Hard-fail scenarios come in thick and fast, and often there’s only one way to progress your movement through the game … combat, which is largely lite-on, is [also] clunky and frustrating. Amicia’s only tools are her sling and variable ammunition you eventually learn to craft. She walks on by lost or discarded weapons, shields and more … [and] in the wake of the situation that sees our hero and her little brother pushing forward through corpses, rat nests and battlefields caked in bloodied fallen, with various other weapons available for pillaging, that she wouldn’t just even pick up a dagger is detrimental to the experience.
It was a jarring and annoying setup overall. The game, for all intents and purposes, was a linear survival affair built around the idea of scrambling and improvising on-the-fly. But A Plague Tale: Innocence’s heavily railroaded systems belied that concept, bookended by hard-fail scenarios, ad nauseam, for not doing things its way.
It’s been three years since Amicia, Hugo and Lucas escaped the nightmare of Guyenne (just a number of months in-game) and with that passage of time and the amount of critical feedback developer Asobo experienced, all eyes have been set on where the talented studio would take the title next.
Out of the gate with this sequel we’re introduced to a next-gen visual representation of 14th Century France, and it is wondrous. Asobo flexes its technical might and historical artistry with aplomb here, in gawk and gasp-inducing ways. Everywhere the eye can see and anywhere you swing your camera you’re presented with a scene like some magical postcard from antiquity. Our heroes frolic and play about the picturesque landscape; carefree, child-like, alive. And as quickly as it might have already crossed your mind, dear reader, yes this is the first game’s subtitle “Innocence” finally playing out before you. Like what you’re witnessing here is a delayed ending to those events. Like they never went through any of the darkness of the first game. Like the plague and the Macula and Hugo’s condition were all just part of some twisted dream…
"Their plans are torn asunder inside the game’s first hour of play as it seems no matter where they go, “The Bite” follows, inextricably connected to Hugo...”
In A Plague Tale: Requiem it doesn’t take long for the darkness to catch up with our three heroes, with Amicia and Hugo’s mother Beatrice (also Lucas’ alchemy magister) also in tow. Hoping to establish a new life and to help Hugo with his condition, their plans are torn asunder inside the game’s first hour of play as it seems no matter where they go, “The Bite” follows, inextricably connected to Hugo. Unfortunately we can metaphorically play with “The Bite”, and consider a number of mechanics and setups from the first game as following on here, uninvited (by the player); swarming large and ominous.
It is also unashamedly a sequel in its truest form. No room here for the age-old developer or publisher line of “you don’t need to have played the first game” or “actually, this sequel is the best place to start your journey”. (I really despise those PR angles.) A Plague Tale: Requiem expands on a handful of aspects of Innocence but by and large the stealth, survive, run and puzzle beats of the first game carry over in near identical cadence. It’s a larger game, and as mentioned above, absolutely stunning and next-gen in its art and presentation, but there’s no evolution of gameplay. Hard-fails, which I’ll get to in more depth shortly, are as frustrating as ever, while Amicia’s weapon choice remains stubbornly stunted. Crafting and resource-management are lite-on, heavily contextualised and easy to manage (though what's there is fun), leaving the game’s environmental puzzles as perhaps the biggest aspect that has seen change, though when you consider that everything is kind of bigger now, with the added power of the newer machines, that kind of lends itself to being naturally expansive.
"At times it can feel like the game is structureless, until certain events trigger, or can’t trigger...”
In concert with the above is how agency and progression works, which is both story-driven and contextual, and wholly directed by the developer. There’s often a *sense* of fluidity to proceedings, as so much exposition and storytelling happens in an on-the-fly sort of way. And at times it can feel like the game is structureless, until certain events trigger, or can’t trigger (until you’ve performed a specific action) or telling environments phone in the next sequence with what might as well be neon blazoned with “welcome to the action” across them. It just consistently falls short of taking itself to the next level, and the potential for that is here. In fact, the entire game is a massive tease of what it *could* be capable of. Every environment is stunning and rich and detailed, begging to be explored. Your only hurdle is the one you can’t see, because it’s invisible, hidden behind an invisible wall.
So by now the question is likely “why play then?”, and you’d be right to get to this point in the review and ask that. The answer falls into the game’s writing and its setting and how that is handled overall. It makes sense, though -- a carefully curated gameplay experience should follow an equally (and meticulously) crafted narrative. It’s not perfect, and sometimes the setup for the sake of the game brings it all undone a bit, such as Amicia’s forced hand moments (which are at odds with her refusal to pick up a sword or any other weapons), or the motivations of some of the baddies, and even the sling and rock fodder you dispatch or ignore. But there’s heart here amidst all the troubling design decisions, and that sense of fluidity mentioned earlier bleeds into this. The desperate and almost impossible nature of Amicia’s protector role is the game’s strung carrot, and it’s all the better for it.
"Hugo is also given a broader role this time around, and I’d almost say the writers have lent even more on his ‘innocence’ here than in the first game...”
Charlotte McBurney’s performance is exemplary again as Hugo’s big sister, while the unsung Lucas, as portrayed by Edan Hayhurst, is a huge counterweight to the desperate and often despaired Amicia, creating a cast that you want to see more of. The game reflects this too. You’ll journey a lot in the early game with Lucas, asking him to perform actions in the environment while relying on his alchemy, which helps keep the more fantastical side of the game front of mind (as if the rat tsunamis weren’t enough). Hugo is also given a broader role this time around, and I’d almost say the writers have lent even more on his ‘innocence’ here than in the first game, or perhaps it’s more naivety -- either way, as an ensemble it all works, while newcomers are also welcome additions and just as well represented, from a performance perspective.
The problem with the above, which is one of the game’s most redeeming feature, is in how a balance is ‘struck’ between turning narrative moments into gameplay, and vice-versa, all of which are bogged down in the game’s biggest problem -- hard-fail.
"Hard-fail scenarios are as thick and fast as the game’s swarms of rats, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hard-fail is the game’s plague...”
Powerful lines of dialogue that centre around Amicia gathering her wits, strength and resolve to face the enemy head-on are quickly snuffed out in a hard-fail scenario. Often again and again and again. The entirety of the game experience is lessened because of it. Even with all its linearity and hand-holding, A Plague Tale is a driving force of an experience because of its excellent narrative and its brilliant characters, but when the writing is cut in half by an antiquated system of trial and error gameplay driven by hard-fail scenarios that are as thick and fast as the game’s swarms of rats, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hard-fail is the game’s plague, and it’s a blight on what would be an otherwise engrossing, enjoyable journey.
This is because it’s no longer enjoyable when you’re harpooned despite feeling like you just managed to run past the enemy, or when the equally slow and not-at-all-fluid aiming system is your only chance of survival. Or when your toe touched some fire and that’s all she wrote, or when the rats get you even though you’re, like, right there one more step away from the light. And the thing is, the hard-fail isn’t just a few moments chapter-to-chapter, they happen all the time and it pulls you so swiftly out of that excellent narrative, it almost feels like the game and its developer is actively working against you and your experience. It’s honestly that detrimental to proceedings.
"I’m not asking for it to be an open-world affair, but certainly more expansive areas, or hubs with interconnecting paths and a larger sense of space to play in and manipulate wouldn’t have gone astray...”
To compound this further, A Plague Tale: Requiem is twice the game Innocence was in length, which means twice the opportunity to frustrate and disenfranchise the player (but twice the story and twice the other more enjoyable stuff). There are other elements missed too, as far as opportunity is concerned. Those invisible walls mentioned earlier, they’re too prevalent and the game’s stunning backgrounds quickly becomes just that -- set-dressing and nothing more. I’m not asking for it to be an open-world affair, but certainly more expansive areas, or hubs with interconnecting paths and a larger sense of space to play in and manipulate wouldn’t have gone astray. Fire is also another missed opportunity, given its place within the game as part of your arsenal. More propagating and maybe more destructible parts of the environment, tied more to puzzles and mob management, just to spit-ball an idea or so. (It certainly would have been something new to explore from a mechanics and system perspective.)
There’s also so much more that could have been in Requiem, it’s a shame that for all its stunning presentation and next-gen flex, it falls really short in the gameplay department.
When the game sings in its strongest moments, however, it’s a joy to play. Solving environmental puzzles, discovering workbenches to upgrade your gear, uncovering hidden Codex entries, evading the enemy in rewarding, stealthy ways that empower the player’s sense of agency, and in unfolding the next bit of connective narrative tissue, A Plague Tale: Requiem is great. Excellent even. But it’s fleeting, and Asobo crashes you down to Earth just as quickly as you might have felt on top of it, driven largely by hard-fail scenarios and situations, bolstered still by antiquated or arbitrary gameplay systems.
I wrote in the conclusion to my review of Innocence:
Which leaves me with the bittersweet closure of this review. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a glimpse into a future ripe for the apple pickings for Asobo … but there’s a void where agency and conducive, contextual gameplay concepts and ideas should have been more fulfilling.
And unfortunately not much has changed where that sentiment is concerned. And if we’re looking solely at the studio’s technical and artistic strengths, it doesn’t need to prove this aspect of its game anymore, but looking at things purely from a gameplay perspective, Asobo might need to come out of the Dark Ages.
What we liked
Stunning, stunning game
Excellent writing and performances all round
A moving soundtrack
When the strongest components combine it's an engaging experience
What we didn't like
Too often, however, it's all brought down by hard-fail scenarios
Linear to its own detriment at times, especially given the environments
Conflict is still frustrating and Asobo's continued support of Amicia's anti-sword stance is annoying