A Plague Tale: Requiem - A Vermin Filled Masterclass
Requiem is a mass for the dead, and there is certainly much death in A Plague Tale’s universe. It drips from every pixel, hanging above any moment of reprieve like a lead weight poised to drop. It’s a tricky thing to find levity in such a world. A Plague Tale: Requiem does so by focusing on beauty by way of resilience. A twisted oak is not ugly, it had adapted and survived. Suffering is the cost of rebirth.
Going into Requiem, you should be prepared for a repeat of the steal-focused, linear storytelling so achingly gouged by the first title, Innocence. This time, though, there is a sense of determination from the design team to push for bigger and better, resulting in an impressive experience that almost meets its lofty goal of something reminiscent of The Last of Us. Constant pressure necessitating careful, methodical stealth comes in the form of incredibly aggressive guard AI and the mindless horde behaviour of the horrible plague rats. You’ll spend upwards of half an hour in some of Requiem’s frankly astounding open arenas, sneaking, planning, running, and (inevitably) failing. Then, exhaustingly, thankfully, reaching the far door to progress to the next section. If you’re like me, this entire process will be messy and frustrating, fraught with heart-pounding hope that you can reach the door before some arsehole guard catches up with you and splits your head open with an axe. It’s something you do need to be in the mood for.
Taking place six months after the end of the first game, Requiem sees you dealing with the encroaching sickness of Hugo’s blood disease and, in no time at all, seemingly endless waves of ravenous rats. No adult is to be trusted in this world, with soldiers ready to spit you like a pig in two seconds flat. Requiem revels in violence and grossness. If there’s a rotting pool of offal, you’ll end up having to wade through it, probably after falling in it and swallowing some. Death is the paint here, medieval France the canvas.
This is a world of disease and decay and darkness. Yet Asobo Studio has managed to capture a penumbra of beauty to outline such putrescence. It is a truly beautiful world, in terms of art design, architecture and in the way it manages, through illusion, to make what are essentially guided corridors feel like more open parts of a whole. You’ll feel like you are wandering through a Witcher 3-sized city but won’t be able to explore much at all should you push at the borders. And it doesn’t matter at all. The first city you visit is a flurry of distractions: hawkers hawking, entertainers entertaining, onlookers looking on, and florists . . . floralling? You are cognisant, though, that this living city is soon to become a dreadful place. The knowledge that rats await in the darkness and will devour all in their path. When it happens, Requiem shows deftness in balancing such light and dark, with puzzles that are enjoyably just on the edge of cogency. This elevates it to something quite special and deeply enjoyable.
Gameplay takes the form of two general setups: the first, my preferred, is when you only have rats to deal with, because these are set up as puzzles with usually only one solution, to be taken at your own pace. Then there are large, open areas with patrolling guards, usually with rats and light puzzles also thrown into the mix. While I appreciated the design expansion of the latter, I couldn’t help feel that the AI’s unpredictable nature hampered me too much. For the first half of the game, they immediately lock you down because you are too powerless. There’s a lot of learning friction against the level design, which seems to suggest certain ways forward, yet these rarely play out as planned given the gauntlet of multiple vision cones (guards are crazy good at spotting you), light source management and the confines created by rats. Throw in a mistaken sling whip instead of a rock throw, which causes a guard to investigate the sound from your position when you wanted him to go the other way, and it’s usually easier to just reload a checkpoint and try again, which can mean replaying large sections over and over until you stumble to the next checkpoint. The counterweight to these unforgiving gauntlets early on is that later in the game you are given extra abilities, as well as the option to order your companions to perform special actions. This then turns the tables, to the point where it is a real thrill to take on guards.
Elsewhere, the biggest change for this sequel comes in the expanded arsenal of controlled protagonist Amicia. Crafting is brought in, and with it the requisite environmental hunt for chests containing ingredients to whip up fire rocks, fire pots, extinguishers, tar and so on. Most situations give you just enough to craft what you need, though you’ll constantly be left wanting more to experiment with or escape detection. Stealth can be reacquired, too, so you can be seen and then piss-bolt to hide again. Enemies are not too smart here, which means you can do this quite easily.
The more you play, the more abilities you gain, and thus your options for dealing with rats and guards become more interesting. When Amicia takes possession of a crossbow, both her options for dealing with enemies and puzzles is again expanded, such as using fire bolts on wooden planks to create more light sources. If you do come across a head-scratching situation, the other characters are quick to offer their thoughts on how to proceed, which is a natural way of urging you into the right track when it comes to manipulating hordes of rats.
Being a videogame in 2022, there is of course an upgrade tree of sorts. Rather than assign points and let you choose from a stealth or action path, the way you play is analysed and Amicia will automatically be upgraded along several pathways, named Prudence, Aggressive and Opportunism. They upgrade across all three naturally, giving you added abilities and perks depending on how you are engaging overall. In another unashamed nod to The Last of Us, you’ll also upgrade gear at workbenches, with a handful of tweaks for your sling, alchemy and other gear. Resources are scarce, so you won’t always have what you need to utilise benches. It’s all quite light, though, and only feels like a dipping of the toes. You can survive without upgrading at all. It’s clear that the story itself was the focus, and it does a brilliant job of crafting an involved narrative with clear objectives. You want Amicia and her family/friends to succeed and you want to kill the shithead guards. There’s little greyness in morality here – everyone is either good or bad and thus helpful or edible.
It’s difficult for me to comment on performance as I played on Series S and the framerate was noticeably locked. Ray tracing was also turned off, with a note from PR that this will be turned on by the time you are reading this. I wasn’t put off by the framerate as it evoked a cinematic feel. The visual language of the game creates beautiful starkness against the death and decay at almost every frame and I found myself constantly aware of how much effort must have gone into creating such an atmospheric experience.
A Plague Tale: Requiem was reviewed on the Xbox Series S with code kindly supplied by the publisher.