Quite a few of us were caught off-guard in 2019 with A Plague Tale: Innocence. An experience of top-notch dramaturgy that pitted siblings Amicia and Hugo De Rune against the travails of a cruel, unforgiving and adult world. Which, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, used gameplay and environmental storytelling to communicate the relationship and bond between the two siblings that was at the core of its narrative. It was a game that, while it wore the mantle of "AA" production, the emotional payoff from it was far greater than games of many times the budget. Not to mention the difficult path the French creators chose, with a proprietary engine that was a work of art and simple, yet utterly committed to serving the narrative, gameplay.
Without much fanfare, and while the finale of the first game didn't foreshadow much of a sequel, A Plague Tale: Requiem (henceforth APT: Requiem for short) was announced. Innocence was admittedly quite heavy thematically, but Hugo's naive, innocent antics functioned as grilles that let a bit of light through. They were the driving force for Amicia to keep fighting, no matter the odds, to protect the one dearest to her. APT: Requiem follows this theme, but to a lesser degree, so that we experience more acutely the desperation that goes hand in hand with fighting against an insurmountable foe.
Our tale finds the two siblings heading to Provence, 6 months after the events of the first game. Having left Guyenne and the past that scarred them behind, they seem to finaly enjoy the carefree life they so sought after. Like all good things though, it won't last forever. Along the way, a series of events will awaken the rare disease in Hugo's blood (known as Macula) and with it the hordes of rats associated with it. Therefore, Amicia, along with her little brother and their friend Lucas, will urgently seek a cure that will rid the boy of the cursed malady once and for all. Without wanting to give too much away, the story is well-crafted, in the vein of the first game, though a few scenes (especially those involving slowly walking towards an objective) drag on a little longer than we'd like. The acting and portrayal of the characters' emotions continues to impress. The script remains of a high standard, keeping interest in the action, even at points where the pace at which it unfolds seems to slow down.
In Requiem once again, we will crawl through mud, blood and death. The similarities between 14th century France of the game, and the real-life equivalent of the Black Death that claimed countless people, are undeniable. We will do everything we can to help little Hugo, because he deserves it. Because he represents the future and hope. The lines between love, devotion, obsession and fear of loneliness will blur. Amicia, and us by extent, will feel conflicted on many occasions, perhaps even guilty. How far would we go for a loved one? All those soldiers we kill, did they have it coming? Is collateral damage a necessary evil? Requiem is the elegy of innocence. With a boy trying to keep that spark alive and a girl for whom her brother means everything to her, the log that keeps her afloat in a sea of inhumanity.
The tools for staying alive are provided by the environment. There is no need to collect stones anymore, as we can hold an infinite number of them. But we have to collect various materials that allow us to make alchemical mixtures for the sling or improvised bombs of great utility, ranging from providing light - remember, light is our friend, rats are not - to bait for the pesky vermins. Of course as in Innocence, these can be used both on the environment and directly on our opponents. Although we miss Devorantis, we can't complain because there are more recipes and a variety of ways to take out our opponents. A new way we can take out helmeted enemies is the crossbow. It's fast and effective, but it should be used sparingly because arrows are limited in number. It goes without saying that alchemical recipes can be employed to this weapon as well, with the effect being permanent if the smeared arrow is stuck to a wooden surface. Our favorite tactic remains the extinguishing of fires in torches and braziers, with unsuspecting guards becoming the quarry of the ravenous rodents that take comfort in the shadows.
And speaking of tactics, APT: Requiem tracks the way we approach each challenge that lies in our path. Tactics that pertain to be unseen and unheard by enemies and keep our killing urges in check" (i.e. less than 25% kills) boost the Prudence Skill, which unlocks various bonuses that favor stealth. We can of course go crossbows blazing (stealth is optional), an approach that favours the Aggressive Skill and provides bonuses to being confrontational. Finally, there's the Opportunism Skill for the more creative among us, which ramps up using indirect ways to neutralize our foes, such as throwing bait at an enemy, making them a moving target for the four-legged pests. The rewards of this skill are related to strengthening our alchemical mixtures.
Environmental puzzles are of course still an important part of the gameplay, whether or not they involve passing through a flood of rats. Even more thoughtful and frequent than the first A Plague Tale, are the set pieces that we have to negotiate, which inclue rats and human patrols simultaneously. The enemy AI is deemed satisfactory (at least in terms of the guards' hearing at close range, though this can get annoying in the latter areas prompting us to ghost through), more or less on par with the first game, but it doesn't compare to purely stealth titles like the Dishonored series or Metal Gear Solid V.
Moving on to the visual aspect of the game, the images accompanying the text speak volumes about the quality of the graphics. Certainly in terms of detail in the vegetation and the various textures on the surfaces, few games can even come close to rivaling APT: Requiem. Likewise, the detail in the character models is among the best out there. One of the best attractions of the title is still the depiction of a few thousands (by now) Rattus rattus. It's a quite a technological feat how we perceive this living carpet of death and disease crawling, swirling around us, winding over walls, etc.
The magnificent visuals, however, come at a price: hardware requirements. Looking at them, you'd think they were pulled from a title that would be released 2+ years from now. In the test system though (GPU: Asrock Radeon RX 6800 XT 16GB, CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 5800X 3. 8GHz, RAM: Corsair Vengeance 32GB DDR4), the game ran smoothly, averaging 75-80 frames per second (and with some noticeable, thankfully not frequent drops), 1440p resolution and all settings on ultra except for Shadow Maps, Volumetric Lights, Contact Shadows and Screen-Space Reflections, which were on high.
On one hand, the game is quite demanding by 2022 standards and to enjoy it with all the bells and whistles - and by extension the most immersive experience in a digital South France - you'll need a powerful rig. On the other hand though, for medium-high at 1080p which is what most people are concerned about, I think the game will play without issues. As far as audio is concerned, the title also shoots very high. The squeaking of ravenous rodents will follow you through several moments of the adventure, accompanied by dissonant strings. On the opposite side, in serene moments, folk medieval melodies will provide the so much needed reprieve and reflection.
To conclude, we could mention some mishaps, such as the lip sync that needed a little more work or the voices of the protagonists that have a British accent (oddly enough they are the same voice actors as in the previous title) but then we would miss the point. And that is that A Plague Tale: Requiem is a valuable piece of art. Human-centric, touching, the feeling of warmth lost. It's not pleasant, but it deserves our praise.