Plague – A Tale of Innocence (PC) | Review

What could be a better idea than playing a game centered around the rat plague while being stuck at home during yet another pandemic? It might even add to the immersion at best or might hit a little too close to home at worst. The end result might’ve ended up being a little bit of both as I strolled through certain streets in Plague and people shut down their house windows at the first sight of my presence – not too different from what I’ve been experiencing outside the game.

Plague was a very divisive game for me. There are just as many things I don’t like about the game as I like, which I usually don’t consider a good sign. I do want to get into the different factors one by one, so just like all my reviews, I’m going to try to talk about each aspect individually, and rate them on THIS 10 point scale and give out my final words in the end.

Note: I will be excluding “Content” as a factor in the reviews as I felt it was a little redundant and didn’t stand out as much as other factors in the rating system. All my review rankings will be eventually updated according to this soon. 

If you’re planning on getting this game, get used to these rats.

Gameplay – 5

You could say the gameplay mainly revolves around some basic stealth and lite-puzzle sections, with the occasional combat segment thrown in. Just like a lot of narrative-driven games, I wouldn’t want you to expect a very fleshed out gameplay system. The one thing that I found interesting was the rats. The deal is that you die pretty much as soon as you step into rats, and those rats will stay away from light. So you’re supposed to use the tools at your disposal to solve environmental puzzles and get through the level by creating a path of light. They are usually distinct from each other but they do become redundant at times. A couple of them that required ‘clearing’ rats from a complete area come to mind. Those sections wouldn’t have been as annoying if in-game companions didn’t shout “Now go turn that lever!” at any opportunity they get, as if the game didn’t trust me to figure out a straightforward puzzle, or feared that I would quickly lose my interest.

Another thing that bothered me was that there is no way to have a non-lethal run in the game. You play a young teenage girl taking care of a younger kid, but still have the stone-slinging skills to dispatch off hordes of well-armored enemies with deadly point-precision. I can remember more than a few instances where the game would have several enemies running towards me, as I witnessed little Amicia just shoot rocks into one guy’s head after another. There is a portion in one of the early chapters where you are basically thrown into a Thunderdome against a huge armored guy with a huger weapon – you, being a 13-year-old girl, are able to murder him with a slingshot and a rock. Why did the game have to make it a head-on boss battle basically? No idea.

I wonder why France even bothered with training soldiers when a trip to the local school would’ve saved them the trouble.

I would’ve loved if they’d utilized the setting of playing as a little girl to force players to find more creative, indirect approaches to dealing with enemies. Sort of like a grounded version of Dishonored. This is why I did enjoy that I could break lamps or extinguish fires, to expose enemies to the rats. But despite those options, there are sections where you are pretty much forced to kill enemies head-on. And that can be jarring when the story tries to convince you so many times that killing is such a horrible thing. Which brings me to…

Narrative – 6

The game definitely does something fresh when it comes to the setting itself. I personally have never played a game set in the day and age Plague is set in, so, at least that was new, but the writing in itself was very confused. Not confusing, mind you. Confused – it felt as if the writers didn’t really know what they wanted. Are we watching a dark tale where a bunch of kids lose their innocence and end up becoming stone-cold murderers? Are we watching a couple of innocent kids just trying to protect themselves from horrible people? I know things aren’t as simple as that, but these extremes are what this game keeps hopping through.

The writing feels very one dimensional and so do the characters, which feel like caricatures more than actual people. The only somewhat believable character in the whole story is the 9-year-old kid because he, well, has motivations and dialogue written like a nine-year-old. Sadly, so does everyone else.

The only believably human character.

It feels as if they wrote the starting and the ending of the game first, and then just tried to put random stuff in there which ends up making the whole narrative feel like an unstructured and unconnected mess. The characters don’t feel or act like real people, and just do the things they do to carry the plot ahead. I can’t get into too much without spoiling anything, but you’ll know if you do decide to play, while you’re chasing the kid because he randomly chose to run away for the umpteenth time. That was why I found it hard to connect to any character at all or care about anyone. But hey, can’t expect too much from a video game’s story. All in all, I’d say the narrative was still pretty good by video game standards, and I’d probably give it a +1 for the unique setting alone.

Visuals – 7

The game looks really good. The visuals capture the setting pretty well, whether it’s the clothing, the architecture, or the rats. Especially the rats. They look gross and creepy, in a good way. While the mechanics of these rodents can be considered closer to a fluid when behaving as a group, each and every one of them stands out visually when looking at a horde. Even in the pitch dark, their eyes shine so you know exactly where they are. The cutscenes and textures look great and definitely give the game a “AAA” feel.

No Man’s Land?

Now, coming to my gripes about the visuals, naturally. First of all, the facial animations are abysmal. Even during the cutscenes, the lip-sync is not even close to the dialogue. Everyone’s facial expressions show lesser emotions than a wooden plank – which should’ve been paid more attention to, especially when the game is about the storytelling. Another thing to point out is that there isn’t too much visual variety across the different chapters, which was a missed opportunity as well. Still, looking at the overall picture, I’d still say the game looks really good – just nothing worth giving an 8 or more.

Mechanics – 5

The mechanics were… rigid, to say the least. While the rats behaved consistently for the most while, a lot of times they did ended up following you into an area they would usually not be able to enter just because you stepped into them for one second and came back. There was this ‘light projection beam device’ that wasn’t consistent enough to lead rats in or out of a particular area. I definitely noticed that in more than one place. Furthermore, in this game, your character dies after one hit. That makes sense because you are playing as a 13-year-old girl, but neither the mechanics of stealth nor combat are fleshed out enough to make the pursuit of ‘not dying’ satisfactory enough. A game that did this one-hit-death mechanic right was Aragami.

The AI of the guards was pretty horrendous. Sometimes I was able to crouch or even walk right through their line of sight without them doing anything about it. Other times a guard would be able to spot me at a considerably higher distance in pitch dark, but what egged me more than all these issues is how easily the guards gave up. I vividly remember a moment when I was running from a guard who just spotted me and shouted “I saw you! Not gonna give up that easy!” and the very second he finished that sentence, he said “Guess I lost them. Better get back to it” while walking over the dead body of one of his comrades without batting an eye. The AI is definitely a joke.

I just ran past this guard into these bushes.

A lot of times I was able to run past enemies and into the next area, but other times I saw their attack animation going a different direction and my character still ended up impaled by a spear. Apart from that, the overall movement feels very stiff too. Even moving around in the game feels like performing a QTE for some reason. It doesn’t feel mechanical or tactile in the way that you press a button and something happens on the screen. That is such a missed opportunity since you play as a young girl, and that should factor in more movement flexibility if anything. These and a lot of other discrepancies in the mechanics and animations were a constant hindrance to the enjoyment. A lot of the time, the gameplay was annoying me instead of challenging me, which brings me to…

Challenge – 5

The game pretty much plays itself. The puzzles aren’t hard in the first place, but the protagonist or one of the companions babbles the solution outright. I’ve already spoken about the absurdity of the first boss fight, and other ones don’t really improve on that too much. This isn’t the kind of game that needed boss fights. I would’ve loved it if it stuck to the initial direction and made it about the rat plague rather than the same old power-hungry villain. Most of my in-game deaths I remember are ones that happened not because of me failing or something, but just randomly stepping into an area that the rats nearby considered their territory for some reason. What makes the whole insta-death mechanic worse is that the checkpoint system is bad.

Hot Wheels?

It makes you start a whole section again, including collecting everything that you collected before. It makes the whole experience pretty tedious. Not to mention that the enemies were eerily easy to dispatch in a game which seems to be about playing as a young girl protecting her little brother from various dangers in the world. At least one thing I appreciate is that they didn’t do multiple difficulty levels. That way I’m not wondering if I’m getting less stuff only because I chose to play on “Hard Mode”.

Variety- 5

That brings me to the variety. I want to start off by continuing the discussion on the different “gadgets” you acquire throughout the story. It seemed as if the game introduced a certain object, showed us a tutorial on how to use it – and then completely forgot about it throughout the rest of the game. Puzzles were especially very restricted in that regard. Say there is a light beam gadget that lets you create a straight path through rats. And there is another that lures rats away. It would’ve been interesting to see a puzzle where a combination of both of these was used. Similarly, there are a lot of other abilities that you acquire throughout the story, and they are only used in a couple of instances and then completely forgotten in the coming chapters. This was the biggest missed opportunity and could have elevated the whole gameplay experience to another level in my opinion.

Wish all these different gadgets were more integrated with each other.

Mapping – 4

The level design was my least favorite aspect of the whole game. While games like Uncharted and The Last of Us are just as linear, they never make you feel that you are just pressing W to proceed. Their levels are open enough that you get to play a cat-and-mouse game with your opponents. The level design in Plague is very very closed up, in comparison. Like, “there’s just that one box you can hide below” levels of closed up. I can hardly remember any segments in the game where I had any flexibility in how I could handle the situation. If you recorded 2 different guys playing the game and watched the playthroughs side by side, you’re going to see them take the same exact paths and do the same exact things. Not because the game is designed with subtle clues on where to go and what to do – there is just that one way to go.

The level design lacks any kind of flexibility and player agency.

Sound Design – 6

The music score on the game is pretty good. The sound effects during the gameplay were good enough, even though the sound could’ve been used to add more horror elements in the game when it came to the rats. The main thing I want to take about though, is the voice acting. I appreciate that they got young actors to voice the characters their age. It adds a lot of authenticity to the role. While I liked the voice acting for the little kid, I found the protagonist’s VA was not up to the mark. It could be the way they asked her to sound and talk, but she sounded on the verge of bursting into tears pretty much throughout the game – even when she was laughing. While some of the voice actors did a good job, most of it was serviceable at best, and definitely not among the game’s strengths for me.

Interface – 7

Did this game need a crafting system?

The user interface was pretty good. It didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. Crafting menu. Weapon wheel. Same old things we’ve seen before. I do have my complaints with the crafting system fundamentally. Though this game’s influences from TLOU are pretty evident to me in the kind of setting and the general theme, they even tried to factor in crafting in a game that didn’t really need a system. The mistake they did is making the same ingredients be the raw material for your ammunition and the raw ingredients for your upgrades, which is what the TLOU did not do. What ends up happening because of that is the player ends up spending a lot of the ammunition to solve the puzzles (where they are pretty much necessary BTW) – so you run out of contents to upgrade anything at all. I remember running into crafting table after crafting table with nothing that was ever ready to be crafted. This was the first game where I felt I had too many materials and a lack of materials at the same time – precisely because of this.

On one hand I was running out of carrying slots for some things, while I don’t have enough to get an upgrade. So I crafted some ‘usables’ just to make room for material, but that ends up using other ingredients in the formula, which were required for an upgrade possibly that I was close to getting – you get the point. Basically, I’m sure they didn’t give the crafting recipes much thought, like how a medkit and a Molotov used the same ingredients in the TLOU so every time you crafted one it was a strategic choice with a little consequence.

Pricing – 6

I wouldn’t say the game is worth its full price at the time of writing this review. If the rat plague setting does appeal to you, I could recommend picking this up on a sale.

Performance – 8

One thing I definitely appreciate is that this game displays PS4 icons even though I was playing through Xbox Gamepass PC. I never really had a problem in getting the game to run, or experienced any major performance issues, but the game did crash 4 times throughout my playthrough, 2 of them being when I alt-tabbed from the game. All in all, though, I think the game is pretty well optimized.

Replay Value – 3

The game doesn’t have any replay value. The story doesn’t have enough depth to be visited multiple times. The gameplay doesn’t have enough variety to be interesting the second. And while the world-building is interesting, you’ll end up getting your fill the first time through.

Final Rating: 5.6

    Rating:

3 Stars

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