James Stephanie Sterling
A Plague Tale: Requiem - Rat's All, Folks (Review)
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
A Plague Tale: Requiem Released: 18th October 2022 Developer: Asobo Studio Publisher: Focus Entertainment Systems: PC, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox XS (reviewed)
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a true treasure. While it understandably drew attention for featuring a disturbing amount of rat-based horror, what really made this game such an exemplary production was its touching character development, especially the growing relationship between its two principal characters, Amicia and Hugo. It certainly helped that the gameplay worked well too, blending tense stealth sections and environmental puzzles involving swarms of horrifyingly vicious rats.
This was one of my favorite games of 2019. Sad, morbid, at times thoroughly gruesome, but heartfelt and poignant in its humanizing story. It was - and still is - a masterpiece.
A Plague Tale: Requiem is not a masterpiece. It’s a game possessed of ambition, that much is certain, and it goes the extra mile in a bid to expand upon the original both mechanically and narratively. While the sum of its parts equates to a fine game indeed, Requiem suffers from a case of subtraction through addition, and at times loses itself in the very ambition it’s so eager to realize.
Amicia and what’s left of her family are looking for a cure that will finally rid her little brother Hugo of the Macula, an affliction that threatens to take him over while it draws out devastating plagues of killer rats. Requiem picks up in Provence, where the Macula inevitably begins to rear its verminous head once again. That’s the scene set pretty adequately for the return of rats, and yet another grim portrayal of evil men doing evil things in a world of unremitting violence.
One of the strongest threads of the sequel is Amicia’s increasingly aggressive response to said violence. A Plague Tale’s world is as unforgiving and gloomy as anything found in the works of George R. R. Martin, and Requiem explores what happens when someone pushed around in such a world finally has enough. How she pushes back, and the impact that has on a brother that looks up to her, is explored in a far more sensitive and compelling way than most videogames that trot out the old “cycle of violence” tropes.
It’s at least a deeper story than simply “revenge = bad,” which I appreciate.
I’m less keen on the arcing narrative involving ancient conspiracies and an increased emphasis on the rat plague as a more magical phenomenon. None of it’s bad per se, and at times the story takes turns that are intriguing in their strangeness, but A Plague Tale is at its best when it’s grounded, looking at the very real horrors of war, and focusing on more personal grisliness of the plague’s devastation.
Requiem shines brightest when it puts the characters in the spotlight. In fact, for all its depressing qualities, my favorite moments come in the form of lighthearted and witty dialogue, the downtime between miserable events where Amicia and her evolving retinue of allies banter and squabble. Requiem’s sense of humor will likely go underrated, but it really stands out when it appears.
Story isn’t the only place where the sequel went bigger. Amicia has more options when it comes to outwitting the enemies she makes, environments are larger, and the rat swarms sometimes reach oceanic proportions as they flood the world. Bigger, however, doesn’t always mean better, and Requiem’s expansion comes at a price.
The stealth gameplay serves as the more prominent example. The original game’s sneaking sections were predominantly presented in the form of something I call “directed stealth” - relatively linear segments where there was one way of doing things, and so long as you made sure to move at the right moments you would just about make it through. Directed stealth is often criticized by the wider community, but I’ve always been a proponent of it. When done right, it allows a game to tightly control its sense of tension, to make the player feel like they’re escaping trouble by a hair’s breadth. More open stealth gameplay only creates that feeling by chance, and while it may offer more stuff to do, there’s something to be said for a game that sets its own pace and creates an effective sense of risk, even if it’s somewhat illusory.
As you might have guessed, Requiem almost entirely ditches directed stealth for more open spaces with multiple paths of progression and a wider selection of tools with which to navigate them. In doing so, it may appease those who still treat “linear” as a dirty word, but it absolutely loses the pace, the timing, the controlled pressure that Innocence regularly had.
Worse, it pivots so harshly away from linearity that at times it sprawls out of control. Enemy guards may start on predictable patrols, but as they become more aware of your presence, they tend to wander around with seemingly random intent, and their tendency to alert half a dozen of their friends can turn stealth into a guessing game where you just have to hope a guard won’t stumble into your hiding place or be coming up behind you as you crawl through a building.
It gets really damn frustrating at times.
Requiem wants to encourage a mixture of play styles, and even has limited character progression that unlocks skills depending on how you deal with threats. In theory, the enemy makeup includes opponents who punish you for relying on any one playstyle, but in practice they make all options feel ineffective. From helmeted guards that can’t be killed without rare resources to archers who look over entire environments with eagle eyes, any given area features a mix of enemies so complimentary to each other as to be infuriating.
You struggle to feel like you have a clear way through without things getting messy, and when the mess happens, you’re pretty likely to be overwhelmed and blindsided.
With the open environments come less reliable mechanics overall. Rats, for example, have attacked me multiple times while I’m stood in the light that’s meant to ward them off. I can’t always trust that safe spaces in the game are actually safe, or that the awkward targeting system will lock onto an enemy properly while I’m engaged in a hectic fight. It’s a good example of how offering more content and options also offers more ways for a game’s flaws to show.
These flaws are not consistent, fortunately, and Requiem is very much a case of something that might not always work, but really hits right when it does. The varied tools that Amicia collects are pretty neat in how varied their uses can be, and some really clever environmental puzzles reveal themselves as a result. Dealing with the rats by using light sources and creating paths through the swarm is as engrossing as it was in Innocence. You can now fill pots with alchemical substances, and use tar to create your own ignitable surfaces. Rocks are no longer a limited resource, meaning the sling is always usable even if the increased presence of helmets means it’s not always useful.
As the adventure progresses and players unlock even more gear, Requiem steadily improves, eventually becoming the game Asobo Studio clearly wanted it to be - a game that might not be the tight stealth horror I wanted, but one that’s still bloody engrossing. By the time you’re rocking a crossbow and can craft what amounts to alchemical bombs, you have a much better time.
You have to really earn it by going through some Early Game Hell, but once you have access to a more powerful arsenal and a few methods of taking out even the toughest of foes, Requiem comes into its own. There’s something to be said for the bitter satisfaction one feels after being kicked around for so long. Very much a game of two halves, A Plague Tale: Requiem plays so much better in the back end compared to the front.
I am not surprised that it features a New Game Plus option. As far as the first time playthrough goes, while I’d happily play Innocence again from beginning to end, there are sections of Requiem I’m glad to never have to go through again. At least without taking advantage of that NG+ mode.
Of note is the excellent vocal cast, particularly Charlotte McBurney giving a powerful performance as Amicia. Strangely, the French accents featured in the English localization of Innocence are no longer present. After starting the game, I was rather surprised to see the same characters (and mostly the same performers) speaking with British accents. From what I’ve seen, my enjoyment of the original accents is a minority opinion, so I’m guessing the change is a response to criticism. I got used to it, but it makes for a dissonant introduction.
The evocative soundtrack matches that of the original game, and while the graphics aren’t the most dazzling on the market, that’s more than made up for with some gorgeous scenery and facial animations that are frankly far better than the majority of what bigger budget games seem capable of.
A Plague Tale: Requiem is definitely a game worth playing for fans of the original despite my criticisms. Overall I enjoyed my time, thanks in no small part to a vastly superior second half. I lament the loss of better directed linear stealth in favor of messier open environments, but the core of what makes A Plague Tale great - strong characters, bleak horror, and tons of squicky rats - remains firmly in place.