In a month Paste will be filled with lists about the best of 2019 so far—the best records, the best movies, the best TV shows, and the like. We don’t know what will top the games list just yet, but A Plague Tale: Innocence has as good a claim to the title as anything else released so far this year.
Our considerable love for A Plague Tale boils down to two things: atmosphere and character. Between the unique and vividly realized setting, and the understated, believable writing and voice-acting, A Plague Tale stands apart in the realm of cinematic action games. There are no glib action movie one-liners and serial shooting sprees, like in the Uncharted games, or the performative grief of The Last of Us, or the dour, aloof angst of the genocidal supergod Kratos from the recent God of War. A Plague Tale feels like a story about real people, in what starts off as a real situation, before quickly escalating into an effectively grisly supernatural horror story.
A brief overview of that story: Amicia de Rune, in her early teens and living through the early years of the Hundred Years’ War, is the daughter of a powerful French lord. Her younger brother, Hugo, who seems to be about four or five years old, has long suffered from a mysterious illness that has kept him isolated from the rest of the estate. Their mother has worked hard to cure him, with no success. One day a group of soldiers from the Inquisition storm their house, accusing the de Runes of heresy, and murdering everybody in sight. Only Amicia and Hugo seem to escape, and very quickly realize they have to avoid not just the Inquisition, which seems to have a personal vendetta against them, but also the English soldiers invading France and the swarms of rats spreading the Black Death throughout Europe.
Those rats are where the game crosses over from the real world into fantasy. A Plague Tale makes the de Runes confront veritable seas of rats, bursting out of every corner of the screen, and eventually showing weirdly supernatural abilities of their own. Amicia and Hugo don’t kill the vermin, but merely try to escape, using torches, braziers and other light sources to drive the rats away. Navigating the rats and the soldiers who kill on sight is the bulk of the action, with Amicia in charge and Hugo (and, eventually, other friends) joining along. These allies both help Amicia and also need to be protected; it never really feels like a traditional escort mission, though, and thus avoids the frustrations that make so many hate them.
When it comes to human enemies, there’s usually flexibility in how Amicia deals with them. She has a slingshot that can be used to knock them hard on the noggin or to kill their light source so rats devour them, but it can feel like the game is judging the player when Amicia kills her way out of a jam. Amicia, who’s essentially still a child who was raised in wealth and privilege, is not used to murder, or living in a world where death comes so easy. A Plague Tale accentuates the emotional turmoil she suffers when she inevitably has to kill, and it genuinely feels like a failure when Amicia is finally resigned to murdering her enemies, even when it’s not just the easiest way through the game but the only way.
The focus is squarely on Amicia, Hugo and their family, but their growing band of fellow orphans receive their own clearly defined characters and individual story arcs. Despite the brutal conditions they have to live in, their childish natures shine through when they’re able to—they may not be innocent anymore, but they’re still capable of carefree fun when the time is right, and from the safety of their hideout are able to embrace and enjoy the adventure they’ve been forced to embark on. Again, this makes these characters feel real, with personal interactions that are natural and charming.
This subtle, believable approach to characterization reinforces that A Plague Tale is an unusually patient and confident game. It lets its story unfold slowly, avoiding the urge to dole out increasingly elaborate set pieces with a predictable regularity. It never lets its pacing or sure-handed command of character become subservient to plot or the need for action or difficulty that’s assumed of videogames. Sometimes the notes a publisher sends game developers can be felt while playing a game—there’ll be too many action sequences, or ones that drag on for too long, or stories will feel truncated, as if a crucial plot point or bit of character development was cut out to make things move faster. That never happens with A Plague Tale, which maintains a consistent vision and pursues it at its own pace.
What makes A Plague Tale so great will also likely limit the attention it gets. It’s not flashy in the way the biggest games tend to be, its moments of bombast more about the shock of rats erupting out of the ground and presenting a new puzzle to be solved than the superheroic actions of inhumanly skilled characters. Even when a central figure develops a very peculiar unnatural ability, it’s portrayed not as the wish fulfillment of a superpower but an ineffable bit of magic that’s not necessarily divorced from religion. A Plague Tale goes to lengths to stay as grounded as possible, even when its supernatural elements fully take over.
By the end of A Plague Tale, its surviving heroes have earned their rest. It’s hard to say goodbye to them, though, the same way it’s hard to no longer spend time with the characters of a great book or TV show. A bittersweet post-credits sting hints at what might await the de Runes in the future; hopefully that’s a story that players will be able to explore one day.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was developed by Asobo Studios and published by Focus Home Interactive. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.