It begins with a plea for help. A close up on a teenage girl's panicked face, clandestinely whispering about being “erased." Her name is Hope. You don't know why she's called you. You can't quite tell where she is. But you know she's frightened, and everything is horribly wrong. We know this not because some omniscient narrator fills us in on the world in Republique's opening scene but in the same way you get all your information in Republique, a way that few games offer: you observe. You explore.The truth about Hope's new surroundings is out there, on the walls, in the newspapers, on the voicemails scattered around the game. A foreboding “headmaster” sees all, assuring an unseen populace that all is still right with the world--except clearly it isn't.
You're surrounded by guards, people are blathering on about manifestos, the dangers of information, and about the poisonous influence of a dead rebel named Daniel Zager, who sets the tone at the game's outset with a single quote: “I used to be angry at my government because I thought they weren't listening. Now I'm angry because I know they are.” We are in a world of lavish accommodations, a place that more resembles Xavier's School for the Gifted than any sort of prison, and yet all the other telltale signs of a stone cold prison are inescapable, and in full view.
And so begins Republique, with a sense of supreme disquiet, and a constant, ongoing bewilderment. It's that bewilderment that drives the game onward and what keeps players guessing episode after episode through a mystery that's all too reticent to hand out the easy answers.
The dystopian nightmare is a compelling veneer for a rather simple stealth game when it comes down to brass tacks, though. Once you break Hope out of her initial confinement cell, your task is simply to keep her out of the hands of the Prizrak, the private security stooges milling about, keeping Pre-Cals—that is, the children of Republique—in their place, locked up, and under control. You do this by hijacking the thousands of surveillance devices scattered around the place, Watch Dogs style, and guide Hope from hiding place to hiding place, just beyond the sight of the Prizrak, hacking every piece of electronics you can find, occasionally managing to improve your door access in the process. Republique's lineage shows here. Developer Camouflaj has a few Metal Gear Solid veterans working under its roof, and that game's stealth pedigree shows in the patrol patterns, Hope's hiding spots, and the more advanced reactions when the Prizrak spot Hope and give chase.
The difference is that Hope doesn't have Snake's arsenal—or anything much at all really. Hope can pick up pepper spray, tasers, and a landmine that puts Prizrak to sleep. She can even pickpocket from the Prisrak if she's clever. But for every item Hope picks up to just barely fend off being caught, the Prizrak get taser-proof armor and nerve gas. It's in character for the game at least, since Hope is definitely shown to be a naïve character who wouldn't know anything about the subtle arts of murder and persuasion. But it means often feeling like Hope is hideously outnumbered and outgunned.
Or at least it would if getting caught meant death, or punishment, or higher security. Instead, losing means getting marched hands-up to the nearest confinement cell (which are, essentially, the game's save rooms), waiting for the guard to leave so you can bust Hope out. For a place that seemingly wants Hope dead, and has no problem with putting the boots to anyone who disobeys, they seem to handle Hope the way you would a bratty 4 year old, and it works every time. It doesn't make sneaking any less fun, and arguably, the infinite retries are often a blessing, considering the amount of backtracking you already have to do, but it does mess with the game's immersion.
Indeed, breaking the hypnotic, curious spell the game can cast when its doling out more of the mystery is its biggest problem. Ironically, the Playstation 4 version’s greatest technical success lends a hand to its greatest failure. The mobile and PC ports strictly kept the player as an omniscient voyeur, whose all-seeing eye jumped around the facility, whose touch/cursor led Hope every step of the way to freedom. For PS4, the game’s interface has been heavily redesigned to take full advantage of the DualShock4, with camera jumps now context sensitive, with buttons assigned to elements in the environment, Mark of Kri-style.
This also allows the player full control over Hope using the left analog stick instead of just pointing her to the next location. On the positive side, except for an occasional stickiness when leaving cover, Hope’s movements are appropriately responsive and simple to latch onto, making stealth all the more intuitive. The problem is the dissonance that comes with now being in full control over someone who still consistently asks for your assistance during gameplay--it essentially robs her of hard-won agency in the process.
The hits to immersion don't stop there. When jumping from camera to camera, you have the ability to read detailed files on each of the guards, which would be a nifty touch, one that pays off in spades in the third episode, if not for the fact that most of the guards' files have a giant “Kickstarter backer” stamp under their country's flag, and often references their gamer identities. Early on, you start getting additional assistance from another Prizrak guard who calls and offers advice and information in emojis and a robotic voice. He's a strong character, whose role in the facility gets pieced together bit by bit, and who just so happens to have floppy disks referencing fellow indie developers and Playstation exclusives scattered all around the place as collectables. The game certainly has supporters in high places who deserve their tips of the hat, but placing those smirking nods so shortly after Hope sees her first dead body, or after watching Republique's media branch destroy a man's reputation feels wholly out of place.
It's only a stumbling block considering how great of a job the game does in world-building for such extended periods of time. For most of Republique, our eyes and ears are just as innocent as Hope's, and every new room is ripe with opportunities to learn something new, to fit a new piece of the puzzle on what we know about the Headmaster's plans and ambitions, the rampant, terrifying censorship and moralizing, the journalism-turned-propaganda-machine the failed, hostile attempts by Republique brass to engage the leaders of the free world. The stellar voice cast keeps us engaged from minute one, with every hackable device giving us brief, audio-only glimpses of the outside world and Republique's black-hat inner workings.
At the center of it all, literally, and metaphorically, there's just Hope: a frightened girl who just wants to see the world outside Republique, not realizing just what kind of world she’s trying to work her way back into. She definitely finds out through the course of Republique’s five episodes. It's worrisome stuff that threatens to absolutely ruin a girl who we're already forced to tread lightly with in the early going. One of the few moral choices in the game involves that very idea, of how much Hope can bear. Though Episode 4 is a disappointing regression to point-and-click adventure game ideas that have long been rendered obsolete, the answers are abundant, frightening, and more than a little on the ambitious side when the game comes to its climax. Its pedigree as the offspring of Metal Gear Solid veterans is never so pronounced as it is when Republique crescendos, and it more than outshines the relative coyness of the first three episodes. Where Republique's gameplay is satisfyingly simple, the plot driving it on is anything but.
Needless to say, despite its mobile game roots, the world of Republique is meant to immerse, to beckon the player's curiosity, and to involve them enough in the city-state's ins and outs enough to get Hope out of danger. In transitioning to consoles, the game remains largely successful at that.