Saying that A Plague Tale: Innocence is pleasantly surprising is perhaps one of the best ways to summarize the game. The grim story about plagues and innocence lost from Asobo Studio and Focus Home Interactive always seemed like it'd be a compelling game, one that appeared to emphasize the story over everything else. Between a hands-off demo at E3 and a hands-on preview months before the game's release, it seemed to get better every time it was shown off. Personal expectations were already moderately high, but the final product continued that upwards trend with riveting characters, a satisfying story, and only a few small hang-ups.
Playing as Amicia De Rune in medieval France where war and the Black Death prevailed, you're tasked with protecting your younger brother, Hugo. Amicia's brother is afflicted with a sickness of his own, and an estranged relationship with Amicia make the two feel more like strangers than siblings at first. Disease-carrying rats and the threat of the Inquisition do their best to put an end to Amicia and Hugo's journey and put even more stress on an already tender relationship. Enemy soldiers are alerted to sounds and seeing Amicia herself, and getting caught by one of these people means restarting at the last checkpoint. Rats are an entirely different threat, and straying too far from sources of light means you'll quickly be consumed by the vermin. Basic tools like a sling, rocks, pots, and environmental features like tall grass and objects to hide behind are your basic tools of survival.
If that setup and gameplay snippets from past trailers leads you to think the core gameplay hinges on stealth, you'd be correct. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a stealth game through and through. All those mechanics listed above are the ones you'll use to make your way throughout most of the game, at least until Amicia gets her hand on some new gear. You've got more eventful and creative options at your disposal like literally snuffing out an enemy's light so they get swarmed by rats, but much of the game will be spent hiding behind structures and darting from place to place.
Stealth mechanics in A Plague Tale are largely forgiving and generally favor the player, sometimes perhaps too much so. Circling a tree that's sometimes just barely the perfect size or dipping into grass after being spotted is enough to avoid being detected, so the threat of being caught is sometimes diminished by knowing you've got an easy out. The common stealth head-scratchers of AI companions being able to stand in front of an enemy without raising alarms and the fact that a soldier will stand in one spot investigating a noise for several seconds are also present, though there are measures in place to make sure you don't abuse the system. Hugo will start panicking and will alert the guards if you leave him behind for too long to go solve a puzzle or take out enemies by yourself, and throwing one too many distracting objects in one spot will cause everyone in the vicinity to start looking for you at once.
The pacing of Amicia's new gear and upgrade acquisitions also works well with the way the story progresses. As Amicia and Hugo develop their relationship and become bolder themselves, she gets some new tools to accompany that growth. Some items and upgrades are for utility while others are meant for taking on soldiers, and once you get far into the game and have an entirely new arsenal, you might not find yourself hiding quite as much anymore.
But all these gameplay systems are really just vehicles for the most compelling part of the game: The story. Through emotional cutscenes and characters that you'll be rooting for, A Plague Tale: Innocence absolutely delivers with a unique and gripping story. Hugo might be a helpless companion for most of the story, but he's far from just an NPC you have to escort. He'll be as much your brother as he is Amicia's by the end of the game, and even when the story takes Hugo away at times and has Amicia striking out on her own, I found myself wishing Hugo was back by my side.
Amicia herself also develops brilliantly from the time she makes her first kill to the bond she develops with Hugo through their troubles. You'll have the option to go Rambo on enemies later in the game if you want, but after seeing how Amicia evolves, you might find yourself reverting to those stealth mechanics. You'll see horrifying events unfold through hers and Hugo's eyes, preserve some of Amicia's innocence, if there's any left by the end.
Some interesting developments do take place during the story though. Rats, plagues, and the Inquisition are just the start of the story that eventually goes to some wild places, but those moments are best left unspoiled. It almost feels like you're playing a different game towards the end, but mechanics that you use throughout the entirety of A Plague Tale: Innocence help reign back in the story when it gets a bit outlandish. Focus Home Interactive's games are known to explore some odd places though, so if you're familiar with the publisher's catalogs, this game is right in line with the rest.
A Plague Tale: Innocence probably isn't a game that's on everyone's radar, but that doesn't mean it's one you should skip. If you're a fan of the stealth genre, it's an easy purchase. Even if you're not a diehard advocate for hiding behind boxes and deceiving enemies, the story is worth experiencing so long as you've got remote tolerance for stealth mechanics. It's estimated it'll take around 12-15 hours – my playthrough was on the low end of that, if not totally under it – and even though it's a streamlined narrative, it feels like it's worth revisiting a second or third time to pick up on everything missed before.
Rating: 4 out of 5
A review copy for A Plague Tale: Innocence was provided by the publisher and was used on a PlayStation 4 Pro. The game releases for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC platforms on May 14th, and you can find more information on purchasing it through the game's site.