REVIEW: Rats flow like water in ‘Plague Tale’

  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated M / $49.99 / released May 2019
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars

Set in France during the late middle ages, “A Plague Tale: Innocence” isn’t a bombastic affair of dragons and knights, but a story of lost children trying to survive during the Great Plague. Estranged siblings Amicia and Hugo de Rune begin the game on the run from the Inquisition, their family estate raided and ruined, while the fourteenth century French countryside falls into decay.

And yes, there are rats. Thousands and thousands of rats.

Poor preschool-age Hugo is the carrier for a blood virus that is somehow connected to the rats. The cure for his condition lies in alchemy, so older sister Amicia leads him across the map in search of help, all while staying a step ahead of the Inquisition.

In many ways, “Plague Tale” feels like a throwback to the action-adventure games of the early PlayStation era. It’s single-player, linear, heavily focused on narrative, and built to graphically impress. There’s no battle royale, online multiplayer or sprawling open world environments. The game is mostly compact stealth scenarios where you sneak Amicia through enemy patrols. Once you make it from Point A to Point B without getting caught, the game serves up another scene in the story.

That summary is not meant to deride the game. On the contrary, this highlights the game’s dual strengths of beautiful scenery and compelling voice acting. The game’s depiction of a countryside gradually sickened by both plague and war is flat-out gorgeous. Rural forests and medieval villages turn into corpse-strewn battlefields and dimly-lit castles. However, the stars of the show are the seething piles of rats.

The rats of “Plague Tale” act like a giant liquid mass. They pour out of holes and assemble in puddles, constantly hopping and skittering over each other. Much like the enemy soldiers, if you get near the rat heaps, it’s pretty much an unavoidable game over. Their main weakness is light, which leads to plenty of environmental puzzles where you must figure out how to use torches and other light sources to keep the rats at bay.

Between the rats and the soldiers, you’re given a nice variety of situations to puzzle through. Guards can be distracted by throwing rocks (and outright killed by them as well); rats can be herded into corners by lantern light beams. None of these sequences overstay their welcome, although it does often seem terribly contrived. For example, the game cannot count on you not wasting all of your rocks in a previous part of the story, so if you need rocks for the next portion, the game has to provide rocks. This means supplies are plentiful, so you’ll never have to worry about conserving your rocks or your alchemical ingredients. Add that to the video-game-dumb soldiers that walk in predetermined routes and mutter things like “ah, must be nothing” when you drop out of their newborn baby senses range, and you get a long string of very obvious and very old game gimmicks. The most disappointing bit of “Plague Tale” is that it rarely finds a way to grow beyond those cliches, weighing down the strong narrative and beautifully realized world with gameplay that basically has all of the strategy of a color-by-number painting.

That is not to say that “Plague Tale” is not challenging at points, and in fact it is very satisfying to forge a safe path for Amicia and her companions. That feeling comes from your emotional connection to Amicia and Hugo. “Plague Tale” features excellent voiceover work, bringing to life a believable cast that is primarily children. The teens and toddlers act like teens and toddlers, which is something a lot of video games completely miss. Amicia is not a supernaturally talented bow hunter, she mainly hides behind things and throws rocks. She’s not even out to save the world or cure the Bubonic Plague (which, to my memory, the characters never really even specifically talk about), she’s just trying to keep her brother from dying.

Of course there are fantastical elements – like the craftable alchemic potions that magically attract or repel rats – but there’s a lovely grounding to “Plague Tale” that keeps it a controlled, believable story about children struggling in a world that has turned against them.

One of the game’s touching turns is that little Hugo will occasionally see a clump of flowers and run over to them. In video game terms, these flowers are a capital-c Collectible, and gamers will want to find all of them to complete the set, but “Plague Tale” uses this to create a intimate moment between the siblings. Amicia leans down as Hugo tucks the flower into her hair. That specific flower remains in Amicia’s hair as she ventures back out into pushing crates and distracting addlepated soldiers. It’s a great touch and a reminder of how this game works to highlight detail and drama.

Despite the unwieldy title, “A Plague Tale: Innocence” is a streamlined game. The impressively unsettling rabid rat action frames a solid story that deftly avoids padding out the runtime. If you’re looking for a straight-forward video game adventure with an innovative angle on historical fantasy, pick up “Plague Tale.”

“A Plague Tale: Innocence” is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the developer. Images courtesy Asobo Studio and Focus Home Interactive.

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