Republished on Wednesday 30th June 2021: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a Sony game without a Sony budget. Focus Home Interactive may not be a forum favourite, but with ambitious original properties like Vampyr and The Council, it’s been proudly flying the flag for story-driven, single player experiences. Asobo’s gothic medieval romp is yet another nod in that direction, but does it bite like a rat or nip like a mouse?
Set in 14th century France during the initial stages of the Hundred Years’ War, you play as the teenage daughter of a nobleman named Amicia, who winds up the primary guardian of her sick brother Hugo as the pair traverse their Black Death ravaged homeland in search of a cure. It’s a thrilling premise, undone only by wooden voice acting that kills an otherwise okay script.
The gameplay takes cues from the likes of The Last of Us, though it’s much more straightforward. You’ll spend much of your time waltzing through both gorgeous and grotesque backdrops, scooping up crafting materials that can be used in alchemic concoctions. Combat is relatively limited, so you’ll mostly be using an upgradable slingshot to distract guards and open up new pathways.
The release is perhaps at its white-knuckle best when you’re pitted against a mischief of blood-thirsty rats, who will murder you should you step away from a light source. These sequences effectively evolve into drawn-out puzzles, where you must use all of your abilities in order to create a safe passage through the rodents. Sometimes this will involve bait; other times you’ll need to burn stuff, and so on.
The title does an admirable job of mixing the mechanics up to introduce new problems right throughout its runtime, but it can’t help but feel padded. With a campaign pushing up to the 15 hour mark, you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes as you stumble into yet another elongated stealth or rat evasion sequence; it gets repetitive, even if the puzzles and backdrops change.
Furthermore, the adventure doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. There’s an almost educational aspect to the way the plot unfolds, submerging you into a bleak period of history that doesn’t get a massive amount of screentime. At the same time, it simply can’t resist flirting unnecessarily with the supernatural – almost like the writers couldn’t help themselves.
But perhaps most disappointingly is how clumsy the game can feel; Amicia’s movement is stilted and finicky, while the “weapon” wheel is fiddly. The presentation is sublime at times, with its haunting score adding so much to the mood of the experience – but it just doesn’t have that final layer of polish that its peers possess, resulting in plenty of dreaded jank.
A Plague Tale: Innocence deserves respect for daring to be different, funnelling you through a bleak European backdrop that’s seldom seen. Despite some neat ideas, though, the stealth and puzzle mechanics drag, and the story can’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to be. Furthermore, while the presentation is spectacular, the project lacks polish in key areas and overstays its welcome at times.