A Plague Tale is everything I didn’t expect it to be. As an only child, I never was fast to attach to sibling stories because I found it rather unrelatable. While the de Rune children are the heartbeat and driving force of A Plague Tale, they begin as strangers to each other. This let me in, in a sense, and placed me front-row as their bond grew during their struggle. Placing players inside something like the Black Death might seem like a creative risk, and it is, but Assassin’s Creed’s successful history of twisting events in human history proved the risk was worthwhile.
In a moment of calm before the storm, A Plague Tale opens in an idyllic, heartfelt moment where a caring father teaches his daughter to hunt in the picturesque French countryside. It’s wonderful and feels like home until that unnamed feeling begins to simmer in your stomach and the dark clouds begin to roll over as the beloved family hound, Lion, runs off out of sight. As you stumble upon Lion’s confused and distressed body, the knot in your stomach tightens as A Plague Tale, in one fell swoop, sets a sombre and heartbreaking tone.
Across a thoroughly riveting dozen hours, A Plague Tale really delivers on a wonderful cast of characters that, for the most part, feel real. It’s hard to argue that it always respects their arcs with one notable instance where a character is written out the very second they develop a real motivation to see our heroes through to the endgame. Though it isn’t a horror title per se, there is its share of truly horrific imagery. In moments that define not only our characters and the event itself, Asobo’s willingness to have Amicia be the one tying the noose, so to speak, and committing atrocities, through necessity alone, is brave and really makes A Plague Tale more human than I ever expected. Even though there’s alchemy, secrecy and mysticism rooted deep in the larger lore, at face value A Plague Tale really is about its characters. Though the twelve or so hours you spend with the de Rune children are a rollercoaster ride, there isn’t much more to the game than that, not offering a lot in the way of replay value. It doesn’t make it harder to recommend, it’s just important you know what you’re paying for.
The game doesn’t even offer different levels of difficulty, so it’s not like you can re-experience the game again under modified conditions. It’s not like difficulty could make a large difference, there’s no health bar to speak of. Because it only takes one hit to fall our heroine, prepare for a lot of frustrating instakills that aren’t always fair. In the long run, it adds to the game’s authenticity and unsettling realism, even if those pesky rats too often springboard into hitboxes they absolutely shouldn’t.
A Plague Tale is a bit of a jack of all trades in terms of what it delivers on a gameplay level. For the most part, the game operates as a stealth experience that encourages you to take cover and avoid the heavy-armour of the Inquisition and when it does that it works extremely well. It’s tense and adds an even thicker layer of dread to the plot as the dear de Rune kids fight to survive a plague that threatened human civilisation. It’s not all taking refuge and waiting out the storm however as Amicia, armed with the sling she trains with alongside her father as A Plague Tale opens, is often forced to emerge as an offensive force.
The sling in A Plague Tale, Amicia’s sole tool of survival, is two-pronged in its functionality. More often than not, it’s rocks you’re firing though it’s the target that so often changes. The game tasks you with fighting enemies far less than it does with finding creative workarounds to combat, be it luring soldiers away by rattling a rock off of a nearby stockpile of armour or by using a well-placed stone to extinguish a patrol’s lantern, leaving them in the dark and susceptible to rats, one of A Plague Tale’s stars. The way rats are used throughout the game as a core hook that the mechanics constantly evolve around is a real credit to the designers. When you are tasked with fighting directly, the combat is rather bare bones and accessible and reminded me a lot of Ninja Theory’s Hellblade. Though it’s gritty and visceral, bouncing rocks off heads does indeed grow tiresome the longer you opt for that route which makes the non-violent route the more appealing much to the game’s benefit.
There’s a small roleplaying-lite element to A Plague Tale that sort of feels misplaced, though it doesn’t hinder the experience. Given alchemy plays a part narratively, having to collect resources to imbue stones with various perks makes a lot of sense. That being said, it does distract at times from what is an otherwise linear story-driven adventure. Plus, Asobo still doesn’t manage to solve the age-old problem of why a sheet of fabric is left on a hay bale which always breaks immersion just a little bit.
For a team that hasn’t led a project of their own in over a decade, it’s staggering how polished A Plague Tale can be at times. There are times where character models and animation can be a little stilted, though, for the most part, it’s fantastic. When it’s granted a fleeting second to shine, the Kingdom of France is sumptuous and beautiful, the environmental artists have done incredible work here recreating the Middle Ages with such care. For a little bit of extra authenticity, I decided to play A Plague Tale with the French performance toggled and, though it meant reading subtitles, it was remarkably immersive and rich, I can’t recommend it enough.
In a world where big publishers are continually trying to convince us that there’s no room anymore for singer-player, narrative-driven experiences, leave it to smaller studios everywhere to continually prove that’s not the case at all. From top to bottom, A Plague Tale delivers on all fronts. From the superb pacing of the narrative to the near faultless presentation of the game’s world, Asobo has delivered on something unexpected but undoubtedly special.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
A Plague Tale, at times, feels like a missing early chapter of the Assassin's Creed catalogue. Its ability to bend a truly fascinating point in documented history into a fantastical, mythical story that keeps you invested from start to finish is remarkable. It's a cinematic journey that is uncomplicated in its delivery, managing to occupy gamers without distracting from the game's narrative and the bond that develops between the de Rune siblings which, in the end, is A Plague Tale's undoubted strength.