“Terrifying, beautiful, and grimdark. Just the way I like it.”
A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE is a work of dark fantasy and that is a surprisingly rare (albeit by no means unknown) work among video games. Historical dark fantasy is even rarer as you don’t often see stories set in the “real” Middle Ages, let alone with the benefit of magic as well as other occult elements. Knowing that A Plague’s Tale would be set in 13th century France, during the Black Death, and have supernatural elements thus made me very intrigued with this title.
The premise is that fifteen-year-old Amicia De Rune is the daughter of a minor noble house, living a happy life with her parents as well as dog. Lion. Yes, a dog named Lion. I have no idea why this bothers me but it’s literally one of my three or four complaints about the game. Amicia also has a five-year-old little brother, Hugo, who suffers from some unstated ailment that keeps him bedroom as well as isolated from the rest of the family. Hugo’s illness has severely impacted Amicia’s relationship with her mother and resulted in her becoming a somewhat anachronistic tomboy in Medieval France as her father picks up the slack.
Well, things go to hell very quickly as Lion the dog is killed in the most genuinely upsetting part of the game. A nightmarish horde of rats representing the Black Death pours out from the ground and signals the plague is here. It’s not the plague that ruins Amicia’s life, however, but the Papal Inquisition. The Papal Inquisition believes, possibly correctly, that Beatrice De Rune is a practicing sorcerer/alchemist and carry out a massacre. This results in Amicia being seemingly orphaned and forced to flee with her brother.
The game becomes a giant escort mission where you attempt to stay ahead of the Inquisition, which is obsessed less with the children’s mother than Hugo himself for reasons that gradually become clear. You also have to avoid the massive horde of rats that are less interested in spreading plague than eating poor Amicia alive. In addition to the Inquisition, you’ll also have to deal with superstitious villagers and English soldiers from the One Hundred Years War.
The game has a slightly believable element in the fact that Amicia de Rune can’t survive fighting any of these soldiers. It’s a one-hit, game over sort of situation since they’re all burly large men while she’s a fifteen year old girl less than a hundred pounds soaking wet. So, instead, you have to sneak around the Medieval hellscape of dead bodies and abandoned ruins. Less realistic is the fact that Amicia is a master of the sling and if she can sneak attack these guards, she can start building up a body count in the low hundreds.
I have to admit, I actually like the respect being given to the sling. The sling is a surprisingly deadly weapon and people basically forget that it killed Goliath. While I don’t think Amicia could have slain quite as many people as she did, I do like the first couple of times she kills someone and how it causes her deep distress. Unfortunately, time starts to harden our heroine as she struggles to find respite from the constant barrage of horrors.
This is definitely a horror game and a pretty good one at that. The picturesque Medieval community that is destroyed by the violent events that occur is well-done. It’s perhaps cheating that you have a sweet innocent girl have to crawl through giant rat pits that resemble the nest of the xenomorphs from Alien, walk through battlefields of hundreds of dead bodies, and see shocking act of violence after shocking act of violence but it works.
Gameplay-wise, it is best described as serviceable and functional. Amicia sneaks, crafts, and slings across a fairly linear set of areas. But just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s not fun. I would have preferred more options but a lot of the game’s appeal is how helpless our heroine is. Even when she’s got a few options like controlling rats via stink bombs and alchemical goodies, it’s still not too many options.
Really, I also have to give props to the game for its artistry and music as well. The environments are rich and lush, to the point that I really do recommend playing this PS4 game on PS5. They’re sort of the Medieval version of Ghost of Tsushima to me. So many memorable set pieces ranging from the beautiful to the nightmarish. The music is also fantastic with the violin parts my favorite. I even listen to it separate from the game on occasion.
If I had to say the appeal of A Plague’s Tale: Innocence, I would say that it has strong A Song of Ice and Fire energy. Note: I didn’t say Game of Thrones energy. This is much more the “teenager unwittingly in a zombie apocalypse” sort of story that is closer to the literary version of the story. Amicia just wants the horrible things that keep happening to her to stop and they just keep coming. It’s not going to be for everyone but people who enjoy grimdark I think will enjoy this game a great deal.
Speaking of grimdark, what would you enjoy following a teenage girl struggling to survive and trying to protect her bratty ill brother? Why do we enjoy the terrible suffering and nightmarish visages from the Dark Ages? Well, grimdark is a genre built on extremes. Amicia deserves to be in a better sort of fantasy and is a deeply likable character. Seeing her struggle not to break against the horribleness of the world invokes strong protective as well as sympathetic emotions. It’s not for everyone but for those who like it, I think they’ll like it a lot.
This is an older game to review and the sequel has already come out but I think the original deserves props for what it achieved without a AAA budget. Just don’t play it if you have a fear of rats, because it will destroy you. It’s terrifying, beautiful, and grimdark. Just the way I like it.