A Plague Tale: Innocence

Try it out: Once you’ve spotted a school of fish, throw a piece of bread into the water. You will see dozens, hundreds of large and small fish venturing on the piece of bread, attacking it, if you like, with an almost ancestral fury. Over time, you will see the piece of bread consumed and become smaller and smaller until it disappears completely. There is nothing wrong with it, of course: it is a piece of bread and they are just harmless fish among the laughter of children. But if the fish had sharp teeth and it wasn’t the bread that was consumed, but a person… it wouldn’t be fun anymore.

Animals, as we know, do not know malice like humans and follow their instinct to survive. In the carnivorous kingdom, the word “survival” implies the death of another specimen, willingly or unwillingly sacrificed to the continuation of another. It is nature. It is the circle of life. How unjust nature can sometimes be. And how unjust history can sometimes be.

The pages of the books of History, in fact, are written with blood. In addition to man, who has always been the protagonist, the palm of the greatest murderer in history goes to diseases. “Nobody loves disease”, Mater Morbi told Dylan Dog. It’s damn true: we can say that until the twentieth century, the time of revolutionary discoveries in the medical field, there were no effective drugs, but uncertain decoctions and the hygienic conditions were poor. People fell at a young age, punctual as the leaves in autumn. All this is A Plague Tale: Innocence, the promise of Asobo Studio, which personifies the disease by making more than 5,000 plague-carrying rats shake together convulsively.

It makes you think a lot about experiencing the hard life of 1300 in A Plague Tale: Innocence sitting comfortably in 2019. During E3 2017, where the game was officially presented, its inconceivable crudeness and the fraternal relationship that arose had sparked the interest of many gamers. The game would take place in France during the Hundred Years War between the wave of the Black Plague that swept the country and the Holy Inquisition that moved between the stacks of corpses, many of them caused by the Catholic Church.

Two years later Asobo Studio (French developer) thanks to Focus Home Interactive brings a very different game than what is the production-type of the studio, made of many Disney/Pixar games more or less serious, respecting that summer promise and bringing on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC the most interesting game of this May video game.

In A Plague Tale: Innocence you control two brothers, Amicia and Hugo De Rune, with whom it is destined to become attached. Of noble family, their existence is destined to become soon daring, fleeing from the Inquisition that stops at nothing to capture Hugo, a sweet child of only five years who has never left his room for health reasons. Amicia, the young and enterprising protagonist, is as if she has never met her little brother, kept away from the world by her mother, who sees the French countryside playfully for the first time. Holding him by the hand seems strange, but the tightening becomes increasingly firm and comforting until it becomes fundamental. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game of growth and also a game in crescendo, in which curiosity becomes attention after a few chapters of the game.

A small point to make is that our gaming experience has been as virgin as possible by trailers and special in which Asobo Studio has invested their energies with unwavering faith in their own project (which will be a pleasure to see later). Being a game strongly based on storytelling, following the story without knowing what to expect is, to date, to be considered a privilege. A production very similar to a triple-A game – even if it’s not – the so-called “videogame player’s presentiment” that places great hopes in a title without being overwhelmed by the publicity has been satisfied on several occasions.

It’s hard, in fact, not to be bewitched by the game world, by the many details on the screen in A Plague Tale: Innocence and also smile at clumsy nonsense like the soldier who dries his sweat off his forehead… from his helmet. Everything in the title tells us a general withering of the country, plagiarized by not one, not two, but three threats: the Inquisition, whose knights invested with a sacred mission by the Grand Inquisitor have been charged with recovering Hugo De Rune at any cost (without any problems in killing Amicia in brutal ways) and the Rats, with a capital “r” for their omnipresence, a wave that devours human flesh in a few seconds as if they were pieces of bread, precisely, and carry with them the Bite, a deadly disease that is nothing more than the black plague that has arrived (it is said) overseas.

In the background, the English army, foreign singers of the Marseillaise, who clash against the Kingdom of France in a conflict that lasts more than a hundred years (1337-1453).

The purpose of the young bourgeois Amicia and Hugo, therefore, is pure survival. To dress as the big sister and protect Hugo at all costs, to really know him for the first time, is a responsibility of which we feel (willingly) the burden, because it is difficult not to advocate for the ardour of Amicia and the innocence of Hugo, and to protect a defenceless and sickly child.

Innocence is also the keyword of the game, present in the title of the game and also in the course of the chapters that divide it. Asobo Studio shows how difficult it is to keep innocence in a place of death, how we would have liked to cover the eyes of little Hugo over and over again. The French studio opted for a very harsh shock therapy: many scenes are permeated by an emotional and visual impact, and the crudeness and cruelty of the game does not spare two creatures raised in ignorance (or innocence?) as Amicia and Hugo.

Hexanguous bodies, mass graves, skeletons, animal carcasses and blood: the forests and cities beyond the Alps are dotted with death and increasingly traumatizing scenes – the so-called dark era in all its glory. We didn’t expect such a level of “reality”, terrible in its frankness. A Plague Tale: Innocence gives us a choice, whether or not to be part of this carnage. It’s no coincidence that one of the titles that most inspired this video game was The Last of Us, a game that squeezed the technical and narrative potential of PlayStation 3 that also brought into play our morality.

Amicia, like Ellie, is a simple girl forced to grow up quickly: the only thing she will have in her hands to defend herself will be a slingshot with which you can distract and hit human enemies, showing how even a slingshot can be lethal. Amicia handles it with mastery and it can be enhanced in various stations through materials scattered throughout the game world, such as sulfur, alcohol, leather and tools, the latter essential to enhance the sling or the Amicia bag that allows her to store more materials or ammunition. Through the sling and a (rather fast) initiation into alchemy, another important element in the title, Amicia will be able to launch alchemical bullets to light fires from afar or to fall asleep an enemy from close up (Somnum).

Resource management is almost essential at certain points: a single charge of Somnum, for example, will cost a lot and will most likely not allow us at the next station to upgrade the slingshot. Do I create the material or try to get around the problem and then create an upgrade? We have asked ourselves this question several times, even though it has to be said that in the France of A Plague Tale: Innocence there is no shortage of materials. At the same time, they are well dosed to the capacity of materials that Amicia can take with her.

That’s why the game focuses heavily on stealth, on throwing rocks or vases to attract guards elsewhere and sneak under their helmets. Nevertheless, if enemies are alerted and Amicia is discovered and approached, it will be almost impossible to defend herself and in the most common case, she will be violently killed. Another component that seemed primary but turned out not to be at all is not to leave Hugo alone, but to hold him by the hand. If left behind, Hugo will start to worry, scream and be noticed by the guards for a preventive game over. In fact, there’s never any real need to leave Hugo alone and go forward without him: everything Amicia can do without Hugo can also do with: we never found ourselves in the course of the adventure having to leave him somewhere, but only wanting to do it out of curiosity. The result is that nothing changes, except that you can’t get too far in the second case. Such mechanics – which if it had been preponderant would have been perceived as heavy, we realize this – are never encouraged in the game, and it’s a pity because from the premises it seemed to have more weight and maybe they could have dared more on this front.

Like our heroes, the antagonists will evolve hand in hand. The rats, which are certainly the most distinctive element of the title, make up such a massive horde that one would expect at least a drop in the frame, and instead of A Plague Tale: Innocence runs as smooth as oil from start to finish. Double-bonded with the young but implacable De Rune, they will be the most diabolical obstacle and at the same time the greatest allies to use against the enemy knights. Their only weakness, strong (invincible) in their number is fire and looking around there will always be a way to avoid them – at least for a moment. If faced without the help of light, rats will not hesitate to devour horribly anyone who happens to be in range, be it Amicia, Hugo and their companions, or the guards if we were to destroy their light source with a well-placed slingshot shot.

In the game, there is the Italian language (text and subtitles) with English, French and German dubbing. The English dubbing is of good workmanship and above all characterized by accents that are not native speakers but by light French influences. As far as the Italian localization is concerned, no one should be overbearing except for the expression “to come out of the slingshot” in the enhancement menu, which is now more intentional and ironic but certainly not correct (since coming out is an intransitive verb).

Without a shadow of a doubt, A Plague Tale: Innocence perfectly restores the sense of horror towards the wickedness of the so-called Holy Inquisition and the bitterness caused by the many strong scenes and the many blows to the heart caused by the disease, which is expressed in an unnatural contamination of the innocence of the protagonists. We believe, however, that the message of the French study, making us find almost frozen flowers, intact in the decadent space of France of the ‘300, both that, in the end, the flowers that bloom in adversity are really the rarest and most precious of all.

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