How much does story matter in video games? I ask because you can find examples of games that are light on story but find a way to hook you with addicting gameplay. Swing the pendulum in the other direction, and you find games that heavily rely on story and character development, but deliver lackluster gameplay. It’s if every game is chasing the promise of The Order 1886. An interactive cinematic. A Plague Tale: Innocence travels this well-worn path in hopes of success. But it, like its predecessors, falls short of glory.
A Story Worth Watching
Set in France in 1348, A Plague Tale is a story of faith, politics, and family bonds. The story begins at the De Rune estate, with Amicia and her father, Robert, spending quality time together discussing the merits of becoming a knight. All seems perfect in their world until their adventure in the woods takes a dark turn. The family dog Lion runs off, only to be found moments later, mutilated by an unknown creature. Robert, who seems to know more than what he lets on, instructs Amicia to find her mother, Beatrice. Back home, Beatrice spends time working in her library and with her five-year-old son Hugo. When Amicia finally arrives to give her mother the news, the Inquisition, lead by Lord Nicolas, arrives at the estate for Hugo.
The world outside the De Rune’s home is filled with death, war, and a plague that has gripped the country. The Inquisition believes Hugo is vital to their mysterious plan and murders Robert and anyone on the grounds who might know where Hugo is. Your journey begins once you escape your home, with the order to find Beatrice’s long time friend Laurentius.
It is during their adventure that the game finds it’s footing. Amicia, who has never spent much time with her brother, reacts to her sibling’s questions and concerns the same way any older sister would. Her harsh reactions and replies to Hugo’s problems are not out of spite. It’s simply that she, too, is dealing with the trauma of loss and fear of the unknown. How can she possibly be a big sister to a kid she hardly ever spent time with?
Hugo’s reactions to the world around him mimic that of a preschooler. He’s impulsive and easily upset. When Amicia scolds him after their escape, he runs offs, endangering not only himself but Amicia and the mission at hand. But there is a charming quality to his naïveté. Hugo is the little brother you never had. He does his best to be mature, but we know that his sturdy exterior is only window dressing.
Asobo Studios pay attention to the most minute detail. From the character dialogue to their reactions to their environment. When Hugo and Amicia are together, the pair walk and run holding hands, and when Hugo is scared, he’ll move in close, hugging Amicia around the waist. The game does a fantastic job repositioning the camera when you take control of Hugo. You get to see things from his perspective. Everything becomes bigger without losing its realism.
During the first combat sequence, we are treated to one of the best moments of the game. If you’ve played video games long enough, you know the majority of protagonists have no problem killing someone. Even if it’s their first time, they shrug it off as business as usual. In A Plague, Tale murder means something, and its effect on Amicia is on display. Visibly shaken, the first life she takes colors her world in ways she wouldn’t expect. The siblings often give commentary on the world around them. Bodies in the streets, reactions from residents, get a response from Amicia and Hugo.
Where The Game Falls Short – Combat and Stealth
If A Plague Tale were a Netflix series, it would immediately find itself on ‘My List’. I enjoyed the story and environment that much. Unfortunately, it isn’t a series; it’s a video game. And like all video games, you have to play it. And it’s in the act of play that the game falls flat.
A Plague Tale is an adventure game with third-person action elements. I wish this were a traditional adventure game, where I would walk around the environment, ‘clicking’ objects to activate story beats. Instead, I’m given a sling and told to use the game’s stealth mechanics. The problem with both these elements is simple. They’re not fun. The game put so much into its world that your heroes suffer for it. Amicia and Hugo aren’t heroes. They’re kids. And because of this, they’re easily overtaken by Inquisition soldiers. There is no health meter. It’s one-hit kills. If a soldier reaches you, and the majority of the time they will, you’re dead. The worst offenses occur during boss battles and escape sequences. There is nothing worse than the helpless feeling you have watching Amicia repeatedly die because she couldn’t load her sling fast enough.
When you’re not fighting your sneaking, and it comes with its own set of problems. Enemies will identify you quicker than any game I’ve played and move with a speed that outpaces what I can do, causing stealth to be a zero-sum game. Stealth in most games is passable, but you usually have a chance to rectify your mistake. I don’t know why that isn’t the case here, and the game suffers for it.
But the gravest offense the combat mechanics make is the amount of time you must wait before given access to Hugo’s powers. Halfway through the game, I wondered when I would be able to do something about the rats infesting the cities. That solution, Hugo’s powers, comes so late in the game that when you finally enjoy having them, the game is in its final home stretch.
Remember, when I asked what is more important in video games? Your answer will determine if you’ll have fun with this game. If the story is what matters to you, you’ll enjoy the game despite its faults. If the gameplay is what you value most, you might want to look elsewhere as the combat in this game isn’t given the same attention as the story and character development.
In the end, I finished my time wishing A Plague Tale was something I could have watched instead of played. By the end of the game, it became more of a chore to finish instead of a great series coming to an end.