A Plague Tale: Innocence is the best new horror game since the original Dead Space. I know that's quite the claim to make right out the gate, but with Asobo Studios' horror game now a year old, I can safely say that I absolutely adored the terrifying adventures of Amicia and her brother Hugo in Medieval France.
Okay, perhaps "adoration" might not be the right word to describe escaping hordes of flesh-eating rats and equally vicious humans—maybe "infatuated" would work better. A Plague Tale: Innocence depicts the gauntlet of horror two siblings must endure as a ferocious Inquisition raids their manor, slaughtering their entire family as well as their servants. A Plague Tale has a horrible opening, and that's before the armies of corpse-gnawing rats show up.
Spoiler Warning: From here on out there will be major spoilers. If you want to go into A Plague Tale: Innocence fresh, just take our word from it when we say that it's really good and return for our extended thoughts when you're finished.
At first, there's calm. Asobo's game begins in a picture-perfect setting in rural France: there's wind gently rushing through the trees, and the sun's just beginning to set, casting long shadows across the forest path which Amicia treads with her father and her pet dog, Lion. Amicia doesn't have a care in the world until her faithful companion catches the scent of something mysterious. Off it bounds deep into the woods, Amicia giving chase in what will ultimately be a fruitless pursuit. The second the dog runs off, you know there's something bad afoot, as the woods around Amicia darken and turn a dank gray, her father's voice fading into the background.
Suffice it to say, the dog dies. It's something of a rite of passage for games at this point, that an animal should be sacrificed to tug on your heartstrings, and A Plague Tale with a trusty mut at Amicia's side was never going to end well. I was ready for the dog's demise, but I was not ready for the dog to be half-eaten and then dragged underground kicking and howling by monstrous unseen forces.
The death of the dog is the beginning of Amicia's life being utterly uprooted. We can infer from her delicate mannerisms and pitch-perfect politeness that this is someone who's been raised in a life of luxury. Seeing her dog mauled and dragged down a hole by dark, demonic forces is the first time Amicia breaks, her voice trembling and cracking before rising to a yell as she's dragged away by her father. It's safe to say that the first layer of "innocence" in A Plague Tale's title is lost within five minutes of the opening.
This entire opening section is perfectly paced. There's just enough time following the death of Lion for Amicia to briefly catch her breath before fresh horrors appear. Arriving back at the family Chateau, barely keeping her voice from breaking, Amicia runs to fetch her mother, passing through a manor filled with servants and groundskeepers there to serve her every need, only reinforcing that we're seeing a relatively privileged person beginning to become undone. You get the sense that Amicia's also replaying the slaughter in her mind, ignoring any of the staff as she rushes past them in a desperate search for her mother, and comfort.
Soon, a fresh nightmare springs forth in the form of an enigmatic Inquisition, barreling into the grounds of her home and taking the staff hostage at knifepoint. Powerless and in hiding, Amicia has to watch as the towering brute of a commander slits her father's throat with a flick of his wrist. It's remorseless, as A Plague Tale tosses aside a character who only moments before had rushed to protect his daughter from the mysterious evil in the forest.
Just before Amicia's mother leaves to confront the Inquisition, she tasks Amicia with looking after her younger brother, Hugo. It's immediately clear through Amicia's hesitation that she isn't close with Hugo, something she affirms when she stiffly greets him and apologizes for disturbing him. It transpires that Hugo's been locked away for most of his life, as his mother and another doctor in a far-off town attempted to cure him of a mysterious ailment. The nature of this ailment isn't clear for at least the first half of A Plague Tale, and it subtly plants the notion of an ailment without revealing what it actually is, leaving your mind to wonder and fill in the blanks about Hugo's condition.
It's easy to wonder what's so wrong with this innocent child that he had to be hidden away for years at a time. You know it can't be good, but having been tasked with protecting him by your now-seemingly deceased mother, all you can do is let it gnaw at the back of your mind as the story progresses. It's a lot to process.
In any case, after escaping the clutches of the Inquisition, Amicia and Hugo end up in a quiet rural town. Except that it's too quiet—white crosses adorn the doors of houses, and shutters slam shut at their approach. It's clear that something is seriously wrong, but A Plague Tell doesn't explicitly say what. Instead, the first sign of humanity you see is the charred corpse of someone that's been burned at the stake, their flesh rendered to nothing more than a mushy paste on their bones. It's a scene that makes it obvious just how dangerous the world is beyond the confines of the chateau—a feeling that's further driven home by the appearance of a bloodthirsty mob.
As becomes apparent in these sections, A Plague Tale is a stealth game at its core. Amicia and Hugo spend the vast majority of the game avoiding humans and rats alike, primarily using their slingshot to knock enemies out of their path. These 14th-century orphans are a nifty bunch though, because they can also concoct potions and bombs that dissolve a guard's armor to get a clear shot with a rock at his head, among a few other tricks.
For most of the game Amicia and Hugo skulk in the shadows, away from the prying eyes of paranoid humans, but there are nevertheless times when Amicia will need to face down someone in open combat, usually against bosses. A Plague Tale isn't quite as strong in these sections: all you can do when a boss comes rushing at you in the opening hours is to sidestep out of the way and pelt him with rocks until his armor falls off. There aren't nearly as many options to play with here as in stealth attacks, but they're still adrenaline-inducing, as all it takes is one false move for Amicia to hit the ground and die in front of a helpless Hugo.
In the village, the need to kill or be killed leaves Amicia with no choice but to murder a pursuing peasant with a slingshot, which rightly horrifies Hugo. A Plague Tale doesn't present innocence as a hard barrier that is broken once crossed, but as multiple layers and points of no return. The innocence that Amicia loses when the dog dies is a far cry from the innocence that vanishes when she murders a vicious person to protect Hugo. There's multiple horrors out to get the siblings in this apocalyptic landscape, and Amicia evolves after encountering each new terror.
Remarkably, this is all before the titular horror of A Plague Tale even makes its first rustling, bone-chilling appearance. That thing that ate the family dog alive? It's a horde of rats stretching as far as the eye can see, pursuing the two hapless siblings across France. You'll be awestruck in terror the first time you properly encounter the horde; there's no escaping them. The rats act as a sea before the siblings, falling and swarming over each other to inch closer, vying to be the first to sink their teeth into either sibling. The light is your only saving grace from the plague horde; a terrifying enemy that, just like the humans out to get you, can't be reasoned with.
Light is the only salvation from the rat hordes, and Amicia uses this to again pass another milestone in the loss of innocence. Humans will carry lamps around with them to stave off the rats, but if you can shatter them with a well-placed rock, they'll be overwhelmed and eaten alive in mere seconds. The first time Amicia does this, it's genuinely horrifying, but it also makes a grim kind of sense. The sheer need to survive, especially in the face of a ravening plague of rats, will necessarily lead to horrific acts like sacrificing some poor villager to the swarm.
The final villain of this piece is a power-hungry Roman Catholic bishop named Vitalis Bénévent. Leading his congregation like a god himself, he spends the entire course of A Plague Tale attempting to control the rodent flood, which is connected to Hugo's condition. It's apparent that A Plague Tale wishes to depict mainstream religion as a kind of cult; or at least the twisted version led by Bénévent. Hooded figures wander the grounds with black marks on their faces, burning books in piles and using the rats to torture anyone who opposes them in dungeons. Anyone who isn't converted is slaughtered until only the true believers remain. A Plague Tale shows us how religion can easily be turned and weaponized against those who come to it seeking salvation with open arms.
In one of A Plague Tale's most shocking moments, Bénévent eventually murders his entire congregation with the flesh-eating horde of rodents in his control. Even if the bishop's been depicted as a mad zealot the entire game, cackling about world domination through his newfound supernatural abilities, having all his followers devoured during prayer is nonetheless a huge step towards a new level of insanity.
A Plague Tale is a truly unique horror experience. It's one that isn't afraid to relentlessly pelt its characters with increasing terrifying and horrific scenarios, but crucially lets them grow from each encounter. It's a journey that proves there's multiple layers of innocence to be lost, and losing oneself can be tied to more than just a singular incident.
Asobo's story of a plague-ridden rural France will stay with me for a long time to come. The tight stealth gameplay always requires you to think on your feet and react to ever-changing environments and dangers around you, especially when your constant goal is protecting Hugo at all costs. There's so many tricks and tools to utilize, but it never loses the sense of dread and survival at all costs.
I'll remember A Plague Tale: Innocence for being incredibly bold in its storytelling. I'll remember it for its brutal and haunting opening, and I'll remember it for the devouring of the dog that serves as a sign of things to come. I'll remember it for Amicia especially, a character who proves losing innocence isn't as simple as just taking a life and accepting a new reality. And god, I'll remember it for its evisceration of religion; showing how easily innocent believers can be taken advantage of by those who have only their own interests at heart.
A Plague Tale: Innocence deserves to be remembered as one of single best horror games of the last decade. It flew relatively under the radar when it released back in May 2019, but with a lot more time on our hands these days, I'd urge anyone who hasn't experienced Asobo's game to go back and try it out on its one-year anniversary.