A Plague Tale: Innocence Review

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I want to like Plague Tale, but the game makes it hard sometimes. For the most part it’s a solid horror character piece about a young girl and her even younger brother on a journey through misery. Then sometimes it turns into a supernatural action thriller that throws all sense of subtlety out the window. With boss fights.

You play Amicia De Rune, a fifteen year old noblewoman in fourteenth century France whose family is targeted by the Inquisition. They’re after Hugo, Amicia’s five year old brother whose mysterious ill health has meant the two siblings have grown up apart from one another, now thrust together in dire circumstances. Exacerbating the situation are huge swarms of flesh-eating rats who can only be kept at bay with light, presenting a lethal threat any time the De Runes enter the shadows, doubly so at night. The story is interesting to begin with, as Amicia seeks out potential explanations for Hugo’s ailment, and the two gain a small group of allies, each with their own skills and backgrounds. That stuff’s good, the allies are all likable, what’s going on with Hugo and how it ties into the Inquistion is intriguing, and Amicia’s relationship with Hugo is a well handled mix of affection and frustration in certain situations. Unfortunately as the game goes on, the supernatural elements merely hinted at in earlier parts come to the forefront, and the game fully shifts gears into absurdity by the end, which dulls the impact, and threat established early on. Most of this revolves around the rats themselves, portrayed less as a zoological menace and more of a force of nature; some act of vengeance carried out by an angry god. They literally explode out of the ground and strip men in full plate armour to the bone in seconds, they frantically sprint towards any flesh they can find, and bump up against the invisible walls created by light sources as they clamber over each other, desperate to rip Amicia and Hugo to pieces. The best level in the game is navigating a misty battlefield covered in corpses, with rats all over the place that first appear by bursting out of a dead horse. A lot of the game revolves around navigating groups of rats and using them to your advantage; destroying light sources to kill guards, moving revolving lanterns into positions to form safe paths, that sort of thing. For the most part, the gameplay relies on stealth and light puzzle solving with the rat hordes. Amicia has a sling with which to launch rocks at unprotected guard heads, and her allies present her with a variety of alchemical tools that provide various effects. Knock guards out up close, ignite light sources, extinguish light sources, melt helmets, that sort of thing. These items all have to be crafted, and which one to use for which situation is a fun little element that pops up every now and then in the stealth sections, when the game isn’t pushing you towards one or another. Where the gameplay falls down is when it attempts combat, especially boss fights. Amicia’s sling requires auto-aim, which when combined with having to quickly swap between different ammo types can lead to some frustrating deaths as the soldier you’re not aiming at charges across the room to stab you or, even worse, throws a spear through your heart. One section in particular right near the end was the worst for this, in which I had archers to shoot in the head, certain types of light sources to extinguish and other types to outright break. The game’s combat system is not built to handle spinning plates like this, and it becomes painfully apparent whenever you leave stealth to do anything more than loudly kill one or two enemies. Worse still are the boss fights, especially the final boss which is both annoying and completely ridiculous. It marks the culmination of the game’s descent from “This is neat” to “Oh god what happened here?”

That said, the game does have its strengths. The way the rats are presented is excellent, as are their nests made from a black, tar-like substance that corrupts and warps whatever it’s built onto, and is laced with bits of bone and entire human skeletons. Amicia isn’t anything special but two of her companions are cool; Alchemist’s apprentice Lucas and thief Melie. That’s about it really, I’ve come away from the game feeling quite disappointed overall.

So then, for the most part Plague Tale is good: the horror elements are strong thanks to the rats, the stealth and puzzling are neat and the characters are all likeable enough and the story is intriguing enough to keep you interested, but then more and more combat sections creep in, and the game leans into absurdity and the whole thing falls down a bit. Not a bad game overall and an interesting experience, but it bites off more than it can chew.

By James Lambert

Layers of Fear 2 Review

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Remember Layers of Fear? It was a first person horror game about an artist trying to complete his masterwork while mental illness turns the house into an impossible space of ever-changing rooms and corridors filled with lore about his backstory. It was good, eschewing Amnesia-style weaponless stealth in favour of mood and atmosphere. Now there’s a sequel, so here we are.

Continuing with the theme of tortured artists wandering around being reminded what bastards they are, this time you’re a celebrated film actor named James, exploring a luxury cruise ship where filming was taking place. In place of the Artist’s Magnum Opus is the ultimate character James was meant to play, with each psycho-journey getting him closer to fully inhabiting the role. Unfortunately James’ story is hinged entirely on a traumatic moment from his childhood, and the game is spent waiting to be told what it was even though you figured it out hours ago. The original didn’t have a central mystery as such, it used the run time to hint at what happened to result in The Artist roaming around his house using body parts to paint a portrait; filling in the gaps gradually to give you details about a situation it’s already outlined to you.  To have a grand reveal on which to have hours of references that are purposefully vague because there’s barely anything to conceal absolutely butchers the game’s minute-to-minute pacing. A game like this is about the journey, capped off by the destination, something Layers of Fear 2 fails to heed. Worse still, James being an actor doesn’t really have any relevance to the plot, besides four moral choices of a sort that are linked to taking or refusing direction, and collectable posters of films he was in. I think. They might just be of films whoever put them up liked.

Apart from a couple of changes, the game mostly takes place on the ship, which quickly gets boring. Unlike the original’s constantly changing architecture and use of colour the environments here are mostly in black and white, have nothing of note or interest in them and are populated exclusively by manikins, which are woefully unequipped for all the symbolism heavy lifting the game asks of them. The second of five acts is particularly bad for this, just being stretch after stretch of dark corridors. There are moments when the game tries to spice things up a bit, but they’re all underwhelming. There are now rudimentary enemy encounters with a faceless humanoid monstery thing with no real sense of internal consistency or logic. Sometimes you have to run away from it, sometimes you have to hide from it, sometimes you have to run towards it which then somehow turns into running away from it; it’s clearly been designed to work around how the horror and exploration work, to its detriment. The enemy in the original popped up now and then as a scare and nothing more, and that worked so much better. There’s a short part chase, part hiding sequence with it in a maze near the end of the game and it’s dreadful. Every time the thing turned up it was annoying and, crucially, never scary. That goes for the game as a whole, and it’s due in large part to everything being so bland and lifeless. The original kept you on edge, built up an atmosphere of unpredictability and dread. Nothing of the sort here, not even close. Also manikins aren’t scary apart from that one bit in Condemned. Ah Condemned. What a banger.

Oddly, there are modern film references, despite seemingly being set in the early twenty first century. Se7en gets an extended, explicit shout-out that feels completely out of place, the Shining gets one, there are probably more but by the time I realised they were there I was rushing towards the end of the game.

As I write this I’ve just finished Layers of Fear 2 and I’m already struggling to remember it. How Bloober team went from something vivid, atmospheric and interesting like the original Layers of Fear to something so dull, bland and boring, that’s such an uneventful slog to play is beyond me. It’s a shame.

By James Lambert