Game Preview: A Plague Tale: Innocence
I’ll be honest, I’ve been avoiding news articles and hands on impressions of A Plague Tale since it was announced, attempting (perhaps in vain) to not have any mystery spoiled for me for when the game is finally released. It’s been no easy task, especially with the developer’s recent trailers and web series, but after playing the rather generous 2 hours of preview for the upcoming adventure, it seems to have paid off, and A Plague Tale comes across all the more impressive with its dark mystery than I was anticipating.
The preview lasts for three chapters – from what seems to be the beginning of the game – and takes you through the events that leads up to Amicia and Hugo (the two child protagonists of the game) travelling alone from merciless men and even worse rats. The preview starts out with Amicia and her father walking through the woods. First thing that strikes are the luscious environs of the forest. There’s the odd poor texture and some dodgy character animations, but there’s no doubt that the world of A Plague Tale has been lovingly crafted, and is certainly beautiful to look at.
Our father/daughter walk and talk turns into a sling challenge, as father instructs us to ping apples off a tree. Aside from being a terrible waste of food, it’s a good tutorial for the sling – which becomes a vital part of the game not much later on. It’s simple enough and mostly automatic, as you aim with one button and prep the swing with another (releasing as you gain a lock on your target). It’s a pretty effective weapon when used with skill, however we’re promptly informed that it also makes a lot of noise.
The discussion ceases when our hunting dog runs after some unknown prey. Darting off in pursuit, we end up tackling a boar in an example of the game’s stealth. Sneaking through long grass before slinging a rock at the poor boar’s head, using cover and being aware of the noise you make is obviously important. The boar escapes from our grasp, however, and we find ourselves in a darker part of the forest on our lonesome. This is where things get a little strange, and for those of us who haven’t been consuming the various teases of the game might be a little surprised. Something horrible has happened to the boar, and just past a line of bushes and trees we can hear our dog whimpering. Something unknown bursts through the earth and snatches the dog, leaving Amicia and her father in horror.
A Plague Tale obviously has more going for it than disease and rats, as if those weren’t scary enough on their own, and this mysterious element is solidified as we progress. Amicia has a little brother, Hugo, whom she has had very little contact with over the years – for reasons unknown, other than “he’s ill”, Hugo is locked away from most contact. This is of course until the Inquisition turns up to slaughter your family and take the boy, thus leaving you to guide him to escape.
Controlling Amicia with Hugo on tail is thankfully an easy and accessible experience. Escort quests are nobody’s favourite and so a whole game designed around this concept is obviously worrisome. But Asobo Studios appear to have done an excellent job in making this easy to perform and with as little frustration as possible. When you want Hugo to follow you closely, that boy sticks to you like glue, allowing you to lead him around, be that slowly and sneakily or at a sprint. You can tell him to stay put, giving you space to look around or distract guards before calling him to follow you again, and he can even perform actions for you – such as squeezing though tight spaces and unlocking doors. The only thing to watch out for is, as Hugo is such a young boy, he is likely to get anxious if you leave him for too long or stray too far away – leading to him making noise and potentially attracting unwanted attention.
You get to put all this into practice as you lead him through your house and grounds as they are being destroyed by soldiers. The game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing you the gore, and escaping from this mysterious band of murderers is intense and uncomfortable. This is even more so when you find your way to the nearest village (after sprinting away from the soldiers in the final part of the chapter, which sees the beastly force that killed your dog wreak havoc throughout the forest) as the place seems to be in the grips of plague. The villagers are also determined to catch the two of you, and you wind your way through the streets in order to escape.
After escaping to a kind old lady’s home, we get a chance to try out the crafting. It’s very simple in effect, just requiring you to pick up resources that are littered about the world like collectables, then when you find a workbench you can combine them in linear fashion to create upgrades for your sling and various pouches. This can improve things like speed of aiming to ammo capacity. To be honest, crafting seems a little too simplistic to offer anything to the experience, and it feels tonally out of place considering the narrative and gameplay design. It doesn’t take anything away from the experience, but I do find it weird, particularly later on when surrounded by rats that are ready to gnaw your flesh off, that you would take the risk exploring an infested area just in case there’s some useful string lying around.
After you find your way back onto the streets and once again pursued, you get to put your sling to good use in a bit of combat. Showing that this is a viable option in some situations, Amicia pops the head of a villager harassing Hugo with a well-aimed rock. The next encounter is more of a boss fight, which sees you breaking bits of armour from your opponent before getting that last fatal headshot. The fight was a little clunky, but it’s good to see that the game isn’t entirely about sneaking around or running away.
By this time you might be wondering where the rats are. Well, fear not, because as you escape your pursuers once again, you and Hugo find your way into the underground of a church. Assisted by a kind priest, you quickly discover that God is no protection here, as said priest is devoured quickly by swarms that come from further below. Torch in hand you progress forward, frightening back the rats with your light and revealing the decimated body of the priest. The physics of the rat swarms and the noise they make is truly unnerving, and despite being individually so small they make up an intimidating force together.
Progressing through the church’s bowels requires you to utilise your light and solve a variety of obstacle based puzzles. In some areas you need to knock down braziers with your sling to create enough safe distance from the rats, and in others you have to rely on sticks, which are very temporary light sources – leading to you rushing to the next light source as quickly as possible. In one instance we are separated from Hugo by a grating and need to work together to move forward at the same time, thus both staying in the light.
There was nothing particularly complicated about these puzzles, and particularly regarding the chase sequences and evading the guards at the beginning, a lot of the direction seemed contrived and guided you along far too much. However this is just a preview and there’s plenty of potential for these puzzles to gain complexity and for the stealth sections to allow for more freedom (as I am sure they will).
The version I played was for the PC, and while there were the odd frame drops, generally the game performed stably. There was a bit of mouse lag that I didn’t appreciate, particularly on the menu screens, and for some reason I couldn’t adjust the sensitivity in the options. My PC is decent, but hardly top of the range, so the fact that it produced good visuals and framerate for myself (admittedly after turning the settings down to medium) is a good sign.
Overall the preview paints a very good picture of the game to come. I was looking forward to A Plague Tale: Innocence, however wasn’t entirely convinced of how it would perform. But after playing this I am filled with anticipation. The story is effecting and the voice acting suitably good, and with the rats and inquisition soldiers there’s an intriguing mystery brewing that should be very exciting to uncover. The environmental design is well crafted and really presents a sense of the time period and its locales and architecture. It’s shown itself to be dark and pretty in unison, with the beginnings of some thoughtful gameplay. Hopefully this will continue and expand as the game progresses, and we’ll shortly be seeing if that is the case when the game releases on the 14th May.