Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC

France, the Middle Ages – or what’s left of it. As plague ravages the country, turning entire towns into charnel pits, Amicia de Rune and her sickly young brother Hugo live a relatively secluded life in rural Aquitaine, protected on the grounds of their noble family’s estate. Their safe and happy childhoods come to a brutal end though, when the Inquisition raids their home, murdering their parents and driving the children to flee for their lives.

Pursued by the religious marauders of the Inquisition, hunting Hugo for mysterious reasons, the siblings must also navigate clashing French-Anglo forces and, more chillingly, the hordes of pestilent rats spreading disease and liable to gnaw humans to the bone if given the chance.

A Plague Tale: Innocence

It’s a grim affair, but one that keeps the player rapt throughout. Although predominantly a narrative adventure, Asobo Studios’ dark tale mixes in stealth mechanics, mild crafting, and enough environmental puzzle play to ensure there’s always something to do, while the story ticks along at a rapid enough pace that boredom never sets in.

Innocence is aptly named too, as one of the main themes is the loss of virtue of its young cast. For Amicia, the player-controlled character, that means turning her slingshot skills and natural ingenuity to darker aims and committing sins that may damn her soul, but doing so willingly if it means preserving five-year-old Hugo’s innocence – and life – that much longer.

A sleeper hit that you shouldn’t sleep on.

You’ll come to deeply care about the cast, a product of the game’s fantastic writing. Amicia is a great protagonist, strong and confident despite the horror her life has become, but still prone to teenage frustrations and uncertainty. Seeing her growth through the game, from tomboyish noble to toughened, unflinching protector is remarkable. Hugo, meanwhile, is often annoying – but he’s meant to be. He’s five years old and has never seen the outside world before. When he runs off to investigate a favourite flower or to see frogs for the first time, it adds to the tension that you’ll be discovered, but it’s also impossible not to empathise with him.

It’s also worth highlighting the excellent voice acting. Fittingly for a game set in medieval France, you can play in original French audio with English subtitles, but the English dub is marvelously executed, with just enough of a French accent to not be offensively stereotypical, while delivering the emotional beats at every turn.

Although Innocence is largely linear, there’s enough space given for exploration, often to find more crafting materials or historical items added to the game’s codex. The labyrinthine cities and lush wilds of France create an immersive world, and occasional breathers from the relentless pursuit of the Inquisition gives players time to appreciate its beauty.

One of Innocence’s greatest achievements though is making video game gore something unsettling again. The hordes of scurrying vermin are the game’s biggest threat, only kept at bay by light. Illumination then becomes the key mechanic for both navigation and conflict – put out a guard’s lantern with a well-slung rock, and they’ll be devoured by rats. It’s grisly and disturbing, the horror amplified by excellent sound design providing the chittering of hundreds of ravenous rats as they tear enemies to pieces. It also provides some of the game’s greatest obstacles, figuring out how to light a path through swarms and not get eaten alive yourself.

A Plague Tale: Innocence

Although the stealth mechanics have been bettered elsewhere – this is no Metal Gear Solid or HitmanInnocence provides a satisfying array of ways to navigate the world unseen. Mostly, it’s a case of hiding behind obstacles or in long grass, and distracting guards with slung rocks or pots. However, as Amicia matures and learns alchemical recipes from supporting characters, you’ll be able to dispatch foes with sleeping gas, or silence your footsteps or slingshots with upgrades to your equipment. These will all need to be crafted, and materials are just scarce enough that you’ll never feel overpowered – every piece of special ammunition you make or use is a critical judgement call. There’s nothing groundbreaking in either the stealth or crafting aspects, but it all works handsomely and complements the sense of desperation in the story.

And that story really is the key to Innocence’s appeal – a sinister fable with hints of the supernatural, elevated out of total despair thanks to brilliant character work. A sleeper hit that you shouldn’t sleep on.

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