There are certain constants that you can count on every year when E3 rolls around. You’ll see a new Call of Duty, we’ll all wonder how Just Dance is still a thing, and Nintendo doesn’t announce a new Animal Crossing. One of my favorite things however is when you’re taken by surprise and you see a game that you’ve never heard of that catches your attention. A Plague Tale: Innocence from developer Asobo Studio was that game for me this year. We were shown a portion of the game by Lead Designer Kevin Choteau and by the time we walked out I was left feeling very impressed by the horrifying tale that they’re telling.
The game takes place in France during the 14th century, a period of time in which Europe was being ravaged by the Black Plague, a pandemic which killed roughly half of the population of the continent. You play as Amicia, a young girl who is traveling through the disease stricken country with her younger brother Hugo, who has fallen ill. Together they must fight to survive in a world full of unimaginable horrors.
The game is a 3rd person action/adventure, but with a heavy focus on stealth and environmental puzzle solving. As our demonstration began and the siblings started making their way through the countryside it became clear rather quickly that the tone of the game will be quite grim. The world is grey and damp, and the signs of suffering are everywhere. At one point the two youngsters must cross a large field of corpses, stepping carefully not to disturb the mass grave. This scene demonstrated one of the more interesting mechanics in the game, that being the way in which Hugo interacts with his sister during these frightening moments. If he gets scared he’ll clutch onto her side, and at certain points in the game you’ll need to take him by the hand to lead him through a situation. It seemed similar to the game Ico in the way that you needed to guide him to safety.
As they made it to the other side of the field they came across a dead horse lying in the grass, and this is where we caught our first glimpse of the true horror that surrounds this game… the rats. The belly of the horse wriggled and pulsated before exploding, sending a swarm of rats funneling out of its carcass. They continued to surround the frightened children, first dozens, then hundreds, then ultimately thousands. Choteau stated that they were able to have over 2000 individual rats on-screen at a single time, all behaving independently. And yes, it’s just as disgusting as it sounds.
Your one defense against these creatures is fire, by carrying a torch the rats will keep their distance but you’ll need to be careful to never stray too far from that light or the flood of vermin will be quick to strike. Amicia is also equipped with a sling which enables her to fling flaming coals at nearby torches or lanterns, creating a path of safety for them to follow. The sling is also used cleverly in puzzles, allowing you to shoot at nearby objects like the lock of a gate. Just be on the lookout for materials, as you’ll need to craft more ammunition for your weapon in order to progress.
Later on the pair come across a guard patrolling the area and we learn that the rats aren’t the only threat you’ll be faced with. Most of the guards are armed and heavily armored, so taking them on head to head isn’t usually the best idea and you can actually use the rodents to your advantage in some of these situations. If a guard is carrying a lantern for instance, you can use your sling to break it and extinguish the flame, causing the surrounding rats to immediately attack the now vulnerable enemy. It’s a gruesome way to go, but this game is all about doing whatever it takes to survive. If you do need to face your enemy directly you have the option of using your sling to attack weak points in their armor, but again it seems like an indirect approach is usually prefered.
When facing groups of guards, your best bet is to try to find a way past them completely undetected. Sometimes this involves leaving Hugo behind for a time, but it’s best to be quick about it. If you leave him alone for a prolonged period he may get frightened and start to panic, alerting the guards to his location. It really emphasises that keeping your brother safe is the primary objective in the game, and you’ll need to do some pretty disturbing things to ensure that happens.
As the demo comes to a close, Amicia and Hugo enter a long hallway, halfway down is a large group of rats gathered near a hole in the wall that you need to get to, towards the end of the hall is a man with his back against a locked gate, calling for help. The only way for you to reach your exit is to move forward using your torch to push the swarm of rodents further down the hall, but doing so will send them straight towards the trapped man. He begs you to stop as you make your way forward, but Amicia cries “We have to get out!” and the siblings make their escape as the rats envelop the man.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is dark, gruesome, and often unsettling. The setting and plot though are fascinating and the relationship between Amicia and Hugo gives the game an intriguing emotional hook. If they are able to introduce enough variables in both the combat and puzzle solving to keep things interesting throughout the game, this could be a sleeper hit when it arrives in 2019 on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.