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‘A Plague Tale: Requiem’ conjures hope amid the cruelty of a pandemic

A Plague Tale: Requiem

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S

Developer: Asobo Studio | Publisher: Focus Entertainment

Release date: Oct. 18, 2022

It starts with a body. Amicia de Rune and her little brother, Hugo, have escaped the battlefields and pandemic spreading throughout their home in 14th-century France and fled to an area called Provence in search of a safer place to live. At first, it seems they’ve found it. Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Amicia and Hugo arrive at a city that seems as if it’s been spared the terrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death. Then Amicia finds the first body, crumpled in shadow, face scarred and distorted by the plague’s telltale signs: dark, necrotized flesh and pus-filled bumps. The discovery of this body leads to another. And another. And another. Soon, Amicia is picking her way through piles of corpses kept hidden from the public in an old stone auditorium and its surrounding alleyways, the arrival of the disease concealed from those living nearby.

“A Plague Tale: Requiem” is the sequel to “A Plague Tale: Innocence,” which released in 2019, when fiction set during a medieval pandemic didn’t immediately conjure up all-too-familiar scenes of mass death and illness in the real world. Now, three years into our modern pandemic, the game’s depictions of disease — from the ubiquity of sick, dying and dead bodies to its story about characters struggling to find hope amid so much impersonal cruelty — feel queasily recognizable.

Fortunately, “Requiem” portrays the waking nightmares of life in its blood-soaked 14th-century setting with an over-the-top expressionist flair that keeps its terrors from too closely mirroring reality. It justifies staring into a reminder of what we’ve endured in the modern day with a message of hope that’s amplified by the outsize dread of its mountains of chittering plague rats and dead bodies.

Picking up immediately after “Innocence’s” conclusion, Amicia must again shepherd her younger brother through a France straining under the weight of war and plague — and persevere against a world determined to not only show her the full extent of human brutality, but also steal her brother, whose cursed blood holds mysterious powers.

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Compared to the first game, “Requiem” leans much further into a tendency to inject its historical fiction with colorful fantasy regarding mystical bloodlines and supernatural explanations for the Black Death’s destruction. In the process, the game loses some of the ground-level horror from its back drop of the Hundred Years’ War, using its hillocks of corpses and labyrinths of writhing rats as broad stand-ins for violent death and inhumanity, rather than as expressions of specific historical nightmares.

Players spend the bulk of their time controlling a normal, fallible teenager, guiding her through encounter after encounter with groups of murderous but mundane enemies. The gantlet of stealth levels in which Amicia and her companions must outwit and outmaneuver the larger, organized forces of bandits and soldiers patrolling war-torn France have expanded beyond the simpler set of sequences featured in the original game. Gameplay still mostly consists of sneaking through thickets of tall grass, ducking behind walls and into the shadows of crumbling buildings to avoid open confrontation with enemies.

As in “Innocence,” Amicia’s main weapon is a slingshot that doubles as both a puzzle-solving staple and deadly child’s toy, able to manipulate the environment (or end lives) by whipping hunks of rock or wads of flammable or rodent-attracting material at targets. But the layout of the battlefields has widened to allow for a greater variety of solutions and more player flexibility. The increased scale offers more opportunities to distract a wandering goon by tossing a ceramic pot and sliding underneath a table until it’s safe to slip past, or collecting materials to launch bait so the ever-present plague rats will emerge to swarm and devour an opponent. “Requiem” is designed to accommodate any of these kinds of approaches, always offering up enough ammunition to allow bloodthirsty players to crack the skulls of an entire regiment of knights while still providing the opportunity to quietly crouch past their field of view.

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Though this variety makes “Requiem’s” action more enjoyable than the first game’s, these sequences can grow repetitive over the game’s roughly 24 hour length. This would be a bigger issue if these bits weren’t regularly broken up with alternating scenes of dialogue-heavy exploration. Luckily, “Requiem” never lingers too long on any one location or type of puzzle. And despite the game’s runtime stretching the appeal of its generally entertaining combat too thin, it justifies its length elsewhere with a propulsive plot and a beautifully rich aesthetic.

By shifting the setting from fall and winter in the former province of Guyenne to summer in the dustier, ochre-red valleys and palm-dotted Mediterranean coast of the Provence region, “Requiem” substitutes the damp and gloom of its predecessor for vibrant greenery, sunbaked stonework and seafront views. It’s a gorgeous game, framing the movements of Amicia, Hugo and their companions through each location with an eye for dramatic vistas of rushing mountain streams, towering mountaintops and sandy beaches. As before, its plague rats remain a grotesque highlight, emerging in great torrents of inky fur to mindlessly tear through stone walls, wooden roofs and screaming bystanders like horribly undulating and chittering black magma.

The game’s music is equally evocative and lush throughout, the strings shrieking spidery notes of panic when rats burst into view or swaying with seasick bowing when Amicia encounters a particularly horrific scene. Choirs sing variations of an eponymous requiem throughout, seeming to memorialize the death of the first game’s “Innocence” subtitle as Amicia and Hugo become hardened to witnessing and inflicting so much death.

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Structuring all of this is a story that is a little slow to gain momentum, but ends up far more emotionally rich than the cartoonishness of its sneering aristocrats, magical children and exaggerated depictions of death would suggest. Initially, it seemed that prioritizing fantasy plot devices might distance players from the dramatic intimacy of Amicia and Hugo’s fight for survival. The reason for the supernatural bent eventually becomes clear, though, in one of several Dantean descents to the bowels of a subterranean, rodent-inflected hell. There, the plague fully establishes itself as a strong metaphor. It becomes a stand-in for human cruelty, the seas of rats a roiling, screeching manifestation of existential dread.

When this device becomes apparent, the game’s purpose snaps into focus. “A Plague Tale,” having introduced the intertwining nightmares of disease and war in its first installment, sees that these evils have always afflicted us, and brings them out from the particulars of history to become broader symbols in “Requiem.” With this, the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War become something metaphysical and universal, and the game asks players to consider how we carry on despite the seemingly eternal suffering humanity must endure.

This question would resound at any time, but it hits harder in the third year of a pandemic. The staggering scale of illness and death; the compounding cruelty of societies that nakedly chose and continue to favor the health of lopsided economies over the protection of human life: experiencing all of this should, by any metric, leave us unable to go on. And yet we do.

In a speech by Amicia toward the end of “Requiem,” we’re told that recognizing the “goodness” in ourselves and others — wanting, essentially, to make life better for those around us — is what keeps our species from succumbing to despair in times like hers and our own. It’s a simple message, a bit pat when divorced from dramatic context, but, ultimately, it’s a sentiment that resonates.

Though pandemic fiction may seem like the last thing audiences need right now, the catharsis “Requiem” provides is a valuable salve. It reminds us that others, today and in the past, feel or have felt our same confusion, fear and grief. In this, it makes an argument not for hiding the toll of so much pain away in the shadows, secreting bodies in dark passageways, but of bringing everything out into the light of day so we can try to hear what notes of hope sing through the darkness.

Reid McCarter is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared at the AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste and Vice. He is also a co-editor of books SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, edits Bullet Points Monthly, and tweets @reidmccarter.

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