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Innocence’ is like ‘Dishonored’, if you squint: Review

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The apocalypse has become the preferred narrative setting for masochistic catharsis in fiction, whether in movies (A Quiet Place), shows (Walking Dead), or games (The Last of Us — and countless others). 

Yet we don’t actually go to these stories for the overwhelming dread inherent to these post-catastrophe settings. What we want, really, is to feel the moments of relief in these stories — some glimmer of hope that we’ll make it out alive of our own rapidly deteriorating real-life world. 

And that’s where Plague Tale: Innocence, an overall well-crafted mid-sized stealth game from French design team Asobo Studio, makes its biggest mistakes. 

Being visually stunning can't save 'Plague Tale'

Being visually stunning can’t save ‘Plague Tale’

Image: focus home interactive

To be clear, grimness is to be expected from a story that’s literally crawling with plague, infestation, corruption, and a medieval darkness that stems from both social as well as supernatural decay. 

You play as Amicia, the daughter of a nobleman in 14th century rural France, whose idyllic life abruptly comes crumbling down when a confusing combination of rat plague and an evil Inquisition attacks your château. After her parents (and household) are murdered, it’s up Amicia to save her strange, sick little brother Hugo from the world of death and chaos they now suddenly live in — made more difficult by the fact that he is somehow the mysterious key to the occult conflict.

If you think I’ve spoiled any of this game for you, then you’ve discovered Plague Tale: Innocence‘s first flaw: Its story bites off way more than it can chew. Relatedly, it expects you to feel invested in its often over-complicated premise without ever really giving you any solid foundation to build on.

Its story bites off way more than it can chew.

All of that plot summary occurs in the relatively short first chapter of this 17-chapter journey. Before it gives you any chance to get your bearings or establish any attachment to its visually lush world, characters, emotional stakes, tone, setting, or place, Plague Tale: Innocence immediately overstuffs its world with rat swarms and the convoluted plots that come with them.

Despite its insistent theme on the loss of innocence (it’s in the title!), Plague Tale does not invest in any vision of its world or young characters before they were drowning in rot and rat tails. There’s no sense of loss, because you never experienced anything except tediously dull decay.

Your objective is to protect Hugo. You do so with stealth and a slingshot, solving puzzles to avoid Inquisition guards or rat hordes. As literally the only mechanic that takes up 80 percent of your time and interactions, that stealth system is astoundingly shallow. 

Sure, you get new tools as you progress, making the main gameplay momentarily more interesting form time to time. But bells and whistles can’t save you from the absolute monotony of the main gameplay loop, which turns nasty hordes of writhing rat king piles into chores rather than anything even a little scary. The problem is the clear lack of tension in every encounter. Without it, the game doesn’t even achieve the dread it so desperately wants to imbue, instead delivering pure boredom. 

I needed more time with what makes 'Plague Tale' beautiful in order to miss it later.

I needed more time with what makes ‘Plague Tale’ beautiful in order to miss it later.

Image: focus home interactive

Arguably, that’s not just the fault of the mechanics. The narrative does little to set up stakes that might’ve given what you’re doing a sense of larger purpose.

To start, Plague Tale wildly overestimates players’ tolerance for entire game-spanning escort missions. It seems to believe you’ll grow emotionally attached to Hugo by rendering him a sack of potatoes that you drag around through the rat-infested mud, only with less practical use or personality.

To start, Plauge Tale wildly overestimates players’ tolerance for entire game-spanning escort missions.

There’s also the curious lack of attention given to making the central bond between Hugo and Amicia feel believable. In the beginning it’s established that he and Amicia have been estranged since his birth, since their mother (an alchemist) isolated him in an attempt to cure his odd blood disease. 

Yet when disaster strikes, suddenly the two of you become immediately close and bonded, throwing out the possibility of exploring any interesting wrinkle in their dynamic. 

That’s how lot of Plague Tale‘s narrative plays out: A complicated or seemingly vital plot point is introduced, only for the characters to hand wave away any need to explain what they mean to the audience. Concepts like the “Macula,” “Inquisition,” and “thresholds” are casually dropped in conversation as centerpieces of the main conflict. Yet while the characters seem to know what they are, players are left to wonder what cut scene or NPC dialogue they missed.

By the end, some of it gets explained — sort of. But it happens in a way that makes you wonder why the game was withholding any information about in the first place. There’s a difference between withholding information from players to create intrigue and mystery, versus explaining just enough to ruin the intrigue yet not enough to be anything but confusing.

There are glimmers of a better game in 'Plague Tales' dreariness

There are glimmers of a better game in ‘Plague Tales’ dreariness

Image: focus home Interactive

In certain moments, I see what Plague Tale meant to do — and there’s a good example of how leaving things unexplained adds to the story and environment. 

In a castle you come to call home base, there’s a tomb that Amicia and Hugo often pray to for comfort, thanking the castle’s owner for protection. You never learn more about who the person was, but those quiet moments of hope and gratitude do more to build your relationship with Hugo than the hours spent dragging him through mud.

But ultimately it’s a very bad sign when, way past midway point of a story, you have close to zero grasp on the most basic forces operating the fictional world. Yet that’s exactly what you get with Plague Tale, whether it’s questions about the magic, what’s at stake, how any of this began, why you’re doing any of it, or who the main villain even is. In fact, you don’t see the face of the villain until Chapter 10, so the majority of the time you’re supposed to feel invested in hating a faceless Inquisition along with (possibly unrelated?) piles of rats.

It’s a very bad sign when, way past midway point of a story, you have close to zero grasp on the most basic forces operating the fictional world.

I can’t even praise the game’s commitment to that dreary impersonal atmosphere or tone, because it even squanders the potential to make swarms of rotting carcasses and rats feel anything but rote.

Plague Tale doesn’t build a world that’s falling apart, but rather a series of disparate and unconnected levels where the art direction seems to have amounted to “super gnarly.” None of the locations feel lived in prior to their total collapse, aside from a few notable exceptions in Act 4. Without any transformation, progression, or change to the world until the very end, there’s little  emotional anchor to care about its destruction. And, I dunno, giving your world some humanity to lose feels pretty integral to a story about the loss of innocence. 

None of that is to say that Plague Tale is without merit. In fact, it is precisely its great potential that make its missed opportunities so hard to ignore.

Despite failures to aptly communicate the experience or world, Plague Tale is undeniably a smart game. Its problem is that it might be too smart for its own good, aloof and presumptuous about how much its audience can deduce without explaining more of itself. And it’s to the detriment of its many admirable ambitions.

What was this world before the rats?

What was this world before the rats?

Image: focus home entertainment

Somewhere buried beneath the rat-infested piles of rubble of its shaky foundation is a much better version of Plague Tale. Despite its flaws, there’s still a lot to love and appreciate about the game. Many times, especially when it focuses on the characters relationships rather than convoluted plots, it even flirts with excellence — which is why it’s such a shame that its moment to moment experience feels decidedly lackluster.

But for many, that promise is enough, no matter how poorly executed in its totality. Lovers of narrative-driven stealth games will find a lot of similarities with the Dishonored series (though far less mechanical or narrative complexity). At its best Plague Tale is the story Dishonored told, only from the perspective of the kids whose futures were robbed.

Overall, though, the infestation of problems overpower all that is good in the game, leaving behind only a bloody husk of bones.

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