Beauty from horror, calm from chaos, hope from despair — take your pick of unlikely provenance. In "A Plague Tale: Innocence," Asobo Studio makes it all so like a master alchemist.
The French developer, a veteran of licensed games like “Toy Story 3” and “Disneyland Adventures," finds inspiration for its best and most visionary work yet in its native countryside. There, “Innocence” tells a story about a family, the de Runes, riven by the Black Death in 1349. As seas of rats spread the plague across the continent, the Inquisition comes calling at the family’s estate in search of a cure. Siblings Amicia and Hugo, who’ve been estranged because of the young boy’s mysterious health problems, must evade the rodents and religious zealots alike to survive.
It's the kind of 10-hour single-player game that makes you mourn what increasingly feels like the imminent death of them. As the de Runes cross France, past X’d village doors and piles of casualties on the battlefields of the country’s Hundred Years’ War with England, “Innocence” transports you to history. But the game also transforms it: Eventually, Amicia and Hugo discover that supernatural forces motivate both their human pursuers and the rats that would devour them all. And that fun pivot toward speculative fiction lets Asobo gradually widen the game’s possibilities of play.
As Amicia, you must lead her brother by the hand past those threats, in spaces both linear and open. The humans can be snuck by the same way as most stealth games — by making use of tall foliage and manipulating line of sight — but their sharp AI and ability to kill Amicia in one blow keeps your pulse raised. Though she can ask Hugo to stay put at any time, which runs the risk of him suffering a mental attack and alerting their enemies, it almost never proves necessary. So "Innocence" isn't quite an escort game, even if it isn't clear why it includes the mechanic.
The rats, meanwhile, require more puzzle solving, as only light can repel them. Using torches that burn out, lanterns staked into the ground and movable braziers, you must constantly illuminate the path ahead of the siblings. It's like the floor is lava, but with rats. Later, you find some creative ways to deal with them in the form of alchemy, through which Amicia can craft items with cool Latin names that ignite embers, divert the hordes and more. And toward the end of the game, the rats and the Inquisition often inhabit the same spaces, which can lead to some truly devious solutions.
Other craftable items help Amicia take down humans. That's when "Innocence" pays off its name by showing the plucky teen losing hers. The first time a rock from her sling snuffs a life, she cries in remorse. As she continues to kill, the game never stops showing how much the cost of her and Hugo's survival weighs on her. Still, you won't need to loose too many projectiles: Safe passageways are everywhere. And whether it's encroaching rat-nados or the few bosses Amicia faces, you're never too endangered to think through your next move. So the least violent path is always viable.
For that reason, some may consider "Innocence" too easy. But I found the deliberate action a perfect vehicle for the game's atmosphere. It lets you soak in the tour de force of imagery Asobo has created, from the soft pastoral sunsets and castle ruins to the carpets of mutilated corpses and rat nests. The animation of the thousands of plague carriers sharing the screen at any given time is astoundingly sophisticated, too — and you can't really appreciate it if you're always running for your life. The sound design is just as spellbinding, a din of screeches and frenzied violin.
Asobo's most impressive efforts, however, are reserved for the game's narrative interludes. The facial animation and voice acting are some of the best I've experienced in years. Charlotte McBurney betrays the resentment Amicia feels that Hugo monopolized their mother's attention, the burden she nonetheless feels to keep her brother safe, and the abject terror of their surroundings — sometimes within one scene. And as Hugo, Logan Hannan lends depth and, even more impossibly, actual likability to a character so young most directors wouldn't have bothered with second takes.
Some supporting characters the siblings meet along the way are voiced just as well, particularly Tabitha Rubens as world-weary thief Melie. But not all of those characters make it to the end of "Innocence." And Asobo ensures their last moments are meaningful. So it's genuinely touching to see those who remain form a new family after the events of the game, just as the world rebuilt itself after the devastation of the Black Death. It seems the studio knows that creating something special and lasting — like one of the best games of 2019 so far — takes a cruel kind of balance.