After observing it for two years, while slowly devouring our hype as mice do with corpses, A Plague Tale: Innocence is preparing to debut on May 14 in a final version: the adventure of The debut of the ASOBO studio immediately attracted our curiosity from its first presentation, proposing a ferocious black fairy tale set in medieval France, a nation vituperated by the Holy Inquisition and the plague. Two equally appalling and difficult to eradicate diseases, which our protagonists, Amicia and Hugo despite their very young age, will be forced to face just to survive.
Like an illness that little by little takes possession of us, so the curiosity about this new production of Focus Home has started to spread without brakes. The only cure then consisted in the possibility of finally testing the game with hand: fortunately, a couple of months after the launch, the French publisher has accommodated us, allowing us to test the first three chapters of A Plague Tale: Innocence. In doing so, we have confirmed what our previous meetings with the work had left presage: the stage construction and the narrative impact are the backbone of an experience that combines delicacy and cruelty.
The colors of a world that dies
The French sun is the frame of the forest, and its rays enhance the color of the leaves and the green of the grass. It is a warm day with autumn flavors and the young Amicia only 15 years old, starts with her father, the noble Cavaliere Robert De Rune for a hunting trip: that lineage of the girl is rather high-pitched is evident not only for the paternal title, but also for the luxurious shape of the fabrics she wears, as well as for the huge mansion in which she lives, where a constantly busy servant moves.
Together with them, also the mother Beatrice and the little brother Hugo who turned 5 years old. Although his social position includes many other occupations, Amicia is a little gentleman who does not like to behave like a noblewoman: skilled with a slingshot and with a very daring temperament, the girl follows in the parent's footsteps. the place of that son who, due to a mysterious illness, is kept isolated from the rest of the family under Beatrice's attentive care. Not even Amicia, however, has much confidence with her brother, who suffers from very severe migraine crises.
The strong character of the protagonist will be of great help when, after an attack on the De Rune estate by the Inquisition soldiers, she will be forced to run away with Hugo, starting with him a path of growth and knowledge mutual. As they enter the village below their mansion, the two members of the De Rune dynasty will discover the effects of the plague on the French territory: the strong autumn colors begin to fade little by little, leaving space to cold and dull colors, where to stand out it is a burst of blood, the fire of the torches and the red eyes of the rats that infest the soil.
With brilliant visual solutions, A Plague Tale: Innocence often changes the color range, with brushstrokes that change according to the situations in which the two brothers pour. In moments of relative tranquility or fake serenity, the most intense brushstrokes predominate: in the woods during hunting, in the village when the two are looking for help after sowing the pursuers, and then in the courtyard of the Monastery, where the danger seems far away. But then, when the drama presses, here the canvas of colors begins to change, and becomes darker, more aggressive, dominated by rain, by the clouds on the horizon, and by the rust of the soldiers' armor.
Visually, A Plague Tale is a game of considerable impact: putting aside the polygonal structure, the rendering of animations and facial expressiveness – all quite coarse, such as to denote a decidedly limited budget – overall the aesthetic contour managed to surprise us with its excellent art design and excellent photography. From what we have been able to admire, France, rebuilt by the team's proprietary graphic engine, gives back undoubtedly evocative glimpses, between dirty lanes, dark crypts and airy naturalistic landscapes. Hand in hand with the artistic performance moves the screenplay, that is the second, great pillar on which the ambitions of the work are openly based. A Plague Tale: Innocence tells – as the title suggests – of the progressive loss of infantile purity: in the face of events that put a strain on the emotions and morale of the protagonists, we are witnessing a path of maturation forged by the need to become adults ahead of time.
The relationship between Amicia and Hugo on the first inevitably stormy, will therefore become more and more solid: the henchmen of the Inquisition, in fact, try to get their hands on the child, perhaps because of the strange disease that he possesses, and it will be up to his older sister to literally get his hands dirty in order to keep his brother as safe as possible. To do so, he will have to sneak past the guards, distract them with all his means, run away with his legs held tight by Hugo's hand, or take up his slingshot and turn into an assassin.
To remain in the light
of a script (discretely subtitled in Italian) that might reserve some surprises in terms of emotional involvement, on the playful level A Plague Tale: Innocence follows more predictable tracks, children of an "old-fashioned" game design logic .
Wanting to define its genre of membership, the game of ASOBO is an adventure with strong stealth elements and a pinch of puzzle solving, which is also accompanied by some sporadic phase dedicated to eliminating threats with the supplied slingshot. That the soul of the product is mainly linked to the need to advance under the track is evident from the outset: in the role of Amicia we must avoid any noise not to alert the guards, and we will therefore be forced to move mostly between the tall grass or the shells environmental.
When the sentries will prevent us from continuing, the surrounding setting will always provide us with useful elements to deceive and give us the ability to slip into the shadows: just pick up a stone and throw it against metal elements, so as to produce a sound that will attract their attention, or hurl a vase in the distance to achieve the same effect. It is a very basic strategy, which also shows an artificial intelligence that is not particularly evolved, and which – at least in the first three chapters – leaves no room for failure. The structure of the levels, all very linear, seems to currently provide a single type of solution, and the positioning of the elements with which to interact is always in plain sight, to the point that we can not make mistakes. Maybe in the more advanced phases the level design will become more articulate and will require a greater use of gray matter, but for the moment the progress has seemed to us very guided. It is possible that the French team has chosen to lower the degree of challenge to ensure that the player focuses mainly on the storyline, but to express an opinion on the effectiveness of such an approach we will have to wait for the final version.
In addition to the phases in which to act in silence, there will be more moments of adrenaline, during which escape from the clutches of the perpetrators. In these situations the degree of tension is increased beautiful soundtrack : on the musical side the studio has done a commendable job and, like the artistic direction, the soundtrack also modifies its score in a dynamic way, adapting wonderfully to the situations we will face.
Next to the escape and the stealth dynamics, there is another method to shoot down the Inquisition killers: slap their skull with a stone. At the beginning our slingshot will not be strong enough to allow us to launch the shot with the right power. Here comes a basic crafting system through which, after collecting the appropriate amount of material around the areas, we can improve – among other things – the effectiveness of the slingshot, the noise it emits and the capacity of the our inventory. A similar progression, although very simple, gives us an indication of the presence of obstacles much more challenging than those faced in the first two hours of gameplay, for which, in essence, will require appropriate equipment. If these expectations prove to be true, A Plague Tale: Innocence could show off a degree of challenge and a variety of approach that, at present, seems to be latent. To eliminate the armored guards first remove the armor they are wearing, striking the hooks with the stones that tie the pieces.
In the first (and for now only) battle that we fought, the clash proved to be a pure formality, during which our opponent was absolutely incapable of hitting us: it is true that it was a duel useful to understand the mechanics of these pseudo-boss fight, but the excessive simplicity has not been able however to satisfy us as we would have liked. We therefore trust that later the game dynamics are made a little 'more elaborate to induce us to experience that sense of fear, tension and perennial sense of danger that it is legitimate to warn in the guise of simple scared kids.
The feeling of greater disquiet, however, is felt when we are forced to escape the waves of mice that infest France in 1348: in these cases, A Plague Tale: Innocence leverage not only on an oppressive, cramped and suffocating level design, but also on a bit of puzzle solving that gives the adventure a very peculiar rhythm. In front of the tide of rats, the only way not to end up in their jaws is to arm themselves with a light source, whatever it is: predictably, the game world always provides us with the tools to survive, offering lanterns, sticks and torches to be used if necessary.
The wood twigs burn in a short time, and therefore we will have to identify the right path before the flames devour them entirely.
If we can not reach another safe area, irradiated by light, it will be game over: more than any other threat from A Plague Tale in fact, the rats will not give us a breather, ready to gnaw at the slightest distraction of the meat. Presumably, in these instances the relationship with Hugo will prove to be quite important. In the three initial chapters, the faculty of issuing orders, such as to follow us or to remain motionless waiting for the road to be clear, does not play an essential role, and yet, considering some events we have witnessed, it is reasonable to suppose that in the long run this feature will have a much more marked utility, thanks to which the child will have to collaborate with his sister to advance and solve some environmental enigmas.
At the end of the demo, in any case, to wonder more than anything was the wise use of the playful-narrative rhythm staged by A Plague Tale : the adventure of Amicia and Hugo moves on a wave of emotions that pass quickly from the feigned serenity, cloaked in a drop of poetry, to the horror more indescribable. This is testified by some collectors of the game, called " gifts ", in which the two children stop for a moment to talk to each other: whether for an embroidery found on the bed, or for a flower collected between the rubble, the recollection of a happy time reappears at times with aching harmony, before the blood and death return to take the upper hand.