FBT is babysitting a five year old. During the Plague. While hunted by the Inquisition. This is going to end well.
In 14th Century France, teenage Amicia de Rune’s privileged life is shattered when the Spanish Inquisition storm the family’s mansion. Ordered by her mother to take Hugo, her bedridden younger brother to the safety of a nearby doctor, Amicia steps out in the world. And it’s horrible.
France is ravaged both by the plague, being spread by hordes of crazed rats, and the British, who were in the midst of the 100 years war before the Plague forced them back. The place is decimated, filled with bodies and decay while the rats have started creating huge networks of nests taking over villages. And all I have to protect my adorable little brother is a slingshot.
Both Hugo and Amicia were voiced by kids, and they contributed to the script and character behaviours, all of which gives them real authenticity; Amicia is a great lead - sheltered and resentful of the attention her little bro gets, she’s completely unprepared and just looking for an adult to take over; it’s almost overwhelming being put in charge of a little person who’s in charge of an even littler person, and her growth from lost kid to inventive survivor is amazing. And Hugo is perhaps the best child ever committed to pixels; when he cries out you’re in full mom-mode without even realising it. Played in the 3rd person, they’re always on-screen and hand-in-hand, expecting you to protect them. Great.
Most of the early levels are pure stealth as we evade the Inquisition's troops or British soldiers. Amicia uses fairly standard techniques like distraction, tall grass, and watches for routines. We’ve done this a ton of times, but rather than a capable Thief-like lead we’ve got Hugo’s whimpering and Amicia’s inexperience to contend with, it’s almost unbearably tense.
Making it worse is Amicia can’t defend herself. And if you stray too far from Hugo he gets upset (understandably) and attracts attention, but bringing him along slows you down and makes it easier for you to get spotted. He can be convinced to scurry through spaces to fetch things or open doors, but can you be sure it’s safe in there? Oh it’s terrifying. And then you chuck in several million rats.
The rats are everywhere that’s dark, and almost all of it is dark. If they grab someone they overwhelm them, leaving behind bloody bones as they scurry, rush and corner you, bursting out of the ground, the walls, through windows, under doors, seething and rolling over each other, it’s like keeping back the sea.
Amicia must use fire sticks and torches to ward off rats between lamps and fires, picking routes and hoping the path you take doesn’t run out before your fire does. You’re figuring out how to use light and the environment to move the rats out of the way, but it rarely feels like a contrived puzzle - puzzles don’t usually gnaw your face off if you get too close.
Amicia can down soldiers with a headshot, but it comes at a price – the body will be found and the sling can be heard by nearby soldiers, so it’s a last resort. She learns some other sling-tricks that can set fires or extinguish them to divert rats away from her and onto soldiers, and even mixtures that attract rats, sulphur to force soldiers to remove their helmets and so on - but finding the materials to make those is tough work. You’re forced into areas you’d rather not go in and a lot of her potions uses the same ingredients, making you choose which to create. And I always created the one I didn't need ... She finds workbenches to make adjustments and upgrades but those also take up valuable resources or draw attention, and if cornered, Amicia is defenceless; you’re either escaping or eviscerated. Or eaten.
Get used to seeing ‘Amicia has died’. A lot. Navigating the locations is never easy, and it’s one of those games you learn by dying. When it’s not rats or troops (or both), it’s the impact the plague and war has had on the countryside that awes you; and causes issues. Amicia and Hugo have to navigate fields full of dead bodies, slaughtered cattle, trudge through mud and blood. One standout sees them navigate a battlefield filled with mist, crows, other scavengers and rats; that writhing horse stayed with me for days … It’s horrible and some of the most stunning environments I’ve seen in years.
Still, it’s fair to say after a few hours of trudging through the horror, dealing with rats and evading the Inquisition, it loses the impact. But mid-way through, the Inquisition's true purpose for raging across a plague-filled region switches the game out of a survival-horror and into a story-driven adventure which gives us focus as Amicia tries to keep Hugo out of the Inquisitor's paws. The rats aren’t to be outdone though; we meet the Rat King, where they group together in a swirl of horror and sacrifice the outer rats to douse light sources. Great. But Amicia’s not alone.
The siblings link up with other young orphans trying to survive in the deathlands, who can be directed to help. A brother and sister who excel in thieving and stealthing, an Alchemist-in-training, and a burly young ironmonger who snaps necks make up an offbeat family of sorts; with nothing left, they drive rats out of a ruin and try to make it a home. They’re well-rounded and realistic but just kids damnit, and when their numbers start to dwindle as the Inquisition closes in it is heart-wrenching. Can’t something good happen!?
But we have Hugo to buoy our spirits. A scene where we walk through a field of slaughtered pigs is tough, but when we reach a farm he runs up to a live pig and apologises for stepping on his friends… While Amicia becomes hardened and aggressive, Hugo stays sweet, he finds flowers for Amicia to wear in her hair and is the only character to display even the slightest glimmer of hope. Toward the end, when the Inquisition's plans become clear and their relationship falters, you never give up on protecting him.
While it stretches credibility, there is a level where we control Chuckie-sized Hugo as he makes his way through the Inquisition’s research (aka Torture) castle. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have Chuckie’s homicidal bent; just his adorable inner monologue as he tries to remember what he watched Amicia do. It’s almost unbearable to get him killed. Which happens a lot. Sorry Hugo!
Obviously there’s some patching up in the gameplay. The rats’ aversion to light seems to wane when the plot demands it, Amicia can’t get through gaps she obviously could slip through and the linear structure means simple workarounds are just not available. But those niggles are present in every game. Making it far more annoying is the auto-saves can be far from where she just got eaten, gutted or shot, forcing you to re-collect all the items, re-explore areas, get prepared, listen to dialogue, then insta-die and do it all again.
The worst are boss battles, which can go on for several stages and require multiple precise actions, and if you die you’re right back at the very start; Amicia is best when she’s using the environment or her smarts - putting her in an arena is zero fun. A 7-foot killer in armour versus a 15-year-old with a slingshot is not as David and Goliath as it sounds. The boss battles are about the only thing wrong with this game; they are awesome events - just frustrating to best.
It does channel Alan Wake occasionally, while the Inquisition's plans and end-game feel very Assassin’s Creed (they look like Templars and have similar goals), while some claim it’s basically The Last of Us, but bollocks to that. Sure, we have a child to be guilty about and it’s a two-hander of a game, but Amicia isn’t a capable adult male lead, she’s just a lost kid with an even smaller kid trailing behind. The mechanics of A Plague Tale might be familiar, but the experience is utterly original.
While the later plot dilutes the initial horror of just surviving the plague, this is an exceptional game; an incredibly immersive, emotional stealther set in a terrible period brought horrifically to life, and the only one in recent memory where I was utterly driven to save a character. The final boss is an infuriating battle we didn’t need - we’ve suffered enough - but there’s a lovely, if bitter-sweet post-credits level that closes the game perfectly. A Plague Tale: Innocence is already my game of the year. The biggest let-down is we’ll have to wait until 2022 for the sequel. I can’t wait to get eaten alive again.