At a time when most video game blockbusters are sprawling open worlds that take dozens if not hundreds of hours to complete, there’s something refreshing about one that takes the more traditional approach of putting all the interesting stuff directly ahead of you. Such was the case with 2019’s A Plague Tale: Innocence, in which the teenage Amicia de Rune, of noble descent, guided and guarded her sickly little brother Hugo on a perilous, often brutal journey through war-torn, vermin-infested medieval France. Blending horror, heart, and enough rats to sink a ship (and then, presumably, flee it) A Plague Tale was a surprise hit from the Bordeaux-based Asobo Studio.
The sequel, Requiem, continues to push Amicia and Hugo through the 14-century wringer, varyingly to greater and lesser effect. After their climactic encounter with the Inquisition at the end of Innocence, the pair travel to southern France, where they enjoy six months of relative peace. But their respite ends abruptly when Hugo’s sickness flares up again, and they are forced to seek treatment in a nearby city from a shadowy organisation of alchemists.
Like the first game, Requiem relies heavily on the relationship between the two siblings. But where Innocence played on the strength of that bond in the face of the many dangers they encountered, Requiem focuses more on the threat of that bond breaking. Amicia and Hugo are psychologically scarred from their brush with the Inquisition, and as their lives descend into turmoil once more, those scars surface in troubling ways. Amicia is simultaneously harder shelled and more brittle than in the first game, and her determination to protect Hugo manifests in explosions of wrathful violence toward her enemies. Hugo, meanwhile, is guilt-ridden over the supernatural connection between his illness and the destructive behaviour of the rats, an understandable reaction when your nightmares have the potential to level entire cities.
Amicia and Hugo’s relationship isn’t the only area of Requiem where cracks begin to show. Without the Inquisition nipping at the pair’s heels, Requiem’s tale flows less organically. The first half sees Amicia bouncing between various attempts to cure what ails Hugo, while the second revolves around an island that Hugo envisioned in a dream, which he believes hides a more permanent solution to his illness. In connecting the two, Requiem makes some odd narrative choices. As the game strives to introduce mechanics from the first game, the characters conveniently forget about some pretty unforgettable experiences (such as Hugo’s ability to control swarms of rats with his mind). Moreover, Requiem abruptly ditches several characters we’re familiar with at the end of the game’s first act, replacing them with more colourful but less relatable companions.
Requiem compensates for the uneven storytelling by heightening the stakes and spectacle. Individual levels are considerably larger than those seen in Innocence, built around lengthy, meandering pathways that take Amicia and Hugo through entire medieval towns, crumbling subterranean ruins, and a vast Mediterranean island that briefly widens the corridor you’re generally funnelled down. These levels are all wondrous to behold, and include several large-scale set-pieces which are apocalyptically stunning.
In terms of how you navigate these spaces, Requiem offers a mixture of sneaking, light action, and the-floor-is-rats-style puzzle-solving. Amicia has a couple of new tools at her disposal, including knives that can quickly eliminate hostile guards, and a crossbow that’s useful as both a weapon and a puzzle-solving device, with Amicia able to shoot flame-bolts into wooden surfaces to create pools of rat-repelling light. Together, they enable more intricate puzzles and combat, although none of it represents a radical departure from Innocence, and the game remains at its least elegant when Amicia confronts her enemies directly.
Throughout its running-time, Requiem treads a fine line between poignant and absurd, balancing heartbreaking scenes in which Hugo wrestles with burdens no child should ever bear, with action sequences where you must flee from literal tsunamis of rats. But even at its most ridiculous, Requiem is always earnest in its ideas. Ultimately, it’s a game about living with incurable illness, the constant daily struggle, the threat of outside circumstances making it worse, the importance of hope, and the sad truth that, sometimes, there is none to be had.
• A Plague Tale: Requiem is out 18 October, on PC, PS4/5 and Xbox Series S/X, £45