A Plague Tale: Innocence Preview - E3 2018
We try to survive the medieval rodent infestation
Rattus rattus, the humble black rat, carrier of the bubonic plague and one of the stars of Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game also features Amicia and her younger brother Hugo as they try to survive in the 12th century, a tumultuous time during the 100 Years’ War. Rats carrying the Black Death swarm the streets and spill out of gutters but they’re not the only threats that stands in the way of the siblings - no one expects the Inquisition.
At last year’s E3, I saw a tech demo for the game’s mechanics, showcasing A Plague Tale’s combination of adventure, puzzle-solving, and stealth mechanics. This year, we saw a vertical slice, set during Chapter 5: Massacre.
We began on a murky lake, no sound save for a paddle sloshing through the water. A young boy, Lucas, rows a boat, while Amicia cradles a sick Hugo in her arms. Lucas whispers about corrupted blood in their family's lineage. And as we approach the shore, Hugo splutters a few times and we’re told it’s too unsafe to continue by land. Disembarking, Hugo suddenly perks up and rushes across the marshy land ahead of them. A crumbling stone bridge is the only waypoint marking their location.
Amicia tells Hugo to stay close, and the young boy soon finds a discarded, foreign shield. Ahead, we see trebuchets a short distance away, and it becomes apparent we’ve arrived at the scene of a bloody battle. Bodies litter the ground. There’s no way that little Hugo is crossing that sea of rictal flesh by himself.
Throughout your journey in A Plague Tale, you are your brother’s keeper. If he’s scared, he’s not moving without your literal hand-holding. If you leave him behind, he’s going to get scared out of his mind and start wailing, attracting unwanted attention. So, after making it to the other side, we see a bloated white horse in our way. The dead beast’s hide writhes and bulges until hundreds of rats boil out and rush towards us. Putain.
Rats don’t like fire. Amecia whips out her slingshot and uses special flaming rounds to light a nearby brazier, stemming the flow of rats towards us. We creep along our pathway until we need to light a haystack to progress. Fire is a major mechanic in A Plague Tale, and, often times, it is your only way to advance, so you need to be mindful of your destination.
Graphically, A Plague Tale is nicely presented and captures the setting of medieval France well. Rather than the inner-city slums showcased last year, the rural environment was nicely rendered and its battlefield does hold authenticity. But it’s hard to dig too deep into the graphics with the nightime setting. What it does capture well is a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere that taps into horror roots without becoming fantastical.
Aside from screaming like a petulant child in a supermarket, Hugo does have his uses. The little guy can grab things, such as items we can use to craft ammo. Or, in this case, he can get through a tight spot to grab us a stick we can light, that can help us through rat-infested land to safety.
Taking a break from furry enemies, we encounter our first human guard, busy picking his way across a sea of rats. If he sees us, then it’s not going to end well. It’s him or us. Amecia loads a slingshot and launches it at the guard’s lantern. Glass smashes. Chow time for the rats. His screams are swiftly smothered by them.
At our next obstacle we need to light, we’ve ran out of the special fire pellet, so need to find some more. Amecia takes an alternate path to an optional area, where she finds some craftable components - saltpeter and sulfur, which she uses to make the ammo.
Next, we’re at a drawbridge that needs lowering by knocking the chain that supports it, allowing us to cross. However, two lightly armored guards are barring our path. Unlike their more heavily armored counterparts, these guys can be taken out with a simple sling bolt to the head. We carry on to a small building. A crafting table awaits. Here, we get a taste for the multiple upgrades and skills available. You can craft new weapons and items, as well as learn new skills, though those features were not touched on in this playthrough.
In addition to smashing a guard’s lantern or whacking them on the bonce, some obstacles require more subtlety. Amecia can use objects in her environment, like a jar. By distracting a guard with the sound of breaking glass, she can sneak by and grab a guard’s torch. What you have to be mindful of is that, to do this, you’re leaving Hugo on his lonesome. Amecia has to be quick, grabbing the torch and getting back to him before he stresses out. Then, you can sneak by the enemy to the next area.
The next place has even more rats than before, hungrily massing around two hanging corpses. Feeling generous, Amecia frees the bodies from the nooses, giving the rats a feast and distracting them long enough for her to pass into a broken structure. More rats. At the other end of the hallway, a guard is pleading for his mates to come and rescue him. As we move further forward, our light continually repulsing the rats, they encroach on the guard, eventually eating him alive. But, hey, at least Amecia and co. have reached freedom. For now, at least.
From last year’s taste of gameplay, A Plague Tale seems to have fleshed out its core concept. Your characters are weak, so stealth and cunning is the name of the game. Chapters appear to play out like a series of challenges, requiring your forethought to overcome. A seemingly linear experience, A Plague Tale puts its dark story and emotions of the characters at the forefront of the experience. It’s still to be seen whether the core concept offers enough gameplay variety to keep players hooked, but it’s certainly not lacking in atmosphere... and rats.
A Plague Tale: Innocence arrives on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in 2019.