A Plague Tale is an epic story with fiendishly clever environmental puzzles and stunning character design. Even the underwhelming stealth can’t hurt this surprise hit.

You might know A Plague Tale: Innocence as “the game with all the rats,” and that’s not an unfair description. The game does have ungodly amounts of black, vicious rats that are just waiting to tear the flesh off anyone caught in their path. They are disturbing, disgusting, and I absolutely love them as both a plot device and a gameplay mechanic.

But the game is much more than just rats. It is an epic story that keeps evolving until the very end, with intricate environmental puzzles that challenge you every step of the way, and some admittedly rudimentary stealth and combat.

Infectious Storytelling

While the rats were the focus of the game’s marketing, A Plague Tale: Innocence is actually about two young kids in 1300’s French. Amicia and Hugo de Rune are on the run from the Inquisition, while a ferocious disease called The Bite ravages the country.

The game tells two different stories at the same time. The first is about the relationship between Amicia and Hugo – two young siblings who’ve been kept apart for most of their short life, and now must trust each other to survive. Their relationship is the heart of the game, with everything else framed by how it affects it. The second story is the story of the plague, which is the driving force behind every event in the game.

Both stories, and the ties that bind them together, are wonderfully written and keep surprising and evolving all the way to the end. You meet new characters, discover more about the rats and their role in spreading the plague, and why the Inquisition is after you.

A Plague Tale: Innocence review
Two orphans in a diseased world.

Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed the game’s story so much was how it reminded me of the Star Wars saga. I know, you wouldn’t think that a game set in Europe during the Black Plague will have much in common with a space opera, but it does. Two characters that are obviously Darth Vader and the Emperor are running the Inquisition, young Hugo is definitely Luke, and the rats are… Ewoks? No, that’s not right…

Whether “Star Wars but set in rat-infested, Middle-age French” sounds good to you or not, A Plague Tale is still a well-crafted game. It is expertly paced and never gets dull or repetitive, which is hard to do when you have only two basic gameplay elements – avoiding rats or avoiding armed guards.

Oh, Rats!

The rats are everywhere in this game. From the box art to pretty much every level, these disease-ridden rodents are an omnipresent threat throughout A Plague Tale. But they are not a foe you need to defeat; they are more like a game-long puzzle.

A Plague Tale: Innocence review - Rats everywhere
Rats. Rats everywhere.

You can’t kill the rats. Well, technically you can if you back them into a corner with a torch, but you aren’t really trying to kill them; you’re trying to avoid them. The rats don’t like light, so you can use fire, lanterns and even explosives to get them out of the way. Some instances involve finding a safe route from bonfire to bonfire, while others are an intricate puzzle of pullies, levers, and moving braziers.

These environmental puzzles build on top of each other and keep challenging you through the entire game. But these puzzles wouldn’t be so much fun to solve if the rats didn’t feel like a genuine threat. You can see their eyes glaring at you from the darkness, and if you get too close to the edge of the light, they start lunging themselves at you in an attempt to bite you. If they do manage to catch you in a dark area, they can devour you in mere seconds, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. The rats are a very effective obstacle, but one that is very satisfying to overcome.

The even more fun (and somewhat disturbing) part is using the rats against the Inquisition soldiers that are hunting you. Douse a guard’s torch, and the rats will swarm him almost immediately, leaving behind a bloody skeleton. On the other hand, you can follow a patrolling guard, and use his light to make it past the sea of rats. The two systems work really well together and expand your toolset for dealing with both threats.

Nobody Expects the French Inquisition
The Inquisition sends its soldiers after you.

Nobody Expects the French Inquisition

Aside from the rats, the Inquisition is the main antagonist of A Plague Tale: Innocence. Their soldiers are patrolling the streets, looking for Amicia and Hugo, and since neither of the children can take a fully armored knight in a fight, you usually resort to stealth and distractions.

Stealth is pretty basic. You crouch so you don’t make too much noise, and you try and remain out of sight. You can throw rocks and pots to distract guards and slip by unnoticed. It’s not groundbreaking, but it works well enough. As the game progresses, you gain more tools to deal with Inquisition soldiers, both peacefully and violently.

Speaking of violence, A Plague Tale does feature combat, though more as a last resort. Amicia is armed with a sling she can use to one-hit-kill enemies who do not wear a helmet. While it sounds slightly overpowered, your sling isn’t very handy against more than one enemy. Reloading is slow, and even aiming makes noise that alerts enemies that can one-hit-kill you right back. So the game manages to keep you at a disadvantage throughout; for the most part.

A Plague Tale: Innocence review
Combat is usually your last resort.

After you upgrade your equipment a few times, combat becomes a viable option. I found myself relying on combat more and more as the game progressed since it was quicker than slowly sneaking around. The game doesn’t necessarily become easier, but it gives you more options to use in any given situation. How and when to use them is up to you, as it should be.

It’s a Sick, Sad, Beautiful World

An open mass grave; a battlefield covered in dead bodies; mountains of rotting, slain pigs – these are just some of the gruesome visuals you’ll encounter in A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing the results of The Bite, and I appreciate it. It helps foster an atmosphere of despair and loss a game such as this thrives on and makes it harder to remain indifferent to the world it creates.

But despite the grim nature of some of the visuals, this is still a beautiful game. You’ll explore forests, abandoned castles, and dark dungeons, all looking gorgeous. You can see some jagged edges and blurry textures if you look close enough (even on the highest settings on PC), but overall the environments can be captivating in their beauty.

However, it is the character models that steal the show. They are highly detailed, especially the faces, and it can be awe-inspiring to watch Amicia and Hugo interact during cutscenes. Seriously – the character models are some of the best I’ve seen this year, and I couldn’t help but snapping screenshots every time the camera zoomed in on a character’s face.

Stunning character design

Another small detail I absolutely adore is Hugo’s flower collection. Not because I’m an amateur botanist or anything, but because each time you come across a new flower, Hugo puts it in Amicia’s hair for the remainder of the chapter. It’s a seemingly insignificant touch, but it adds a tiny splash of color that stands in contrast to the bleak and desolate surroundings you often find yourself in.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is a beautiful, compelling, and thrilling game. It features a memorable story that always surprises and intricate environmental puzzles that continuously ramp up the challenge. The stealth and combat slightly undermine the game’s impact, but never to a degree where they hurt the experience in any way. If you’re not deathly afraid of rats, you have no real excuse not to play this game. For those of you who are – A Plague Tale is a must.

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