All you need is a body to get started. Little Hugo and his older sister Amicia de Rune have abandoned their house in 14th-century France to seek refuge in the region known as Provence, away from the war zones and the plague that have swept over their country. At first glance, it would appear that they had succeeded.
Amicia and Hugo go along the coast of the Mediterranean to a city that seems untouched by the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death. The first victim that Amicia discovers is crumpled in the dark, their face marred and deformed by the telltale marks of the plague: dark, necrotized flesh, and pus-filled pimples.
One dead body inevitably leads to the discovery of another. Moreover, there is another. Another example. Amicia soon finds herself sifting through piles of bodies in an old stone auditorium and the alleys surrounding it, where the onset of the plague has been kept secret from the locals.
The original “A Plague Tale,” “A Plague Tale: Innocence,” came out in 2019, when stories about a medieval outbreak didn’t bring to mind the all-too-realistic visions of widespread death and illness. “A Plague Tale: Requiem” is the sequel. The game’s portrayals of disease, from the prevalence of sick, dying, and dead people to the tale about characters fighting to find hope despite such impersonal cruelty, feel nauseatingly familiar three years into our modern pandemic.
Thankfully, the over-the-top expressionist style used in “Requiem” prevents its horrors from being too realistic, even though they are set in a bloody 14th century. With a message of optimism emphasized by the outsized spectacle of its mountains of chittering plague rats and dead bodies, it justifies peering into a reminder of what we’ve faced in modern times.
Amicia’s plight to protect her younger brother, whose cursed blood holds mysterious powers, resumes immediately following the events of “Innocence.” She must do so in a France groaning under the weight of war and plague while fighting off a world determined to show her the full extent of human brutality and steal her brother.
“Requiem” goes further than the original game’s tendency to mix colorful fantasy with historical fiction by including mystical lineages and supernatural explanations for the Black Death’s destruction. The game’s depiction of the Hundred Years’ War serves as a backdrop. Still, the game’s description of death and inhumanity, with its hillocks of corpses and labyrinths of writhing rats, loses some of its unique historical nightmares.
Most of the time, players take control of a flawed teenager and lead her through hordes of generic yet deadly foes. Beyond the original game’s modest collection of sequences, the sequel features a gantlet of stealth levels in which Amicia and her comrades must outwit and outmaneuver the larger, organized army of bandits and soldiers roaming war-torn France.
Most of the game is still spent hiding from foes in the shadows of collapsing buildings and lush grass or dodging their attacks behind cover.
Like in “Innocence,” Amicia’s primary weapon is a slingshot, which may modify the environment (or terminate lives) by slinging hunks of rock or wads of combustible or rodent-attracting stuff at targets. However, the battlefields’ newfound expansiveness allows for more creative problem-solving and adaptability from players.
The larger scale provides more chances to use distraction techniques, such as tossing a ceramic pot and ducking beneath a table until it’s safe to slip past a roving goon or to gather things to launch bait so the ever-present plague rats will emerge and swarm and devour an opponent.
Requiem is made to work with any of these strategies, providing enough ammo for ruthless players to slay a whole knight regiment while still letting stealthy ones get past their line of sight.
The action in “Requiem” is more fun, thanks to adding variation compared to the first game. However, the identical sequences can get old after playing for the game’s total length of about 24 hours. This wouldn’t be a problem if these sections were intercut with exploring segments heavy on dialogue.
Thankfully, “Requiem” doesn’t spend too much time on any area or puzzle type. The game’s length may dilute the fun of the engaging action, but the compelling story and visually stunning presentation more than makeup for it.
Unlike its predecessor, “Requiem” trades the dreary autumn and winter months spent in the former province of Guyenne for the bright greenery, sun-baked masonry, and coastal views of the Provence region. The game’s visuals are stunning, with a keen eye for framing dramatic panoramas of rushing mountain streams, towering mountaintops, and sandy beaches as Amicia, Hugo, and their companions travel from location to location.
The plague rats are still the most horrifying aspect of this place; they emerge in enormous torrents of inky fur and mindlessly tear through stone walls and wooden roofs and squealing onlookers like horrifying undulating and chittering black magma.
Every music in the game is just as vivid and lush as the next, whether it is the strings shrieking spidery notes of dread when rodents spring into view or swaying with seasick bowing when Amicia witnesses a particularly horrifying image. As Amicia and Hugo become jaded from witnessing and inflicting so much death, a choir sings versions of a requiem with the same name throughout.
A plot holds everything together, and while it takes a while to get going, you’ll feel a lot more for the characters than you might expect, given the sneering aristocrats, magical kids, and overblown images of death. You are putting supernatural elements first,t raising concerns that viewers might lose connection with the personal stakes of Amicia and Hugo’s struggle for survival.
However, in one of the countless Dantean descents into the depths of an underground, rodent-inflected hell, the reason for the supernatural slant is revealed. The metaphoric power of the disease is so fully realized there. It stands in for the callousness of humanity, the seas of rats a churning, shrieking embodiment of existential dread.
The game’s point becomes immediately apparent once this mechanism is recognized. In “Requiem,” “A Plague Tale” takes the nightmares of disease and war, which it introduced in the first part of the series, and elevates them from the specifics of history to become broader symbols, asking players to contemplate how we persevere in the face of what seems like eternal suffering that humanity must endure.
This is a perennial concern, but it becomes especially pressing in the third year of a pandemic. By any standard of measurement, we should be rendered utterly hopeless in the face of the astonishing quantity of illness and death, the cumulative cruelty of civilizations that blatantly choose and continue to prefer the health of imbalanced economies over the protection of human life. And still, we do it.
Amicia tells us at the end of “Requiem” that the only thing that stops our species from giving in to despair in times like hers and our own is the recognition of the “goodness” in ourselves and others, the desire to make life better for those around us. It’s a straightforward message that may sound trite out of its dramatic setting, but it rings true all the same.
The catharsis “Requiem” delivers a valuable salve, even if pandemic fiction may seem like the last thing spectators need right now. It serves as a sobering reminder that we are not alone in our feelings of bewilderment, terror, and loss.
This is an argument in favor of bringing everything out into the open so that we might try to hear what notes of hope sing through the darkness rather than burying the toll of so much agony away in the shadows, secreting bodies in dark corridors.