Children struggling to right a world wrecked by the old is a popular theme nowadays, within video games and beyond them. Asobo’s often-magnificent A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the more hopeful variations, pitching a small cast of photogenic youngsters against religious zealots and man-eating rats in medieval France. Though let down by an over-reliance on mandatory stealth, which drains a little of the sorcery from some astounding locations, it is a wonderfully dark and tender fairytale whose key draws are its frail but indefatigable protagonists.
As the curtain goes up, noble-born siblings Amicia and Hugo are chased from their family estate by Inquisition soldiers, leaving their parents for dead. The two are relative strangers to one another: the victim of a hereditary sickness, which slowly blackens his veins over the game’s 10 hour story, Hugo has spent his whole life locked away in a loft with his mother, a master alchemist. This affliction is the reason for the Inquisition’s raid, and you’ll spend much of the plot unravelling its arcane origin. The older Amicia – the character you control for most of the game – has grown up in her father’s company and is a spirited creature of the outdoors: when we first meet her, she’s learning to hunt with her sling. Their home’s destruction throws them together for the first time, much as the death of Faye does Atreus and Kratos in God of War, and as in Santa Monica Studio’s game, the story marches to the gentle beat of their growing intimacy.
Hugo is often a source of frustration for Amicia, stuffing his hands gleefully into baskets of putrid fruit in deserted villages, and wailing in panic if she tries to explore without him. But his hard-wearing childishness in the face of incessant horror is also her greatest consolation, the thing anchoring her to herself as she does what is necessary for them both to survive. One of the game’s loveliest explorations of this takes the unlikely form of a collectible, where Hugo gathers flowers he recognises from their mother’s books, inviting his bedraggled and bloodied sister to stoop so that he can plait them into her hair. The flower stays in Amicia’s hair for the rest of the chapter, even as you fell pursuing soldiers with your slingshot or shatter their lanterns to expose them to the rats. It’s a gesture that says everything about who Amicia and Hugo are to one another, what they’ve lost and what they’ve held onto – and tracking down those blossoms quickly became as important to me as mastering the game’s slightly wayward mixture of stealth and terrain puzzles.