It is not often that I am generally pleased by a game that I hadn’t read much about, and therefore had low expectations for, before I finally played it. That’s the case with A Plague Tale: Innocence, Asobo Studio’s 3rd person action adventure game available on Windows PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
While Asobo Studio is considered a ‘small’ developer, its list of credentials includes many works on licensed properties, so the company is capable of delivering decent budget experiences (at least when the budget is paid off by a big publisher).
A Plague Tale, is Asobo’s first original work in more than a decade, and as such it doesn’t have the budget of a 3 AAA adventure, but the developers managed to craft an adventure worthy of AAA status, and it is one of the finer “The Last of Us” clones that I have ever played.
A Visual Identity
At first, based on the opening scenes, I could have sworn that the game was running on the Unreal 4 engine. The baked lighting and bloom really resembled other titles that I had played that utilized that engine. It would make sense, Asobo Studio is a small developer, why wouldn’t they outsource a commonly used engine? Still, upon deeper inspection I discovered that the game runs on the developer’s own proprietary game engine.
This could explain (Asobo’s technical mastery) why A Plague Tale looks so good, and why Microsoft chose the French company to develop the upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator game.
A Plague’s Tale, along with Gears of War 5, might be the best-looking 3rd Person adventure that I have played on the Xbox One X. The environments are positively stunning, from wonderful lush forest levels, to gorgeous French castles, the game is varied in its delivery of environments.
While the environments shine, the characters are an odd combination of beautifully rendered models and stiff facial animations. While the models are a full step under what we have seen in the Last of Us II and Uncharted 4, it is the facial animations that at times are full level below the original The Last of Us 2013 game for the PlayStation 3.
It was a bit disappointing that Asobo managed to render such beautiful character models only to have them fall short of Naughty Dog’s efforts by stiff facial animations. It wasn’t a big issue, most games fall short of those lofty standards, but the narrative driven A Plague Tale would have benefited from better facial animations.
Another problem that I had with the otherwise stellar visual package is that Asobo has a weird filter going on that makes the surrounding areas around the character (screen corners) a bit blurry. It is a weird effect to be sure, and I didn’t really felt it was necessary in such a beautiful game.
Another complaint is the fact that the Asobo did not seem to optimize its engine for home consoles. The game runs at 864p on Xbox One, and `1080p on the base PS4. These resolution numbers aren’t uncommon in newer games; however, it is the premium consoles that see a major downgrade in resolution.
The game features an impressive number of rat enemies on screen at once, 5,000 to be precise. The rats are an integral part of the game, and performance remains steady in most instances. The rats all work as single-minded entity, so they move in unison, I don’t think this is too taxing on the hardware.
The PS4 Pro, usually, is able to run these types of games at 1440p natively, and the Xbox One X at 2160p (Full 4K) natively. A Plague Tale runs at 1080p on PS4 Pro, which makes the premium console an equal to the base one in this particular game. The Xbox One X suffers by only outputting at 1440p which is surprising and disappointing to say the least.
There is not much to complain about here, as hair, skin, and leather materials all look amazingly well. The environments, when view from a proper distance (normal view) have a near photo realistic quality to them. A Plague Tale is definitely; one good looking game.
The Last of Us 1.5
Clearly inspired by the Last of Us, A Plague Tale does focus more on the former game’s stealth elements than it does on the action ones. Protagonist Amicia De Rune is not a powerhouse, during the early part of the game, before you are given the chance to upgrade your slingshot weapon (on a medieval work bench), Amicia and little brother Hugo’s survival solely depends on stealth.
Cleverly designed areas make stealth a progressively difficult endeavor. Truly, even with the upgrade Slingshot and different ammo types, Stealth is your best bet for survival.
The upgraded Sling shot can deliver one hit kills to helmless enemies. The auto target works well enough, but most inquisition era knights wore a helmet, this makes the process of downing some enemies a more complicated venture.
Some enemies need to be hit with a special burning substance first (delivered through the slingshot), in order to get them to remove their helmets, so that Amicia can deliver the killing shot. Other enemies are heavy armored and need to be defeated in clever ways, such as, drawing rats to their location.
The game never quite makes Amicia powerful enough that she can just stroll through the areas without facing the prospect of a quick death, and indeed, if a human enemy manages to get close enough to Amicia, her death is almost granted (Unless you have crafted a sleeping powder concoction).
Unlike the Last of Us, in which you were encouraged to kill your adversaries, the conservative amount of crafting materials (yes, the crafting wheel is here too!) never quite allows you to carry an infinite amount of ammo, and the same time, the game strategically places enemies around the levels so that the amount of crafting materials never becomes a frustrating issue. Stealth is key, and unless you are engaged in a boss battle, stealth is the recommend approach towards tackling a Plague’s Tale.
There is a clever gameplay mechanic involving light and the rat plague. In the case of avoiding rats, Amicia and Hugo must rely on maintaining themselves under the cover of light. A difficult thing in medieval Plague torn France, which is an ultra dark place with carefully placed torches and lamps.
The game here forces you to think on your feet about how to approach certain scenarios. Knocking down enemy torches will make reveal your location, but at the same time will make them vulnerable to the rats nearby. Rats stay confined to the darkness, and if Amicia strays from the lit areas she can easily be devoured by the rats in seconds.
Playing with the light is key to succeeding in A Plague Tale. Using ammo to lit, and to burn out torches must be mastered in order to succeed in the game’s later areas, and final boss battles. One particular boss fight was very, very tough.
So, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a competent Action Adventure that relies on stealth mechanics, and for the most part everything works as it should, but it isn’t perfect. Some enemies should see you at times, and they don’t, even though you are right there in front of them. The last few boss battles were a bit hellish, the final one reminded me of Zelda in the sense that I died a few times before figuring out the easily exploitable pattern to defeat said boss.
There is, however, one battle that I felt was too frustrating, and apparently the developers realized this too because the battle (thankfully) features a few checkpoints to make it more bearable. There are times, late in the 10-12 hour quest, when avoiding rats, picking apart Inquisition Knights, and lighting torches feels tedious and repetitive.
Crafting is done in the typical “wheel” menu. Like in the Last of Us, if you have the right amount of materials on hand, you can craft different types of ammo (and healing materials) by holding the required button for a few seconds. I have “crafted” so much during this generation that I wonder if there is anyway that developers can innovate on this mechanic for the next generation of consoles as I am growing wary of it.
The controls are tight, and there is at least in the early parts of the game a real sense of dread while you play. The game seems to lose this as it progresses, mainly because Amicia’s arsenal grows, and the player’s understanding of the inner workings of enemy A.I. gets better which each passing hour. The game is a collection of Stealth and survival puzzles, in which the manipulation of rats, and enemies takes center piece. It does a good job at that, even if it does get a bit repetitive at ¾ through the game’s storyline.
A Decent Tale
Amicia is a likable protagonist, and she is very well voice acted, the same can be said for Hugo (though his character is a bit annoying at times). A Plague Tale: Innocence did a good job at getting me to care about Amicia’s predicament, the game didn’t really hook me unto its story the way that Naughty Dog Games and God of War did, but for Xbox owners looking for the ‘The Last of Us Super Lite’ in terms of narrative, A Plague Tale suffices.
The game builds a relationship between Amicia and Hugo, supporting characters join the duo at different times and you get to care (as some of them have very useful skills) about them. The villain is hit or miss, the story is centers around the Plague (brought about by rats) and some mysticism that involves both Hugo and one of the officials of the what I assume is the Catholic church of the time period (1348 A.D).
I disliked the villain, and wanted to kill him, but at the same time I wasn’t exactly hooked by the story. It is a decent tale chronicling a group of children (mostly Amicia, and Hugo) trying to escape both the rat plague and the religious inquisition. There are better stories in the genre, but most of these stories are on Sony’s side of the fence, for Xbox owners A Plague Tale: Innocence will provide some trills and tense moments that might be refreshing and unique to the system.
A competent adventure
As a top looking game, accompanied by a great musical presentation that takes after Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us formula with a heavy focus on stealth, A Plague Tale: Innocence certainly deserves a playthrough. The game is free with a Game Pass subscription, but even if you are playing on PlayStation 4 the game is worth its price of admission.
There is nothing mechanically wrong with the game. It controls as well as any modern action adventure game. The stealth elements are all well implemented, but there is only some much that that formula can carry a game through. The game suffers in its late stages from some frustrating battles, and the repetitive nature of its gameplay. Still, there are some clever survival puzzles in there, and some interesting fights.
Poor facial animation bogs down what its an otherwise excellent visual package. The environments are gorgeous, and the materials used for clothing and surfaces are excellent. There are some technical issues, Premium consoles target a lower than usual resolution and the Xbox One S can only output the game at 864p. The winner is the Xbox One X as it outputs at 1440p, the Pro and Base PS4 versions are virtually identical, with both running at 1080p (oddly).
Incredible music accompanied by better than standard voice acting. The sounds of rats and enemies in the distance are always unnerving.
The setting and the premise are unique. I can’t remember the last time where I travelled through France during the Plague era, while running away from the Church’s inquisition. The setting alone is captivating if the tale is somewhat predictable. Amicia is a beautiful character, and she got me through some of the rougher spots in the game. The Last of Us this is not, but not many games are.
This is a one playthrough game if there was any. The linear nature of the levels, and the lack of real collectibles and branching paths in the game makes A Plague Tale a onetime affair.
I had fun with my time in the game. I played the game right after playing The Last of Us: Part II which might account to my experience with A Plague Tale being less than “wowing”. Still, it is a game that I am glad that I played, and a lot like The Order: 1883 it is a game that I would recommend to any one with a passing interest in 3rd person action adventures.