If you laid out all the upcoming game releases of 2019 in front of you at the start of the year and were asked to pick out the Game of the Year contenders from a list of names, you’d be forgiven for not including A Plague Tale: Innocence at first glance. Between fan-favorite remakes like Resident Evil 2 and new games from developers who’ve become household names like Obsidian Entertainment and FromSoftware, A Plague Tale had its work cut out for it from the start. Once you’ve played it for more than a few hours though, and especially if you’ve stuck with it through its entirety, it’s clear why the game about rats and relationships deserves a spot in the ranking of 2019’s top games.
A Plague Tale is an action-stealth game from Asobo Studio and Focus Home Interactive that manages to strike a neat balance between the two genres. Playing as 15-year-old Amicia who’s never more than a few feet away from her estranged brother, Hugo, your goal is to find safety in the 1300s setting of pestilence and the Inquisition. Both of these threats provide their own sets of challenges that you’ll navigate through puzzles, trickeries, and the occasional bout of violence, but those moments are infrequent enough to leave a lasting impression.
At the core of A Plague Tale’s successes is its pair of protagonists who serve as the lens through which players become so invested in the story. Amicia's freedom allows for explorations of the world around her and questions of why things aren’t fair, while Hugo is the epitome of innocence and Amicia’s most important responsibility. The relationship between the two is one of the most authentic and fulfilling ones in a video game all year as Amicia and Hugo’s voice actors Charlotte McBurney and Logan Hannan deliver spectacular performances. Hugo transforms from a whiny tagalong to a sibling you’ll feel the need to protect yourself, and the pair’s coming-of-age tragedies will pull on even the tautest heartstrings. You get a behind-closed-doors look at the struggles of siblinghood and repairing broken families and relationships that still seem believable and relatable despite the game’s distant setting.
Death runs rampant in A Plague Tale, but that doesn’t mean it lets players grow any more accustomed to it. In fact, the game goes out of its way to remind players just how horrific the events happening around the siblings actually are. How does Amicia explain to a five-year-old that disease-infested rats devoured families, or that desperate survivors of tragedies hate the siblings just for their privileged upbringing, or that the Inquisition is content with killing innocents so long as the it fulfills their directives? One of the most touching moments between the two occurs when Amicia claims her first victim, a hulking force of anger and resentment who’s brought down with a sling. Other games would celebrate the kill and send players on a quest for more victims, but not A Plague Tale. Asobo’s take on death hammers in the discomfort of killing people who are in no better situation than the siblings, and every decision that deals with a human life feels weighted.
The tools you use to make these decisions feel no less inconsequential since resources are hard to come by in this world where survival is a constant battle. Some basic crafting systems give way to upgrades for the items Amicia and Hugo use, though you’ll hardly ever find that these resources are too plentiful or too scarce. Asobo’s restraint in the RPG department is also appreciated here since it prevents A Plague Tale from becoming something it didn’t need to be. There are no forced skill trees in the game which means players don’t need to worry about min-maxing the siblings. Every upgrade feels worthwhile, and while some should certainly be taken before others, you’ll find that everything from more storage space to extra sling power to being more evasive has its uses.
A Plague Tale borders on the unbelievable at times considering the odds the siblings overcome and the off-kilter ending, but with so many tragedies thrown at Amicia and Hugo throughout the story, players will root for the protagonists to succeed no matter the cost. Its tale of innocence lost is one that rightly got it nominated for the Best Narrative category during this year’s showing of The Game Awards, even if it didn’t take home the win, but it accomplished much more than first impressions ever suggested it could. Whatever comes next, the fact remains that Asobo’s tragic game is one of the best releases of 2019.