Of rats and children
April 14, 2020 3:40 PM   Subscribe

A Plague Tale: Innocence [YouTube][Game Trailer] “A Plague Tale: Innocence opens on a scene of idyllic playfulness: a teenage girl, Amicia, walking her dog through an autumnal forest in 12th-century France, bumping apples from tall trees using pebbles hurled from a homemade slingshot. If this is the “innocence” of the game’s title, it plays but a fleeting cameo role in the drama. Before the day is out, Amicia’s dog is dead – ripped apart by a thrashing mass of rabid vermin – along with her former life of privilege as a French noble, ripped apart by soldiers of the inquisition, thugs acting on behalf of an equally corrupt church. Amicia and her younger brother Hugo, a boy who suffers from a blood disease and has spent his days in jaundiced confinement, escape the family estate and begin to pick their way through a countryside turned hostile. This is, then, a story of innocence versus experience, of children versus the ruined world of adults, with all its plagues, both physical and ideological.” [via: The Guardian]

• A Plague Tale: Innocence versus the Black Death [Eurogamer]
“How do you tackle one of the most horrific events in the history of Europe in a video game? A Plague Tale: Innocence is set in France in the year 1348 during the beginning of the worst outbreak of the plague, known today as the Black Death, and back in the Late Middle Ages as the Great Mortality. Within just a few years, most of Europe had become decimated by the plague, and many contemporaries believed that the end of the world was at hand. Today, historians estimate that on average around half of Europe's population fell victim to the Black Death. A Plague Tale isn't shy about bringing us face to face with the inconceivable mass death brought about by the Black Death. Corpses are everywhere, piled up, haphazardly thrown into mass graves or just lying in the middle of the street. If you can stomach a closer inspection, you'll be able to spot the tell-tale black buboes, large swellings in the neck, groin or armpits. These visions are eerily similar to eyewitness accounts of the Black Death, which speak of desolate streets full of death, full cemeteries, and hastily dug pits in which the dead were placed layer upon layer, or, in the words of the contemporary chronicler Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, in the manner of a lasagne. [...] It seems clear that a game in which our protagonist randomly contracts a debilitating and deadly disease would be almost unplayable. A Plague Tale opts for a different approach and tries to make the danger more graspable by materialising the invisible foe in the shape of swarms of rats. In the game, we are told that it is rat bites that transmit the plague, but the only real danger for us as players is the very direct one of being swarmed and devoured within seconds. If the deluge of rats is meant to work as a kind of metaphor or stand-in for the horror and deadliness of the Black Death, it's not entirely successful.”
• A Plague Tale is a dark, grisly game about kids surviving impossible odds [The Verge]
“The world outside is not a nice place. The plague has ravaged the country, and the lucky few who haven’t succumbed to the illness have become mad with paranoia. Early on, when Amicia and Hugo head to a nearby village in search of help, everyone they encounter immediately tries to kill them. It’s a terrifying, panicky race to safety. Even worse, at night, swarms of deadly rats come out, and Inquisition guards are constantly on the lookout for the siblings. The world feels almost entirely hostile to your presence. A Plague Tale is probably best described as a stealth game, though how you interact with it depends on the situation. With humans, it’s a lot of sneaking around, using distractions like smashed pots to divert attention so you can get past. When it comes to the rats, they’re terrified of light, so you’ll find yourself using fire to make pathways through the diseased swarms. Sometimes, you’ll have to deal with both simultaneously: a guard wielding a lantern might be prowling around, keeping the rats at bay. It’s a slow experience right until it isn’t — and then you find yourself in a panicked run for survival.”
• A Plague Tale: Innocence - Bleak and Unsettling [Gamespot]
“One of the most macabre scenes in A Plague Tale: Innocence is the eponymous plague, manifesting in the form of cursed rats. These vermin have a malevolent, otherworldly presence, their incessant screeching and scratching on stone pavements and atop piles of corpses making for a nightmarish, cacophonous din. Like sewage sludge, these creatures pour out of crevices towards their unwitting victims, ravaging them until they are just skin and bones. It’s an incredibly grotesque and spine-chilling sight--one that will linger in your mind hours later. But even though the rats are a constant presence in Innocence, they merely serve as the backdrop for its more poignant moments, featuring the two characters you’ll spend the bulk of your time with: Amicia and Hugo de Rune, a pair of young siblings who are suddenly thrust into this hellscape of war and pestilence. Set amidst the Hundred Years’ War during the Middle Ages, the comfort the siblings once knew as children to a noble French family has been ruthlessly shattered. The Black Death, too, has wrought terror upon the country, with the bulk of the French population either dying from the plague or eaten by rats. Compounding this is the Inquisition, a fanatical group of knights keen to get their hands on the last of the de Rune descendants. Surrounded with sludgy pools of grimy rats, and with murderous knights hunting them down at every other turn, the duo need to gather their wits, leaning on stealthier means to escape from this mess. But not only do you have to navigate through the bedlam as the teenage Amicia, you’ll also have to take care of the five-year-old Hugo; he panics and shouts for Amicia when she ventures too far from him-”
• A Plague Tale: Innocence - O' both your houses! [Rock Paper Shotgun]
“If you’ve seen anything of Plague Tale, it’ll be the rats. A seething, writhing sea of red eyes and wet squeaking that devours anything fleshy it comes into contact with, but fears light. The Rat Tech on display is really impressive; their little bodies tumble and scramble over one another, somehow moving both independently and as one unit, and the noise they make is grating and loud and horrible. As the waves recede before your torches, they reveal stripped, sticky skeletons or half eaten bodies, like bits of an old ship poking out at low tide. A Plague Tale is pretty goth. But it does well in that it varies the darker scenes, like a rat-infested moonlight graveyard or a farm surrounded by heaps of pig carcasses, with sunlit moments of respite where you and the characters can all expel their tensely held breaths. The same game can look beautiful and magnetically awful at the same time. A Plague Tale has a story that’s way more detailed than the escape-to-safety romp I was expecting, involving bloodlines and ancient power, and one extremely evil leader of the Inquisition doing an extremely evil voice. Amicia and Hugo run from the stabby, fanatically religious clutches of the Inquisition into the screeching bitey teeth of the Black Death, with a side excursion into the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and then back to the Inquisition and plague again. Sometimes all three get combined, and it makes the game an interesting challenge that you can approach in different ways.”
• A Plague Tale: Innocence - Drat [Push Square]
“The release is perhaps at its white-knuckle best when you’re pitted against a mischief of blood-thirsty rats, who will murder you should you step away from a light source. These sequences effectively evolve into drawn-out puzzles, where you must use all of your abilities in order to create a safe passage through the rodents. Sometimes this will involve bait; other times you’ll need to burn stuff, and so on. The title does an admirable job of mixing the mechanics up to introduce new problems right throughout its runtime, but it can’t help but feel padded. With a campaign pushing up to the 15 hour mark, you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes as you stumble into yet another elongated stealth or rat evasion sequence; it gets repetitive, even if the puzzles and backdrops change. Furthermore, the adventure doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. There’s an almost educational aspect to the way the plot unfolds, submerging you into a bleak period of history that doesn’t get a massive amount of screentime. At the same time, it simply can’t resist flirting unnecessarily with the supernatural – almost like the writers couldn’t help themselves.”
posted by Fizz (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Loved it. Clever puzzles, with great voice acting and some of the best character models in any game that I have played. The relationship between Amicia and Hugo was particularly well done, but really among all the kids in the story.
posted by Arch_Stanton at 4:00 PM on April 14


The Washington Post had a Covid-19 update story about New Orleans moving it's homeless population into vacant hotel rooms, and they mentioned the undelightful tidbit about how New Orleans rats are starving from the restaurant and bar closures and were swarming towards a tent city.
posted by wires at 4:11 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


My own review wasn't glowing, but also not surprising, as I tend to have very little patience with most implementations of stealth sequences in games so really much of it was self-inflicted. I would have been much happier with the overall experience before checking out if there had been much fewer patrolling-guards stealthing-past and more rat-swarm light puzzles.

Review I jotted down when accepting I just didn't want to fire it up again: Enh. Some pretty great rat swarms, decent voiceacting, great atmosphere but it overstays its welcome with uninspired instafail stealth puzzles and a handful of ?action? sequences where the main difficulty is wrestling with the controls that are sometimes far too aggressive about locking onto anything but the head or lantern or whatnot you have a split second to shoot before aforementioned instafail state happens.

Checkpoints are sprinkled generously, but often positioned exactly as instafail-state-retry checkpoints shouldn't be--it's far too frequently designed so our heroine and escortee du jour run into Guard A and Guard B blocking the path, who then must have twenty seconds of exposition dialog at each other before starting their canned patrol routes to stealth past. The checkpoint here is always immediately before the canned dialog, and even short snippets of canned dialog go from atmospheric to irritating to enraging, especially as some of the stealth puzzlings feel much more trial-and-error based than execution-failure based.

There's an entirely unnecessary crafting-and-upgrade system jammed into the game, clearly the result of just ticking off design checkboxes; it involves going hilariously out of your way (shooting the atmosphere right in the foot in the process) to collect scattered resources; on the upside none of the upgrades are particularly necessary or powerful (the bag-space ones arguably are the only ones to prioritize getting immediately, as upgrade resources are of a number and type that you'll frequently be maxed out on carrying one but have almost none of others, and if you're going to engage a player's collection and hoarding instincts, that kind of result is tragic).

TLDR: great start and atmosphere, sags in the middle, and then the climactic chapter suddenly made me realize my interest in seeing it finished was zeroed out. Definitely glad I waited till it was on sale!
posted by Drastic at 6:16 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


I found no warning that a dog dies. And a pet, brutally, near the beginning of the game. I bought it but haven't played it. Wish I hadn't bought it, because I won't be playing it. Damn. I got it because of the "strong female lead." Even though I wish strong female leads didn't always have to be teens or children so they're less threatening, or just a dude character that they switched out with a chick and changed little else.
posted by tllaya at 6:56 PM on April 14 [5 favorites]


Drastic: I share your opinion of stealth in video games. I cannot stand stealth games.

This game—from what I've seen of it—is gorgeous though.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:19 PM on April 14


I actually really appreciate the warning that a dog dies - I was looking at getting this and this tips the needle for me the other way. I would have been really upset if this was my one buy and it was unplayable for me.
posted by corb at 7:45 PM on April 14 [4 favorites]


Oh, yes. I'm glad they mentioned it here. I wish the game description mentioned it somehow before I bought it (too long ago to return). I'm a lot more okay with people dying in a video game than I am some child's beloved pet. I know it's not rational.
posted by tllaya at 7:53 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


As far as pandemic tie ins go (at that feels like the subtext here), though I haven't re-played it during lockdown I've been thinking of This War of Mine -- a side-scrolling RPG/bunker survival simulator.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:15 PM on April 14


Dead pet dog, nope. I suppose many people will call that silly or just pixels or whatever, but the fact remains they will lose lots of potential players doing that.
posted by Glinn at 6:44 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I think it's great that people love dogs and care for dogs, but browsing a thread about game set during a plague where no one seems put off by the idea of dead human bodies in the streets but half the comments are about how horrible it is for a dog to die really scares me.
posted by phooky at 7:46 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


When you're dealing with death, I don't think there's really a right way to react. Some people can divorce themselves from a faceless form of destruction & death, like the plague. And so it might be easier to not focus on how this impacts a population large. But a pet, a dog, that can feel more personal. I don't think there's a right or wrong way of approaching this. We all grieve and process these types of issues in very different ways.

The dog dying early in this game was a surprise but it also felt very much a part of this story. Amicia is forced to deal with the reality of a very harsh situation, her entire life changes in a single afternoon. The dog's death doesn't feel exploitative, it feels unexpected and full of sorrow but not gruesome. It sets a tone for the world that Amicia is about to enter into.

That's my take on it.
posted by Fizz at 7:58 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I think it's great that people love dogs and care for dogs, but browsing a thread about game set during a plague where no one seems put off by the idea of dead human bodies in the streets but half the comments are about how horrible it is for a dog to die really scares me.

One is advertised on the tin, the other is not. If you pick up a game titled "Plague Tale", it is reasonable to expect both bubonic plague and rats. You might not expect swarms of rats, but if you are rat-phobic you are going to give that one a bye. Similarly, one of the best known facts of the bubonic plague is that there were bodies piled in the streets. If bodies piled in the streets is too much for you, you're not even going to put this game on your wish list.

But the fact that there's a happy loving dog who dies is not advertised, and it's not advertised because it wants to shock you. It wants you to love it so that something you love can die and you can feel the emotional impact. And some folks, myself included, do not care for that kind of shock. Perhaps we have had our own losses. Perhaps we are playing a game to distract us from our own personal losses. Perhaps we want the enemy and the destruction to be faceless and impersonal because we want to imagine pain that way.

It is ours to choose what media we care to consume, especially now, and I don't think it is kind to make assumptions about why people feel the way they do about that.
posted by corb at 8:34 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]


...The dog's death doesn't feel exploitative...

Counterpoint: the dog death is lazy shorthand and entirely unnecessary; Amicia's world goes to shit with darkly comical speed immediately afterwards. There is no processing of grief, there is no space to breathe in the aftermath, it's return home and BAM! Inquisitors running swords through the family.
posted by Drastic at 9:17 AM on April 15


Before we can see any film, my wife always has to check doesthedogdie.com. Looks like they cover video games now; this game is listed here.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:42 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


This one ended up in my Steam "Ragequit" category for the out-of-context ending boss fight, out of nowhere, with entirely new mechanics.

Give me a puzzle where the solution is entirely obvious, but also out of reach (unless I spend hours developing the muscle memory related to aiming That One Thing then switching to aiming That Other Thing within tens of milliseconds), and you can fuck right off, and I'll just watch the last ten minutes of your game on YouTube.

Also: Do you like escort quests? Are they your favorite-est thing? How about escorting a five-year-old kid who's deliberately being a little turd because he's deeply traumatized and has no way to understand the idea of an existential threat? Sound fun? What about if the auto-saves (which are the only saves) are just far enough apart to be really annoying?

Did I mention the visuals are lovely, on a modern high-end PC? Does that radically alter the landscape?

#notbitter
posted by sourcequench at 11:33 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


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