For the second time this year, I've experienced that feeling that's become so unusual to video game players over the last couple of years. It's the feeling of playing something really good that has apparently come from out of nowhere. A month or so ago, it was World War Z that was making me feel all warm and fuzzy - although in retrospect that may have been the spattering blood and the warmth of a gun barrel. This time, it's a game I'd never heard of until a chance conversation revealed its existence, and then found me so entranced by the idea that I actually installed it and played it.
The game is A Plague Tale: Innocence. It's a straight up, linear tale that feels in a lot of ways like a game from another time. It looks phenomenal and was developed by the comparatively tiny French team at Asobo Studio. Reading about the development of the game, they were looking to The Last Of Us for inspiration; and you can tell. But while that game was developed by the might of Naughty Dog, this one had a team of approximately 40 people working on it. Their achievement in this game looking and playing as it does is incredible.
We don't seem to get many games like A Plague Tale in this generation; at least on Xbox. In contrast to the Xbox 360 generation, when nearly every action/adventure game was linear and had a clearly-defined beginning-middle-end structure, this generation has been dominated by endless online social grinds. With this in mind, it feels like a callback to earlier times. Times when a game could be completed and moved on from, but enjoyed immensely for the story it focused on. Regular readers here will already know that this kind of thing is right up my street.
We also don't get many games set in medieval France, to the backdrop of both the bubonic plague and the Inquisition. The two combine in the background at the beginning but gradually move to the foreground over the course of the story; both of them are to be avoided at all costs at the very start of the tale - by the end, you're manipulating them to your own ends. They act as a bleak and oppressive wash over the story, which centres on you (playing as Amicia) protecting your estranged brother and trying to cure him of a strange illness that has led to him being segregated for most of his life. It's in the relationship between Amicia and Hugo that the game most obviously references The Last Of Us. Hugo is at your side all of the time and is basically helpless; you guide him every step of the way until the game reaches a point where the situation changes in a way that I won't spoil here.
Unsurprisingly then, the gameplay emphasis is on sneaking and environmental puzzle-solving for the most part. The swarms of rats (up to 5000 onscreen at once, apparently) will eat you if you step into the darkness, while the human antagonists will attack you if they see you - which they're far more likely to do if you stand under a lantern or torch. The game is a constant balancing act, with combat acting as a puzzle in the early parts of the game. Enemy soldiers will kill you with a single sword swing - your offensive capability consists of a sling which you can gradually upgrade into a lethal weapon - but at the beginning of the game your best option is staying out of the way. There's a common trope though in games that encourage stealth - they often force you into combat by the end and are worse off for it. A Plague Tale unfortunately suffers from that - although a couple of the later boss encounters (especially the final one) almost make the decision forgivable after a couple of encounters where you'll face a serious difficulty spike. Especially if you're an average, middle-aged gamer like me.
While the use of the sling as a weapon is one of the weakest parts of the combat, the other big weapon in the game is the rats themselves. As you progress through the game, they're always present. Even if you can't see them, they're never far away - evidence of their existence and, more critically, their disease, is all around you all of the time. The game doesn't shy away from what a plague does and what it must have looked like - it's estimated that the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th Century, which was 60% of the population at the time. There are bodies everywhere, of both people and animals, with many of them stripped of flesh and remaining only as gnawed skeletons. It's simply horrible. As you progress though, you learn that you can manipulate the rats by manipulating light sources - this makes them the solution to numerous of the game's environmental puzzles, and also a brutal combat tool. A lone soldier for example, carrying a lantern to clear rats out of his path, will become an easy meal for them if that light were to go out unexpectedly - and that's exactly what a well-aimed slingshot can do.
I don't want to spoil the story, but will say that it's compelling enough to push you on through the chapters. The linearity of the game serves the story well, but it also goes some way to helping the game look as good as it does. By each chapter of the story effectively being a tightly controlled set of corridors and bubbles that can only be approached from specific directions, the developers are able to control exactly what can be seen onscreen and when - which allows them to optimise how it all looks. And damn, does it look good. I played it on my Xbox One X in 4K, and I honestly don't think it missed a beat or dropped a frame in the entire 11 hour run time. The attention to detail is stunning; whether it's the worn leather worn by Amicia or the battered and dented armour worn by the soldiers of various nationalities that you encounter through the course of the campaign, it has a visual quality that belies the size of its development team. The lighting is also spectacular, with lanterns and moonlight casting glows and shadows that affect everything they interact with.
So, A Plague Tale: Innocence was good then. I enjoyed it. It looked good, the story was interesting. It ran almost flawlessly, and gave me an experience that I've missed this generation. Best of all though, to my mind, is the idea that this could be the start of another single-player focused developer's appearance. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that Asobo Studio have been around for a while - they've made some licenced games and some racing games, but this looks like their first big push at a third-person narrative driven game. To make a game this good on what's apparently a first attempt is really refreshing. I'll be adding their name to the list of studios I keep an eye on for this kind of game. I can't wait to see what they do next.