For much of 2020, Asobo Studio had its head in the clouds. While airports around the globe came to a standstill, the French developer was putting the finishing touches on Microsoft Flight Simulator, offering a timely invitation to bright and beautiful getaways across the real-time airspace of planet earth. But after a brief stint in those digital skies, Asobo's focus is back deep amongst the grit and grime of terra firma, entrenched within the war-torn ravages of 12th century France.
One of the many new E3 2021 games revealed over the Summer, A Plague Tale: Requiem is the studio's next project, as the direct sequel to its 2019 action-adventure hit, A Plague Tale: Innocence. The brief cinematic teaser for the game didn't reveal much, but confirms that we'll be reunited with sibling protagonists Amicia and Hugo de Rune, with a launch slated for next year exclusively on next-generation consoles and PC (it'll also be available on Nintendo Switch via cloud streaming).
With A Plague Tale: Innocence's next-gen update recently hitting Xbox Series X/S and PS5, in the Year of the Rat no less, now is thus the perfect time to catch up with Asobo's first original IP. Arriving in the same period as some of the best-action adventure games of our time, it was easy to let Innocence slip past you for better-known titles with bigger development budgets and marketing campaigns. But to keep it forever off your backlog would be to miss out on a quietly exceptional pilgrimage across a rarely explored slice of history, and the beginnings of what could well be one of the most promising new IPs of the last generation.
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Much of A Plague Tale: Innocence's uniqueness stems from its miniature hordes of plague-carrying pests. Set at the height of the Black Death's sweep across Europe, swarms of carnivorous rats will inundate Amicia and Hugo at almost every turn of their escape from the clutches of the French Inquisition. Right from the beginning, Asobo knew that if it was going to make its rats the primary antagonist of the game (not to mention a core part of its puzzling and combat mechanics), it had to perfect their hive-like behaviour to a tee.
"The rats needed to have a sense of authenticity to them," explains game director Kevin Choteau, reflecting on the making of Innocence. "To invoke this feeling of something that could really exist in our world, and also seem unstoppable, you know? We wanted players to be terrified of walking into their path, knowing that they would die instantly. Quantity was also a big challenge from the beginning; we knew we wanted the maximum amount of rats on-screen as possible."
To achieve its vision, Asobo's team spent hours studying footage of real-life rat swarms in action, while also looking at how other games had executed crowd AI at scale, from Uncharted's spider clutters to the revolutionary masses in another historical French adventure – Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed: Unity. But, as Choteau explains, the studio also worked hard to maintain the illusion of its critters, regardless of how many were ever on-screen at once.
"We wanted to make sure the rats looked believable when they were on their own," he adds. "If you look at World War Z, you often see a huge group of zombies, but never see how a single one behaves by itself. In our case, you can have only one rat and it still needs to be scary too. So there was always this balance in making sure that just one rat could be really well animated with realistic behaviour and pathfinding, but then being able to multiply that and maintain the plausibility."
Sure enough, the rats of A Plague Tale: Innocence are the undeniable star of the show, throwing an unpredictable element of dread and danger into every encounter, while presenting unique gameplay opportunities to players who are smart enough to use them against the game's human enemies.
Without going into too much detail, the game's final chapter amps up the rat action to the nth degree, pushing Innocence's story into the waters of surrealist horror with some of the wildest, unholiest tapestries woven this generation. See it through to the end, and you'll never be able to watch Disney's Ratatouille in the same way again.
A tale to remember
A Plague Tale: Innocence sold over a million copies in its first year of launch, establishing the new IP as lasting franchise material for publisher Focus Home Interactive. Given that game's open-ended climax, it's little wonder that Asobo is already hard at work on the sequel, which – according to the press release – aims to throw players into "another struggle for survival in a dark, plague-ridden medieval world" as the del Rune siblings.
"The reception of the game was crazy for us," admits Choteau. "We made it for ourselves, basically. We said 'Let's do it for us first and see what the players' response is like'. But to see the reaction within the first few weeks was so reassuring, and incredible for the team."
A Plague Tale: Requiem's trailer confirms the rats are back in full force, too, flooding the streets of French towns in numbers that dwarf even the crowds that Amicia and Hugo contended with towards the end of Innocence's campaign. You can't help but wonder how the supercharged SSD's of the latest consoles will allow Asobo to push its established 'rat tech' to new limits, but Choteau offers a simple answer: "more of everything".
"We've reached a point where graphics are already as good as they can be," he says. "So the fight is somewhere else. The next-generation is about creating as much of a living world as you can. Where everything is moving and reacting to your actions." We can only imagine what those new frontiers of worldbuilding means for A Plague Tale's next-gen rats, but the thought is already making my skin crawl.
Fresh off the back of both A Plague Tale: Innocence and Microsoft Flight Simulator, Asobo has now firmly established itself as a studio to watch in the coming years. The team spent much of its nascent years working on Disney video game adaptations, but now enters the new generation as a leading systems designer known for its commitment to authenticity, be it real-time flight conditions or horrifying sprawls of teeth and tails.