Offline Adventures – A Plague Tale: Innocence

I really need to do this more often. Stop exclusively playing years- or even decades-old RPGs for a bit and give some contemporary games of other genres a chance, that is. It’s so worth it!

I’ve had Plague Tale (I’m not going to type out the whole damn title every time) on my radar pretty much since it launched two years ago, maybe even before that. However, I was always too busy playing other things, as usual. A couple of months ago it was heavily discounted on GOG, which at least made me pull the trigger on the purchase, and now I’ve finally played it through.

As always, click the pictures to enlarge

My very first impression of the game was “Hell yeah, I’m really going to like the music in this one!”, as the title theme that runs while you look at the starting-screen above instantly hit all the right notes for me (pun intended), not least because the Nyckelharpa is one of my favourite instruments.

Here’s the track, right at the start (the rest is worth a listen too though):

I’ve already bought the album so I can listen to it while I’m not playing. Well, and to support the artist. I really hope he’ll score the sequel too.

My second impression, which I got immediately upon entering the game proper, was “Wow, this looks freaking awesome!”, because it does.

As I alluded to in the beginning, and also already observed back when I was playing The Medium, a lot of technological advancement has obviously happened in recent years without me even noticing. That’s what I get for always playing the same old stuff.

Anyway, about the game itself. The story takes place in 14th century France, which is a pretty original setting for a video game, and also quite an interesting one, what with the Hundred Years’ War going on and the plague running rampant at the same time. It’s pretty bleak though, that’s for sure.

Definitely not for the faint of heart

The game’s main character is Amicia, a teenage girl of noble descent, who has to outgrow herself and take care of her little brother, Hugo, when everything goes to hell.

While the armies of plague-bearing rats that give the game its name and logo are not actually the main antagonist – that questionable honor goes, no surprise there, to other humans – they are often the biggest obstacle to survival during the game’s first half or so.

Having a light source available is usually the main concern, and much of the early gameplay revolves around that.

I’ll admit that I was initially quite nervous about having the little brother around all the time. I mean, let’s be real, in the history of video games escort mechanics have pretty much always sucked, and hard.

But lo and behold, it works surprisingly well here!

Amicia can tell Hugo to stay put or follow her around. The latter is almost always preferable as he gets nervous quickly when his big sister isn’t near him, but that’s ok because he isn’t a burden at all when he’s holding Amicia’s hand, and it happens only once or twice total that game mechanics force them to separate briefly.

Even more surprising: Hugo is actually of help! Due to his size he can slip through openings Amicia can’t, enabling him to open locked doors from the inside and stuff like that. At other times it’s just another pair of hands that’s needed, like when multiple levers have to be pulled simultaneously. Controlling him in these situations is as simple as looking in a specific direction and pressing the corresponding button.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but not only do the escort mechanics not suck in this game, they actually add to the experience by making me as a player feel the bond between these characters, struggle with them and root for them. It’s an astounding feat, but they did it!

In regards to combat the game finds a somewhat believable balance by Amicia neither being completely helpless nor mutating into a first class sword fighter overnight.

In the beginning her only defense is to throw rocks at something (or someone) or shoot those same rocks with her sling for a little more impact. Over the course of the game she adds various tricks to her arsenal though, conveniently right when she needs them to overcome the odds at hand.

Lighting fires or snuffing them out, temporarily luring rats to a specific location, using some sort of acid to make soldiers take their helmets off, making them vulnerable to headshots, and more such gadgets need to be used as the situations the little family finds itself in dictate it. Overall I thought this worked pretty well and prevented the gameplay from getting too samey.

However, I didn’t care much for the (fortunately rare) bossfights, as juggling, timing and aiming all those gadgets while staying on the move got too hectic for my taste. I’m not fond of bossfights in general though, so that’s probably not a huge surprise.

There’s also a rudimentary crafting system, because of course there is. It seems that no Action Adventure (I guess this is what it is, isn’t it?) can not have one of those these days.

To be honest, I could have done without it just fine, but to be fair, it obviously makes sense that Amicia doesn’t just have unlimited amounts of her gadgets on hand. So she collects rocks, sulfur, saltpeter, alcohol and other ingredients as she goes and crafts the various types of ammunition as needed. Upgrades to her sling, bigger pouches and stuff like that are made at crafting benches scattered across the game world. Which is strictly linear, by the way, there’s no open world to get lost in here.

Helloooo fellas!

Overall, I’m very satisfied. I played through the game in just shy of 14 hours, which felt neither too long nor too short. The story is good, characters are relatable. The gameplay isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but felt kinda new and fresh nonetheless. Graphics and sound are stellar, as are the controls (I used my XBox 360 controller again). Despite the graphic fidelity (and an install size of 41.5 GB to go with it) loading times off an NVMe-SSD are very short.

It’s a straight A in my book, highly recommended.

Offline Adventures – The Medium

I’d read about The Medium here and there a while ago, but although it did look somewhat interesting I wasn’t intrigued enough to actually give it a shot. Until I learned that none other than Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) had contributed to the game’s soundtrack, that is. At that point I just had to buy the deluxe edition – including a digital artbook and, most importantly, the soundtrack – right away, so off to GOG I went.

I’m glad that I did because the ~12 hours it took me to see the end credits were a pretty good experience. I’d describe The Medium as a rather easy third-person adventure game with light to moderate stealth elements and psychological horror. It’s not an all-time classic, but if you’re a fan of the genre(s) I can recommend it.

I won’t spoil anything about the story as I feel it’s actually the game’s strong point, and I think knowing too much about it beforehand would seriously lessen the experience. Instead I’ll talk more about gameplay, controls, sound and graphics, which are also pretty important for a game like this in my opinion.

I had to crank up the brightness of all screenshots significantly – the whole setting is pretty bleak

First of all – the graphics are simply stunning. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite come across on stills, but this is easily the most realistic looking game I’ve played to date. As usual the characters’ faces don’t quite reach that high standard, but apart from that I felt totally immersed in the environments – well, at least those located in the real world.

The game’s advertised standout feature is its “Dual-Reality-Gameplay”. The main character, Marianne, is the eponymous medium, her ‘special ability’ being to let her consciousness slip into the spirit world. Well, I say let, but most of the time it doesn’t actually happen by choice. Also, she can’t stay separated from her body for too long in that state, so most of the time she’s moving and acting in both worlds at once and in unison. These scenes are shown in split-screen, sometimes divided horizontally, sometimes vertically.

When an obstacle is blocking her passage in either world she can’t pass it, which is when she has to temporarily leave her body behind and hurry to cook up a solution in the spirit world, or alternatively find a way around in the real world. Many of the game’s puzzles revolve around this.

The feature isn’t as revolutionary as advertised, but it is quite neat. Navigating a character through two worlds at once that look kinda the same but also very different feels pretty cool. As this is all rendered in real time it’s also taxing on the hardware though, so a newish gaming rig is recommended.

During the course of the game Marianne is confronted by a nightmarish creature every now and again. It can’t be defeated, because of course it can’t, so the only option is to hide and sneak, as it were. I’m not a fan of such mechanics, but it didn’t bother me too much here as these scenes are short and not terribly hard to beat. They feel pretty intense too, so op success I guess.

As Marianne advances through the game she finds more and more story clues, often in text form (letters, postcards and such), but there are also disturbing sketches like this as well as conversations that happened long ago, still existing as echoes in the spirit world.

If there’s one thing I’d have to criticize it’s that the amount of objects actually being utilized in puzzles is miniscule compared to the stuff that’s “just” there to unveil the story. Consequently there aren’t that many puzzles to solve overall, so as far as adventures go this one is an ‘adventure light’ at best.

At certain points in the story you take control of another character’s spirit form. This tormented soul, obviously also a medium and central to the plot, has to face some really dark places, which are the game’s most impressive set pieces.

But what about the music? That’s what I bought the game for, isn’t it?

Well, it’s quite good. Really good, actually, now that I’m listening to it again as I type this. The crux is, it’s neither as atmospheric nor as disturbing as Silent Hill’s soundtrack, so I guess the fact that I’m not totally over the moon is simply due to too high expectations. What else is new?

As for controls, I used my trusty Xbox 360 pad and had no problems, except that I use it too rarely and always need an hour or two to memorize where A, B, X and Y are located. I assume using mouse and keyboard would work just fine too, but haven’t tested it.

Checkpoint placement is regular and fair. I was annoyed only once during my playthrough when I had to repeat a section a couple of times, and that wasn’t because of the checkpoint itself, but because of the 20 second-long unskippable cutscene right before the tricky part.

And there you have it. Overall I really liked the game, and if I were to make one of those tier-lists that are so popular these days I’d give it a solid B.

Towards the end the atmosphere even lightens up somewhat. Whether that’s a harbinger of a happy ending you’ll have to go and see for yourself.