The same thought kept bubbling up throughout "A Plague Tale: Innocence": 14th-century France is awful. I'm an orphan, my brother is annoying, nightmare-inducing rats are just chomping at the bit to devour me clean to the bone, a deadly plague is running rampant and people are trying to kill me -- oh, and the Inquisition is in full swing.
And that's just within the first hour.
Such is the premise of the latest game by Asobo Studio, an engrossing tale of sacrifice and familial bonds that's weighed down by its less-than-ideal game play mechanics. You'll find it hard to look away from the trials of siblings Amicia and Hugo de Rune, even when you find yourself getting bored of everything else around you.
When we begin "Plague," set in 1349 amid an idyllic French countryside, 15-year-old Amicia is having the worst day of her high-born life: Her parents are murdered, she's forced to flee from her home lest she be killed by Inquisition soldiers, and she's now in charge of protecting estranged younger brother Hugo, who is gravely ill and all-around useless on his own. To make matters worse, there are rats. Lots of rats. Like, so many rats they form their own viscous, pulsating waves of death and disease. It's not a good time.
Your task is simple if nigh-impossible: Get you and your brother to safety amid all this carnage. For the vast majority of the game, you'll need to stick close to Hugo; otherwise, he gets scared and inadvertently alerts everyone around you to your location. The few times you do separate from him focus on him solving minor puzzles for you, such as unlocking a door only he can access because of his size. The rest of the time, the two of you move hand-in-hand, with Amicia serving as sister and protector.
Normally, I'm not a fan of escort missions, but I'll give Hugo some credit: For being afflicted with a debilitating illness, the little guy can move, and it makes all the difference that I'm generally not slowed down by having him around. (Still, he's a little brother character, annoying and needy by his very nature. I'm an older brother, so it's my right to say such things.)
The game's main puzzle mechanic focuses on not being eaten by hordes of rats, requiring you to use light to protect you and Hugo from their gnashing and the nightmare-fuel sounds they make. While failing to properly light your path will result in Amicia's instant death, you'll rarely be challenged by the puzzles. Torches and lit sticks help illuminate your way forward, and Amicia gains alchemist abilities to aid her along the way. By the time you get to the end of the 15-hour game, you won't so much be scared of the rats so much as annoyed that they -- both the rats and the simple puzzles -- still keep getting in your way.
You also have the ability to craft and upgrade your weapon -- the world's most powerful sling -- and passive abilities, such as how much ammunition you can carry. Some items, particularly those needed for your alchemist abilities, can be made straight from your menu, but others will need to be done at a workbench, much like in "The Last of Us."
A tip: Don't worry about scrounging for materials. It took me a few chapters to realize, but the game will provide you everything you need to get through each area without needing to resort to resource management. (Some may disagree, but I liked the linearity of this decision. This is not the type of game I want to be grinding for resources for any length of time.)
While "A Plague Tale" generally rewards stealth -- remember, you're two children with one sling up against Inquisition soldiers -- there will be times you have to face someone head-on. And while you would think these boss fights would be difficult, because of the aforementioned disparities, they rarely give you trouble. The bosses move slowly and telegraph their attacks long in advance, giving Amicia plenty of time to run and wind up her rock-throwing sling. (The auto-aim is a bit of a life-saver here, as the aiming mechanics leave much to be desired.)
While I prefer those types of confrontations (I've never been a fan of stealth, and "Plague" doesn't change my opinion on the matter), the fact that Amicia is able to go toe-to-toe with much bigger and better equipped men felt really odd to me. Though the stealth mechanics are simple, much like everything else in this game, it makes far more sense thematically that the de Rune siblings would need to use cover and distraction in order to survive the murderous soldiers, who are capable of killing Amicia in one hit.
Visually, the world created by Asobo is stunning, as least when textures properly load in and you're not clipping through the environment. That aside, the world is full of beautifully grim detail, from its equally soothing and terrifying color palettes to the piles of ravaged corpses littered everywhere you go. It's a tense and ominous atmosphere throughout, whether you're in an abandoned castle or traversing a field of corpses, which is suitable for a game about outrunning death's grasp.
However, it should be said that this richly detailed world is pretty linear. While you can deviate from the critical path from time to time, it rarely does you any good. At best, you'll find some more extra crafting materials, but normally Hugo will just yell at you to stop enjoying the scenery and get back to the objective at hand.
In the end, "A Plague Tale: Innocence" is carried by its fantastic, engrossing story, one of two orphans doing their best to survive a world cursed by death. Amicia and Hugo's tale is deftly told with great voice acting and believable character development. The environment they find themselves in is terrifying and haunting, if more than a bit linear. It's a shame, though, that the actual game play mechanics, repetitive and lackluster, distract from that story. Still, you'll want to stick around to the end, even if it's not much of a challenge to get there.
This article is written by By Dominic Baez The Register-Guard from The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.