The promise of a next-gen visual upgrade was just the excuse I was looking for to return to A Plague Tale: Innocence. Developed by Asobo Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive, it’s a narrative-driven, third-person adventure that received far too little attention and commercial success when it launched in May 2019. The developers stated upfront that they wanted to create a cinematic experience in the same vein as The Last of Us, with a focus on the bond between siblings as seen in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Despite their history with licensed video game spin-offs and support roles, they achieved exactly what they set out to do.

For those that missed this title at launch – there are plenty of you, given that it only passed 1 million sales a year after launch – A Plague Tale: Innocence takes place in 14th century France, during a time of escalating conflict in the Hundred Years’ War and the emergence of a rat plague. The primary protagonist, the young Amicia de Rune, has her life of nobility thrown into chaos when Inquisition soldiers ransack her estate, killing her parents, and leaving her responsible for her sickly brother Hugo. It’s a violent and traumatic start to a game that has a strong horror element throughout.

One of the strongest narrative hooks was watching Amicia and Hugo’s relationship evolve over the timeframe of the game.

That said, A Plague Tale: Innocence is not the most tonally consistent game you’ll play. The first few missions are horrifying and traumatic, with Amicia and Hugo on the run, traversing ruined farms and battlefields, dealing with the Inquisition, distraught villagers, and swarming rats. Then, about a third of the way through the game, she begins to gather a motley crew of teenage companions and some moments feel like a swashbuckling adventure. At the halfway point, they go on the offensive against the vile Grand Inquisitor Vitalis. Then there are the final missions which are… not what I expected. The game hints at alchemical and supernatural elements, sure, but the ending is bonkers. Mechanically fun, but very weird.

That said, there’s always a strong focus on the growing bond between Amicia and Hugo, the growing strength of their small fellowship, and the progression of Hugo’s disease. Each character may represent an archetype, but their interactions always feel heartfelt and believable, despite being subjected to numerous scarred-for-life experiences. You’re frequently tackling missions with Hugo or another companion, which allows for plenty of incidental dialogue, lore about the world, or simply a more organic way of highlighting objectives. The narrative has several ups and downs, across a dozen or so hours playtime, but kept me hooked and pushing forward.

There are some important plot threads left unresolved by the conclusion, but given what these children have experienced, it can’t bode well for the sequel.

Of course, these Naughty Dog-style cinematic adventures are carefully crafted experiences, and that comes with both positives and negatives. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game in which the environment, minute-to-minute gameplay, and sense of progression are all dictated by the needs of the plot. You’ll move from tightly scripted opening missions – with a reliance on exploration, optional narrative, chase sequences, and tutorials – to several that focus on light-based puzzles to avoid rat swarms and stealth to bypass Inquisition soldiers. Each new area represents a short gameplay challenge before the next narrative beat.

A few hours in, you might think you’re playing another horror game with a strong focus on stealth and a (mostly) defenceless protagonist, but you would be very wrong. Amicia is smart and, with a few alchemical recipes from her companions and her sling, a highly capable killer. Of course, some narratives cues encourage you to remain stealthy and non-violent when in the presence of Hugo. However, from about a third of the way through the game, you’re free to go on the offensive in subsequent chapters.

Stealth remains integral part of the combat experience (taking on more than 2 guards at once is suicide) and complete stealth is always an option outside of scripted sequences.

Amicia wields her trusty sling with legendary aim. At first, you’re limited to distracting foes and, after a mandatory tutorial upgrade, the ability to kill a human with a blow to the head. However, as you unlock new alchemical recipes and gather material – to craft said recipes and enhance your sling – you’ll find A Plague Tale: Innocence allows you to be anything but innocent. Armoured knights, initially invulnerable, can have their helmets stripped off with an acidic bullet, opening them up for a lethal strike to their exposed heads. But that’s just the start…

As you frequently encounter the Inquisition patrolling rat-infested areas, there are numerous opportunities to turn them on one another. Swarms can be released from cages, lanterns can be broken, and certain alchemical solutions can turn soldiers into the rat equivalent of catnip. The player, by way of Amicia, can be playfully sadistic when it comes to dispatching the soldiers of the Inquisition. That said, the game does its best to reveal them as the true monsters, so you’ll rarely feel bad about it.

Little does this guard know he’s about to get a far more merciful death than his comrades in rat-infested areas.

Although the creative combat is mechanically fun, the game is still at its best when you’re controlling Amicia and her companions as they puzzle their way past swarms of rats, using light sources. These sections force you to stop, judge distances, and work out the correct order to progress, command your companions to trigger distant switches or pulleys, and take risks to gather crafting material. These sequences also include the most banter, highlighting how good the writing is.

Unfortunately, A Plague Tale: Innocence does deserve some criticism for introducing late-game mechanics that are not always well explained. These new mechanics, coupled with scripted sequences that felt a little too trial-and-error (mostly because I missed environmental signposting), lead to unexpected periods of frustration and repetition – never a good thing in a game so reliant on a well-paced narrative.

The sequences in which need to survive several massive rat swarms using light sources provide the most tense moments in the game.

At this point, it’s time to discuss the “next-gen” upgrades. The results are good, though not perfect, with Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 owners getting a near-perfect 1440p/60 upgrade with most of the “enhancements” seen in the Xbox One X version. Xbox Series S owners get the same enhanced visuals features and rock-solid 60fps performance, but it runs closer to 900p to maintain it. However, given the strong focus on the visuals and the slower-paced gameplay, this is another “enhanced” game that I feel could have offered a choice between a 60fps mode and a higher resolution, 30fps mode.

A Plague Tale: Innocence was and remains an impressive looking game, with beautiful environments and a thick atmosphere (which can range from serene to horrifying in an instant). The voice work is strongly accented but feels authentic; when creeping around in the dark, the ambient audio is unsettling; while the excellent music injects emotion into many scenes. The fluidity that comes with playing at 60fps simply elevates an already impressive experience.

Whether exploring woods during sunset, abandoned cities by night, or bustling villages by day, A Plague Tale: Innocence always looks great.

Loading times are also improved over the original and the chapter title screens – which offer a brief recap of the story up to that point – are barely readable before it fades away and the game loads. A final perk for Xbox Series owners is that the framerate is effectively uncapped if you’ve got a display that supports 120Hz. On both consoles, this can make for incredibly fluid gameplay in underground or interior locations, but I’d only recommend this if your display has variable refresh rate (VRR) support (to avoid stutters due to uneven frame pacing) and be aware that some script triggers bug out above 60fps.

In short, go play A Plague Tale: Innocence! It was a great experience on the last-gen consoles and it’s every bit as good now – just running smoother and loading quicker. It’s not the polished-to-perfection experience you might get from “AAA” developers, but it’s more entertaining and heartfelt than many of its peers and deserves more recognition. Hell, as of the time I’m writing this, it’s on Game Pass and PlayStation Plus for the month, so you have no excuse not to at least try it.

Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Composer: Olivier Deriviere

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Amazon Luna

Reviwed on Xbox Series X which is FREE on Gamepass

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