A Plague Tale: Requiem, follow-up to 2019’s Innocence, is bigger, flashier, and even more rat-filled than its predecessor.
Our first order of business, with regard to A Plague Tale: Requiem, is to celebrate the loss of the faux-French accents with which its heroes were equipped last time round. In the first game, A Plague Tale: Innocence, we followed two French children, Amicia and Hugo de Rune, as they waded through the pestilence and predation of 14th-Century France, with the Black Death in full spate. The better option, perhaps, was to play in French with English subtitles; otherwise, you got saddled with British actors spreading their lines with thick, soft-ripened pronunciations. Now, mercifully, they no longer have the Gaul.
The new game begins with the siblings in Provence, and they soon alight in Arles. This is a welcome break from the battle-churned muck of their last outing, which took place in Aquitaine and, courtesy of the Hundred Years’ War, was about as colourful as a breastplate. It also gives the art director, Olivier Ponsonnet, a chance to pay homage to the yolk-yellow pastures of Van Gogh, who daubed and dotted his time in that part of the country some five hundred years later. It is rare, outside of Assassin’s Creed, that such specific snapshots of time and place are lavished with this much care and cash. It also isn’t often that a developer makes such drastic swerves between projects – Asobo Studio also made Microsoft Flight Simulator, in 2020. Courtesy of map data compiled by Bing, it pretty much let us cruise over the whole damn planet, and I like to imagine the travails of Hugo and Amicia passing peacefully under the wings of a Boeing 787.
What are those travails? Hugo is still afflicted with something called the Macula, which lurks in his bloodstream and links him – telepathically, or maybe magically – to swarms of rats. The downside of this is that rats, at that time, were suffering with a case of really bad PR, and thus the duo is hounded by certain governmental offices, most notably the French Inquisition. The upside, however, is that Hugo now has a raft of rodential powers. He can sense foes through walls, and he can even conduct the scurrying horde, guiding them toward hapless soldiers and summoning them, when stressed, in a geyser-like burst of fur.
Requiem, which is only available on next-gen consoles and PC, boasts the oomph required to render hundreds of thousands of rats onscreen at one time. This leaves me with two conclusions. One, that from now on this is how we ought to measure the forward surge of hardware. Don’t give me resolutions and frames per second, tell me about your improved tail tech and the innovations of the new Unsqueal Engine. And two, given the crummy subtitles that these games are lumbered with, the developers must be seriously pissed that Warhammer managed to snag “Vermintide” back in 2015.
The crux of the plot here is that Hugo is beset by head-cracking visions of an island, which he feels may provide a cure for his condition. The boy’s mother, Béatrice, wants to take him to the headquarters of the Order, a coven of alchemists who have studied the Macula for years. The Order’s local representative, Magister Vaudin, is rude, unsmiling, and outwardly indifferent to Hugo’s plight. To Vaudin, and possibly to the Order as a whole, the lad is less a patient to be comforted than a lab rat, as it were, there to prod and palpate for curiosity’s sake. Amicia is having none of this, and the pair break away from Béatrice, join forces with a former soldier and a pirate, and strive to make their way to the isle in question, which, they are told, is called La Cuna.
All of which means that we get another helping of puzzles and stealth, both of which feel heavily prescribed, but which nonetheless prove oddly satisfying. No sooner do you encounter a guard than you are given the means with which to deal with him. These are usually: (a) an armour-crammed chest, at which you can pelt a rock, in order to lure him away; (b) a table or low opening under which you can crawl; or (c) a torch that you can extinguish, and thus invite any nearby rats, who detest the light, to come and feast. You don’t feel, as you do in games like Thief or Splinter Cell (both of which are steeped in the play, both moral and mechanical, between light and dark) as though you had cast your own solution. Rather, you feel as though you were clipping together exquisitely animated passages of game design.
There is something pleasing about this – about the reassurance of high production values, as they furbish a staid and familiar chassis. Watch as Amicia shimmies through fissures of rock, as Lara Croft and Kratos love to do. And watch as she makes like Nathan Drake and outruns a collapsing town. The difference being that the cause of the collapse, for our heroine, is not an earthquake, or the detonations of a pesky private military company, but a tidal wave of rats big enough to cover the entirety of France. (I’d like to see that compiled by Bing.) But these flourishes adorn a sluggish script. At one point, Amicia and Lucas, a loyal ally, mull over the complex ramifications of their situation:
“If we fail. . . Hugo will be alone and. . .”
“And we’ll die.”
“And we don’t want that.”
Well, thank Christ we cleared that one up!
Nevertheless, if you played A Plague Tale: Innocence and you’re eager for more rats, then Requiem is, naturally, a must. As Lucas observes, there aren’t just greater numbers of the little beasts: “They’re faster! More agile! More intelligent!” The game itself, however, is more of the same. There are more sights, it is graphically more handsome, and there is more of it (around eighteen hours, compared to the first game’s ten), but the basic hook is unchanged. I just wish that Asobo wasn’t so terrified to turn off the autopilot from time to time. You don’t need to worry about any of the puzzles – mostly the lever-pulling, torch-igniting sort – because either Lucas or Amicia will call out precisely what you need to do next.
Still, I suppose if you got stuck, you may never get to that island, and poor Hugo will never be cured. And we don’t want that.
Game: A Plague Tale: Requiem
Platform: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Release Date: October 18, 2022