Republique, Episode 1: Exordium

It’s an admirable sentiment, one which splits its loyalties evenly across two divergent interpretations. Republique’s first episode, Exordium, is model of how to avoid the typical pratfalls of mobile/touch game development as well as a fascinating appraisal of a modern Orwellian nightmare, and it operates with a sense of position and clarity unique to its medium. Even as a largely instructive episode, Republique is poised to become an exemplar in the gaming space.

Few games manage the duality of interactivity and narrative with Republique’s level of authority. Its objective protagonist, Hope, is a “Pre-Cal,” a person raised entirely within the confines of a complex known as Metamorphosis. In any other game the player would oblige a traditional format and personally guide Hope through and out of Metamorphosis, but Republique positions its protagonist outside of direct control. Instead, you play an actual, anonymous entity in her world, one that’s both intrinsically linked to Hope’s survival and yet mercilessly detached from her circumstance.

Early on, a rogue Metamorphosis guard named Cooper slips Hope a communication device, and this device connects directly to your phone or tablet, allowing a degree of agency in her world. Republique doesn’t so much break down the fourth wall as it simply acknowledges the player as an essential component of its narrative. Both Hope and Cooper speak directly to the player, each offering vital components to the totalitarian world Republique exhibits.

The bulk of Republique is composed of the player pausing time, switching between different security cameras, and tapping on safe positions in order to navigate Hope from A to B. It breaks down into a stealth game, the likes of which are also typically associated with words like, “frustrating,” “dated,” and thoughts like, “I don’t want to play this on a touch device.” Republique acknowledges the rich disdain for the stealth genre’s slow march to irrelevancy by fundamentally altering traditional stealth systems to work proficiently on a mobile platform.

An in-game tool called OMNI View allows the player a certain measure of supernatural agency in Metamorphosis. Time can be paused at any moment, which is especially useful for switching to different available cameras. “Prizrak” guards are on constant patrol throughout the facility, though they seem reticent to break any of their careful patterns. Republique is essentially about recognizing these patterns, switching between cameras, and tapping on available real estate to guide Hope to her objective.

Republique is an objective-based adventure, but it leaves plenty of room in the margins to expand its world. Certain cameras will reveal the locations of hack-able computers, banned books, private voice messages, and other bits of data to harvest. That data can then be spent as currency Data Broker terminals, providing Hope with new options to either expand upon the narrative or aid her against prowling guards.

Stealth games are open to a considerable amount of trial and error, and Republique acknowledges this by rarely setting back the player’s progress. If Hope is found she’ll be reprimanded by a guard and escorted back to a nearby cell. For whatever reason Metamorphosis has cells everywhere, so Hope is essentially set back to the beginning of the last, in a manner of speaking, challenge room. The player’s OMNI View can easily break the lock of her cell (and a few other essential and extra doors around the place) easily granting her freedom. If you don’t mind breaking its world, Republique even offers the option to fast-forward the trot back to the holding cell, essentially erasing the time penalty associated with being caught.

All isn’t lost if Hope encounters a guard, however, as she’s presented with a few options. I was able to find some pepper spray that would temporarily blind a guard, allowing a quick escape. Later on I even found a Taser, which presented a similar option. One time a guard spotted me as I walked past his windowed room, so I used my OMNI View to lock his door and seal him inside. It’s even possible to completely outrun and evade a trailing guard, which even seems to surprise Hope.

Hope’s escape beats with an urgent pulse, but I couldn’t help but stop and looking around inside every room. Picking up banned books and hearing a bit of their history, interpreting tangentially relevant guard banter, and seeking clues into the unknown world outside of Metamorphosis presented an attractive draw. By picking up the full season pass, I was also treated to collectable developer commentaries straight from meetings at Camouflaj, presenting additional, weirdly conscious insight into the construction of Republique’s world.

Republique did seem to have a bit of trouble managing its own flow. Cooper is constantly stopping the action to relay a bit of insight or direction, which can be uncomfortable after repeated (often impatient) failure. I started Republique on default difficulty, and if I screwed up too many times Cooper would buzz in and offer to lower it to casual for the rest of the game. Even after I declined, it seemed like the guard that was giving me trouble would abruptly stop his route and remain stationary. I don’t know whether this was a coincidence or if Republique had focus-grouped out potentially frustrating situations, but it struck me as a break in our unspoken agreement. I didn’t want the game to throw me any softballs.

It  also felt like Republique kind of overdid its need to promote the absolute authority of its totalitarian state. The need to ban thoughtful literature, the global insistence on constant surveillance, zero tolerance of pornography, and Prizrak guards trading airport body-scanning nudes all seemed a little too on the nose. I get that presenting these things as forbidden increases Hope’s desire to explore a world outside of her trappings, but Republique kind of beats the player over the head with it.

Republique, aggressively constructed as it may be, concedes room for a handful of subversive details. A particular puzzle involving rotating portraits presented interesting insight into the values the Prizrak hold dear. Mireille Prideaux, Republique’s presented antagonist and Hope’s caretaker, is full of endearing secrets, and when the credits rolled she was the one figure I was dying to know more about.

While it’s probably best experienced on a tablet, I played through Republique on my three-year-old iPhone 4S without much of an issue. The game was designed to work inside, rather than around, its medium, and it scales well to even my considerably ancient platform. There was one hard crash and it sometimes chugged when switching points of view, but those were understandable debts with a game that looks great and player better.

It’s also no secret that I’m writing this review some ten months after Republique: Exordium debuted. My original intention was to review the newly released third episode, Ones & Zeroes, but that felt vaguely improper without considering the steps taken by its predecessor. Origin stories are always the most unwieldy because the player has to become accommodated with the medium’s world and systems. Hopefully Republique’s second installment, Metamorphosis, will continue to push Republique’s ideals without the shackles of constant instruction.

Eric Layman is available to resolve all perceived conflicts by 1v1'ing in Virtual On through the Sega Saturn's state-of-the-art NetLink modem.