him.
What follows is a journey through darkened woods, farmland littered with the swollen carcasses of cattle, plague-stricken towns and battlefields strewn with corpses.
“Alicia and Hugo are also forced to contend with a plague of devouring rats, that will kill them in seconds should they get too close…”
These apocalyptic landscapes, swarming with enemy troops and reminiscent of Brueghel’s painting,’The Triumph of Death’, would be enough to traumatise any child. To make things worse, Amicia and Hugo are also forced to contend with a plague of devouring rats, that will kill them in seconds should they get too close, or stray too far from a light source.
‘A Plague Tale’ is a straight-forward, single-player, linear adventure game that is crammed with puzzles, bucking the trend for many big console releases.
In order to move forward and pass obstacles with her brother, Amicia is armed with a sling, that can be upgraded throughout the course of the game. Early in the story, it’s pretty much only useful for distracting guards, but as things progress, it becomes a rather formidable weapon that can use different sorts of crafted ammunition to light fires, put them out, attract rats and repel them.
“It’s a delightfully simple game mechanic that allows the game’s narrative and characters to take the spotlight.”
Aside from a few puzzles that involve manipulating the environments via levers, or switches, that’s pretty much it – it’s a delightfully simple game mechanic that allows the game’s narrative and characters to take the spotlight.
Providing a backdrop to Amicia’s and Hugo’s story is a greater narrative concerning alchemy, plague, ancient bloodlines and the supernatural.
Careful exploration of the environment reveals not only artifacts and items that provide greater context to the plot’s events, but tie them into a grand history stretching back over a thousand year’s prior to the events of the game.
Also doing a terrific job creating a thick, rich atmosphere are the beautifully rendered locations. The keen-eyed will spot many iconic works of 14th century art referenced in the churches, monasteries and towns the siblings pass through – including ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry, now in the Cluny Museum.
“Not only do they sound like real children, but they act like them – they bicker, they make bad decisions, they even find time for silliness and absurdity.”
The real heart of the game, however, is the portrayal of Amicia and Hugo. Not only do they sound like real children, but they act like them – they bicker, they make bad decisions, they even find time for silliness and absurdity in the midst of what seems like the end of the world.
Guiding these two children through a world of danger, therefore, becomes something imbued with much more gravitas and importance than with most games. There is a deep involvement there.
‘A Plague Tale’ isn’t a perfect game by any means – the controls can be quite clumsy at times, and it’s depressing how many seemingly open locations are blocked to the player.
That said, it is a game that takes its constituent parts and combines to a much greater whole. The gameplay, storytelling and a wonderfully mournful score by Olivier Dericlviere combine to create an experience more immersive than most games. Long after you’ve finished the 15 odd hours of the game, you’ll be thinking about the experiences of Amicia and Hugo.
If you’re looking for a narrative experience to guide you through a singularly unique, if grim vision of the past, then ‘A Plague Tale’ is now available for PC, PS4 and Xbox.
Please Note: Byline Times reviews do not use a standardised rating, or scoring system.