It’s been so long since a game has truly scared me that A Plague Tale: Innocence caught me completely off guard. Tense, terrifying, and meticulously crafted, Plague Tale excels at making you feel utterly helpless. Set in late 1349 in Aquitaine, France, the medieval setting is one of the game’s strengths, distinguishing itself with the backdrop of a dark, and tragic, history.
Like many gems I’ve played of late, I found Plague Tale in the used section at GameStop and picked it up without knowing anything about it. I like to go into games without any preconceptions or ideas, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.
After an idyllic hunting session with your father, the game turns into an unrelenting onslaught of human brutality. The main character, Amicia, watches as her family and their servants are brutally murdered by soldiers from the Inquisition. She has to escape her family estate with her sick brother, Hugo, but one wrong turn, and it’s death. Servants are being executed left and right as the Inquisition wants to know more about the research your mother was doing. You and Hugo stealthily slip away, using only rocks and pots to distract enemies.
Normally, a panic-stricken escape leads to a comfort zone and a reprieve. But when you get to the neighboring city, you learn it’s been infested with the Plague, and there are marks over the walls warning people to stay away. “I can smell something cooking. Is it a fair?” Hugo innocently asks.
The “fair” turns out to be a live human burning. When the villagers see you, their leader blames you and says you’re responsible for “that filth what attacked our children in their beds and gave em’ the black thing.” They begin to hunt you down.
What makes this sequence so terrifying is that these aren’t monsters or villainous soldiers after you. They’re regular townsfolk, ready to burn you at the stake because they think you’ve caused the plague, “Why are they angry?” Hugo asks. “Are they going to burn us too?”
Running from alleyway to alleyway while hoping for an egress was one of the most stressful sequences I’ve experienced in a long time. I swore the paths were becoming narrower as the sense of claustrophobia intensified. You can hear the villagers talking, demanding, “Search the houses! We can’t let the vermin get away!” One wrong turn, and you’re both dead. Eventually, you stumble into the house of an old woman, who hides you.
I can’t remember the last time I was so grateful to a game character.
As scary as Resident Evil 2 was, the weapons it gave you leveled the playing field against the hordes of zombies. For most of Plague Tale, your primary weapon is a sling. It might have been effective against a slow, lumbering, giant like Goliath, but against the rapid enemies that chase you everywhere, it’s not the most effective weapon, at least not until you fully upgrade it.
The very first time you kill someone with your sling, the music stops and you hear your own heartbeat. Amicia is disoriented, and the shock of her act shook me up as well. I appreciated how she even takes a moment to reflect on the deaths afterwards, struck by guilt. “Forgive me for… the evil I have just committed… I never…” she says in front of a church altar, right before her brother complains that she’s squeezing his hand too hard. She’s crossed a moral line she can never come back from, and I love how the developers incorporated that into the story.
Where Plague Tale really gets under your skin is the way Amicia changes throughout the journey. As the treachery of her enemies increases, she’s forced to adapt accordingly. There’s a sequence where she has to walk across a battlefield full of corpses. Their bodies lay hacked to pieces on the ground. She and Hugo wade through slowly, and the feeling of disgust is overwhelming. Any innocence is shed quickly, and after this sequence she begins to kill with far less hesitation.
Another gruesome sequence happens when you have to hide under a wooden structure where multiple people have been hanged. Underneath are body parts, organs, and guts strewn about like a human casserole. Amicia is repulsed by the stench, but forces herself to get through. The horror of stepping over all the corpses is truly revolting. Casual violence is everywhere and the unfortunate effect it has is increasing your tolerance for it. There is no law. The Inquisition seems like it’s murdering people faster than the plague. Amicia and Hugo either have to evolve to face the circumstances, or perish the way the others have been ruthlessly killed.
While the humans pose the greatest threat, there are also swarms of rats everywhere that can eat you to the bone. The rats aren’t scary so much as they are a puzzle element. Over 5000 rats can show up simultaneously on the screen, and they can block your way, but they’re afraid of the light. These segments require you to make clever use of the lights to channel the rats, opening paths in the process and allowing you to make your way across obstructions. In one part, you have to set windmill sails on fire and follow the light paths caused by the sails that force the rats to disperse.
But even when it comes to the rats, it’s the human choices that stay with me. There’s one area where the rats block your path, but you need to get across to obtain a key item. So you lure a living pig towards the rats as bait. “Are we going to feed him?” Hugo ignorantly asks about the pig, unaware of what Amicia is really planning. “Make sure you chew properly, or you’ll get a stomachache,” Hugo cautions the pig in a caring tone.
Amicia locks the pig into the area with the rat infestation and destroys one of the lamps. Hugo, realizing what’s going on for the first time, yells, “No! Amicia! What are you doing?” Amicia ignores him and takes out the other lamp, letting the rats swarm the pig. “Stop! They’re eating it! It’s still alive!” Hugo pleads. Amicia tries to explain they have no choice and this is the only way forward. Hugo’s words are damning: “It’s horrible… You’re just like all the others!”
I felt like a terrible human being.
Later in the game, Amicia goes back to her family manor and finds the enemy guards who attacked your servants. They’ve been injured by the rats and are barely fending them off thanks to nearby torches. They plead for mercy, not wanting to die. It’s completely up to you if you take out their lights so the rats can devour them.
Equipment upgrades ease the burden of the journey, like increasing your pocket load to carry more materials or quicker reload times for your sling. But death was still a constant companion, and A Plague Tale can be unforgiving, as detection almost always results in death. Fortunately, reloads and continues are fast, and you can usually figure out what to do after a few deaths.
You eventually learn why the Inquisition is after you. They’re seeking a special power called the Prima Macula which, surprise, Hugo possesses. It allows him to control the swarms of rats and use them against his enemies. The magical ability ties back to the Justinian Plague, and there’s a whole lore to it which I thought was interesting. But I actually found the first half of the game much more haunting. It felt like I was living through a society in decay thanks to the Plague and the senselessness with which death had taken so many lives. The grimy society, the bloody hell it’s causing on the villagers, and the corpse fields were part of the indelible imagery. I was happy not to be living there.
Hugo and Amicia’s relationship waxes and wanes like those of real siblings. Most times, Amicia is there for Hugo and they have touching exchanges, but other times, she gets frustrated with him. One deception Amicia makes to Hugo in an attempt to protect him backfires, and leads to a whole lot of trouble. The voice acting is spot-on and their relationship is palpable.
After the introduction of the Grand Inquisitor, Vitalis Benevent, the story transforms into something more supernatural and less menacing. The Grand Inquisitor wants the power of the Prima Macula and injects himself with Hugo’s blood to gain that power. They have a final confrontation that has Hugo using an army of black rats to fight the Grand Inquisitor’s army of white rats. It’s actually a fun boss battle, even if the idea of rat armies facing off against each other seems surreal.
For me, the real plague wasn’t the rats or the disease. It’s the way the Inquisition used the tragedy to manipulate, murder, and control the population. It’s humans that are causing much of the destruction, and their tale is mostly a damning one. Unlike A Plague Tale, real life doesn’t offer swarms of rats we can hurl at our enemies to defeat them.