I came into A Plague Tale: Innocence with absolutely zero expectations, I’d never heard of Asobo until that point and I didn’t exactly associate Focus Home with quality. I was very impressed and enjoyed it a lot. In contrast to the years that followed, there was a lot of competition in 2019. Unlike it’s predecessor though, I had high hopes for Requiem and interestingly it delivered something I wasn’t expecting that made me think, both about the themes of the game and the design of the game.
Two years into this console generation and I think it’s reasonable to say that we hadn’t seen a true next generation game. First parties straddled generations because they struggled to build enough consoles. People couldn’t get hold of consoles and demand was suppressed by the lack of first party incentive. On top of that 3rd party engines like Unreal and Unity have been stuck in a particularly deep last gen rut that epic is only now starting to claw itself out of. This left an open goal for the few studios that still build their own tech. Asobo’s release cycle lined up perfectly for them to deliver the first true next gen game and it is incredible to look at. It’s not doing anything particularly advanced, it just does what it did last generation but with the hardware limitations removed and it shows a taste of what can and will increasingly be achieved on this hardware.
What kind of game is this?
Innocence already established the series as a strange puzzle/stealth game with a strong emphasis on linear storytelling. I haven’t really played many Naughty Dog games but I get the impression that Asobo borrow a lot from the acclaimed studio. It’s very bold to try and go toe to toe with any first party studio, their budgets are usually at least 1 order of magnitude larger than any game that needs to break even, but especially so of Naughty Dog, that prides themselves on meticulous attention to detail.
It’s clear Asobo worked hard in this game to marry the themes of the gameplay and story together here and I’m divided on whether or not they succeeded. They built a much deeper resource economy for this game and they showed impressive restraint in increasing the player’s pool of resources. At the heart of this game, even more than it’s predecessor is a shared, constrained resource pool that’s used for both puzzles and stealth/combat. The combat needs a finite pool of resources to discourage aggressive play that would be narratively dissonant. The puzzling needs an abundance of these same resources to encourage experimentation.
Ultimately they did fail in squaring this circle and puzzling had to lose out in service of the narrative, but that isn’t as much of a problem as it sounds. The puzzling is primarily used to control the pacing of the story, providing much needed down time from what would otherwise be considered a relentless slaughter. It wasn’t necessary for the puzzles to provide anything more than busy work and exposition and that’s what it does, I think there was only one or two sections where I didn’t know exactly what was expected of me immediately.
The stealth/combat on the other hand, in order to deliver a sense of progression needs to start slow and build and Asobo did this by building in a compelling, believable story about someone struggling and being overcome with trauma and hatred. There are points, particularly early on where I didn’t know if the mechanical game wanted me to be on a murderous rampage or to completely stealth entire encounters. At first, I saw this as a failing of the game but when the story made it clear that Amicia, the main character, was going through the exact same experience I felt closer to the story and more invested. I’m not sure if this is a triumph of design, it’s probably not, but I am sure that I really liked it and it made me think.
The games industry zeitgeist on environment design has until recently been dominated by technical considerations, developers didn’t really choose the environments their games were set in, they were prescribed by technological or production considerations. The beginning of the tedious shift to ‘Open World’ was an inevitable consequence of the loosening of these limitations and developers immediately pushed the boundaries as far as they would go, rendering worlds vast and empty. Developers who pursued this avenue of design can’t be blamed, who wouldn’t want to explore this new range of possibilities. We all needed to get that out of our system but as a consequence, we’re only now emerging from that era into a new one. We’re entering a time where the size of the world is starting to be a reasoned, considered element of design. All this is to say that some developer’s are starting to build worlds that are deliberately smaller than the world they could build.
Through the Open World era there still existed games that lived in the older, extremely linear, story driven experience that pre-dated it, Innocence was one of those games that wasn’t interested in worlds, it wanted to tell a story. Requiem for the most part follows that same formula but there is a peculiar section towards the end where they experiment with something intriguing. Later in the game you are introduced to a relatively vast space, but it’s not an open world game and it doesn’t shift into one. Most of the space is empty and a normal playthrough wouldn’t take you to most of this map, it exists soley to give the player a sense of being in the open. It trusts them not to waste their own experience by going off piste. I think this is to be applauded in such a linear game, most other games of it’s ilk would force the player via obvious path blocking or some other condescending trick.
At the heart of Requiem however is an extremely prescribed design, you approach each encounter with exactly the resources needed to best it in the way the designers intended but there’s a deep, compelling, freeform gameplay loop waiting to break out and in this later open section I can see a version of A Plague Tale that lets the player off the leash. I hope to see it emerge in the next game from Asobo, I know they are capable of great things and I’ll be buying their next game regardless of what shape it takes.