Call me old, but I remember a time when every single video game studio made single player adventure games. If you look back at the games that were released between 1995 and 2005, during the height of the standard definition 3D era, you’ll find everyone scrambling to make their very own Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid or Mario 64. It’s likely just because I grew up during this boom in single player, story driven, original IPs but I feel like this is the real classic expression of what video games are.
Now the modern world, with it’s MMOs, competitive esports and neverending creative simulators are all well and good but unfortunately it has come at the expense of the good old original adventure game. Production costs for HD games have gotten so large and publishers have become so risk averse that it’s actually pretty rare to see original, new ideas in full price retail games which is a real shame. I was absolutely baffled to discover that this generation, there is not a single game in the top ten highest selling games for any console that is an original IP. They are all either sequels or remakes which is really telling about just how often we get to see anything truly new.
With that sad fact in mind, let’s talk about something rather less sad – A Plague Tale by Asobo Studios from Bordeaux in France. It’s a new IP made by a relatively unknown studio which features no online or multiplayer component and is pretty much the antithesis of everything we’ve come to expect from modern AAA games. There is not an open world or smidge of DLC to be found and I think it’s a game that massively outshines the sum of its parts.
Asobo Studios are a bit of a strange case. I presumed that A Plague Tale was their debut game simply because I’d never heard of them before but it turns out they’ve actually produced 17 games since they formed in 2002. Unfortunately it looks like the majority of these were Pixar licensed film games which mostly received pretty mixed reviews. In fact the last game they made before A Plague Tale was the Nintendo Switch version of Monopoly. It’s baffling that a studio went from producing borderline shovelware to making a fantastic serious experience and I have no idea what prompted it. Developer interviews have left me none the wiser, it seems like something just clicked at Asobo and they’ve put together something special.
A Plague Tale stands out from the very minute you boot it up. You play as Amicia de Rune, daughter of a French noble who lives in the Aquitaine region of medieval France in 1348, with the game taking place against the backdrop of the hundred years war between Britain and France. If you’ve read my article about The Council, you’ll know that I said that I was desperate for more games that take risks with interesting historical settings and while “medieval” isn’t exactly original within the wider gaming world, when was the last time you played a narrative driven adventure game set during this period?
After her home is invaded by English soldiers, Amicia finds herself on the run all while trying to care for her sickly little brother, Hugo de Rune, and avoid capture by the “Inquisition” who are the game’s primary antagonists. It’s a story of survival and sibling love which is primarily driven through trying to find help for Hugo and investigating the mysterious illness he has contracted.
It’s fantastic exploring castles, rural villages and the unspoiled French countryside which all looks absolutely beautiful. Interestingly and unlike a lot of smaller studios, Asobo actually developed their own engine which they use for all their games and frankly, somebody needs a pay rise because it looks absolutely gorgeous. Light sparkles and flickers against stone hallways, water sloshes gently against the shores of rivers and large cathedrals stand ominous against the night sky. A Plague Tale has absolutely no business being as good looking as it is which already gives it the feel of a game that was developed on a budget many times the size of its actual one. The same can really be said for the presentation as a whole. Menus and the UX look and feel fantastic and the jankiness that you’d expect from smaller titles is completely absent.
A real note of praise needs to go to the voice actors who absolutely slay their respective roles. Charlotte McBurney, Amicia’s voice actress, in particular is absolutely amazing, bringing a huge amount of emotion and realism to the role which is crazy as it’s only her second ever job! Overheard conversations between guards or longer cutscenes are all delivered with a quality that you’d expect from a studio like Naughty Dog.
This brings us neatly onto the gameplay, which is obviously heavily inspired by Naughty Dog’s big single player games, The Last of Us and Uncharted. It’s predominantly a stealth game but you’ll also spend a large portion of it solving puzzles to progress through certain areas, all while collecting scraps which can be used to craft items.
The stealth gameplay is pretty simple and works more like a puzzle to be solved rather than the sort of free form, creative stealth gameplay we’ve seen in games like Metal Gear Solid 5 or Dishonoured. Each stealth section you encounter pretty much has a set way for it to be beaten and there isn’t massive room for improvisation. That isn’t to say it’s not satisfying to work out the exact way that you can progress through a courtyard full of British soldiers, using the right tools in the correct places and moving at just the optimal time to sneak through.
I’ve seen criticisms of the stealth as “simplistic” which is true to a degree, soldiers don’t become alerted to other soldiers’ dead bodies (only if they actually see them die) being a good example of this. I think it’s important to recognise that the game isn’t looking to create a stealth sandbox for you to play over and over but is more interested in creating exciting set pieces which they can show off their beautiful world with. Personally, I had a lot of fun with it and think that if you’re reasonable, you will too.
The puzzles are straight out of the PS2 era, which for me was a breath of fresh air. There are levers to be pulled, boxes to be moved and jumped on and switches to be flipped, all in the correct order to open some distant doorway. There also is a decent amount of Zelda-esque puzzles where Amica will gain some sort of new tool, such as a potion that when thrown can light torches, and have to use it in environmental puzzles. In this instance you’re escaping through a crypt that is flooded with millions of ravenous rats and need to use your new potion to light specific braziers that drive the rats away and allow you to slalom your way towards the exit. Another involves crafting a potion that draws rats into a certain point, you can use this to manipulate the rats into attacking guards but there are also sections where the game expects you to use it to manipulate the position of rats in puzzles. It’s been a while since I played a game with such a heavy focus on puzzle solving so I really appreciated it. As I said earlier, it gives me a warm nostalgic feeling to play a game so heavily focused on a gameplay mechanic we rarely see anymore.
Unfortunately the crafting is an element that I feel lets the wider game down. In the towns and dungeons you explore, you’ll constantly be finding items that you can use to craft the potions and tools used in the puzzles and stealth but therein lies an issue. Asobo is clearly aware that there are sections of the game, namely the puzzles, where you NEED certain items to progress and thus you’re generally given quite a large amount of items to craft with and rarely run out. This has the disappointing knock on effect of meaning you’ll virtually never run out of anything during the stealth sections which can make them feel artificially easy.
The Last of Us, balanced this much better as there was just enough resources available to make what you were able to craft feel precious and important. It also naturally creates situations where you don’t have the ideal tools and have to make do with what you do have. Whenever I encountered a Knight with a helmet, I always had plenty of the potion which caused them to take it off leaving them open to be shot in the head with your sling. It meant these enemies never presented the challenge that they should as I always had the answers. Even more criminally, you’re able to craft a potion that saves you from being captured if you do fail a stealth section, instantly taking out the guard who’s caught you. You’d imagine this is a real rarity but from the point they are introduced, I almost always had one, which made the stealth even easier again.
A Plague Tale also throws in a good degree of horror along with its other gameplay elements. While it is never at the level of jumpscares or truly oppressive environments, the rats and their hollows do make for some pretty grim visuals which are pretty dark and intense. You’ll regularly see soldiers consumed by hordes of evil looking rodents and the devastation and detritus that the rats leave behind them are really quite horrific. There are some fantastic parts where Amicia and Hugo will only have a lone torch protecting them from what feels like an ocean of ravenous monsters and the effect is not only visually striking but really sucks you into the terror of the setting.
So while sneaking, puzzle solving and generally avoiding being killed, Amicia and Hugo come across a variety of companions who end up teaming up with them and hiding out in a ruined French castle which previously housed an order of alchemists (Amicia and Hugo are the children of an Alchemist noble, hence the many potions you’ll craft). The supporting characters are fairly cliche:, a strong person, a clever person and a sneaky person but they do a good enough job of providing information that helps drive the plot forwards. Most levels consist of Amicia and a companion trying to find either someone or something that can be used to help stem the progress of an illness which Hugo carries that has rendered him bed bound for most of his life. I’ll be the first to admit that this doesn’t sound like huge motivation, video games don’t have a fantastic record of crafting deep connections with digital children, but A Plague Tale actually really succeeds in this respect. Amicia and Hugo’s relationship really blossoms naturally and he’s much more charming and inquisitive than annoying. You are rarely impeded by him from a gameplay point of view which means you’re far more likely to feel empathy for him when things go wrong.
And go wrong they indeed do. Near the conclusion of the game, a dispute between Amicia and Hugo causes him to run away and turn himself into the inquisition which the final levels of the game are based around. Just as the survival, stealth gameplay begins to get stale, Asobo throws a huge curveball into the mix. Hugo’s illness is revealed to actually be an ancient condition known as the Macula, which with some training, enables him to control the hordes of rats. You spend the final hours of the game fighting against the evil head of the inquisition, Vitalis, who also has this power and is going to use it to, unsurprisingly, conquer the world.
Suddenly what has been a fairly realistic medieval setting goes full gothic supernatural and the final level looks more like something out of Devil May Cry than Age of Empires. It’s a fun twist at the end of the game and it adds a nice ramp up in the stakes and power levels. The final boss fight against the evil Vitalis is fittingly crazy. Vitalis and Hugo send waves of rats against one another and Amicia has to dodge huge pillars of white rats that crash around her while trying to get into position to take out the villain. It’s over the top and ridiculous but frankly it works and when you finally land the killing blow there is a huge sense of satisfaction.
The game ends with a nice post credits epilogue that signs off the story of Amicia and Hugo in a fittingly emotional way which once again, has no business being as well crafted and told as it is. It’s genuinely quite baffling that the team behind such narrative classics like Xbox Kinect Rush and Monopoly Plus have put together such an entrancing and well written story.
Once I’d finished the game I had a smile on my face, not just because I’d played a really enjoyable game with a lovingly told story, but because a small studio had tried something new and it had really worked. A Plague Tale not only got fantastic reviews on it’s launch but by all accounts it’s also sold very well which shows there is hope for the industry yet. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the game is somewhat derivative of the Last of Us but to be totally frank, a world where more people try to be like Naughty Dog and less like Riot Games or Ubisoft, is a world I can get on board with. Bring on more throwback adventure games and bring on whatever Asobo works on next!