Release Date: 03/22/16
Republique was one of those rare games that I was interested in playing despite knowing next to nothing about it; if I’m being up-front, I thought the title was interesting and the box art looked cool, and decided that was enough knowledge to inform my decision about whether or not I was going to play it. That was probably for the best, in retrospect, as research has shown that knowing about the game wouldn’t have really given me anything significant to go off of. The publisher, Camoflaj, has developed exactly one game, that being the game we’re reviewing today, and the game actually started its life as a mobile phone game before making its way to the PC and, finally, the PS4. That’s not a terrible development path to take or anything, and plenty of games have followed that path to success (Angry Birds immediately comes to mind), but we also live in a world where ports like Dead Effect exist, so it’s not like that’s a guarantee of quality or anything. On the other side of the coin, however, the PC version has been quite well received on Steam, the PS4 release is just as conservatively priced as its PC counterpart, and the development studio boasts members who’ve worked on top-tier experiences like Metal Gear Solid and F.E.A.R., which is a great set of positives to boast. The thing is, while that’s all interesting information, none of it is really information that tells you what the game is, and while you can clearly see the “Stealth” genre listed above, that’s not really going to prepare you for Republique, because chances are good you’ve never played a game quite like it before.
The problem is, I have, twice, in Lifeline (AKA Operator’s Side) and The Experiment (AKA EXperience112), and while Republique is better than those games, I’m still not entirely sure if it’s any easier to recommend.
On city states and aesthetic trappings
Republique takes place in a facility dubbed Metamorphosis, located in an unknown nation that’s presumed to be in the middle of nowhere, where our story is centered around a teenage girl named Hope, a Pre-Cal (the term used to describe all teenagers in Metamorphosis) who wants nothing more than to escape Metamorphosis because it’s basically a fascist city-state. You take on the role of a nameless navigator who is randomly contacted by Hope to assist her in escaping the facility, through helping her sneak past patrols of Prizrak (Russian for “ghost), guards who will apprehend her on site, by way of using the environment and the cameras to your advantage. It’s hard to really explain what’s going on in Republique without getting into spoilers, but basically Metamorphosis is under a lot of strain, between some final actions of a dead revolutionary Zager and an upcoming event that promises to be huge for the facility, and Hope’s presented as mostly being caught in the crossfire. As you’d expect, though, Hope’s role in the situation is far more involved than it seems, and that’s a big part of what drives the narrative as the game goes on, among other things.
Narratively, the game was originally designed as an episodic experience when released to the mobile platform and PC, and you can really tell that’s the case, not only because of the episodic title markers and credit sequences at the end of each chapter, but because the game is paced like an episodic game, which is to say, “not well.” The first two chapters and the majority of the third chapter do a very good job of building interesting mysteries and setting up compelling narrative elements, but from the ending of the third chapter on, the game basically just goes off in a completely different direction altogether. That would be okay if that direction were a good one, but it’s honestly not great; the overall narrative feels like someone played through Bioshock right after reading 1984 and said, “Hey, we can do that!” without really figuring out how to do it across all five chapters first. The first three chapters are equal parts dystopian political nightmare and dystopian science fiction future, and are generally fine enough (if a bit ham-fisted), but the fourth chapter just breaks down into technobabble and that goes nowhere and does nothing, and the fifth chapter is a giant exposition dump followed by a morality play on information, none of which mesh well at all. Taken over the period of years, it might work, but as a singular plotline over a few days it’s a complete mess that, much like Bioshock or Watch Dogs before it, has nothing to say about totalitarian governments or information security or censorship or DNA science beyond that they’re things that exist. It’s an interesting story for a couple of hours that just becomes a whole lot of nothing toward the end, and the finish it limps to isn’t really a good one.
Visually, Republique does a lot to create an artistic environment that feels both quite involved and appropriately dystopian in tone and setting. The world of Metamorphosis is presented through an external façade that’s designed to evoke a sort of nineteenth century high class boarding school aesthetic, while its internal elements have a very future industrial bent to them, which fits the thematic subtext of the game well. The game world also feels a bit more logical and lived in than other games that have tried a similar aesthetic; while other games feel like, well, video game levels, Republique has a world that feels like the sort of world a facist asshole would life in, and it’s compelling. The character models also generally look good in cutscenes, though at a distance you can see they’re a bit lower resolution than the PS4 is capable of, and the Prizrak units repeat models a lot, which makes sense in a “facist dictatorship” way, but still feels like a cop out. Aurally, the game is top notch across the board, starting with the outright amazing voice cast. The main character, Hope, is played by Rena Strober (Kanami Mashita), who does an amazing job throughout, and the game also boasts the talents of Jennifer Hale (FemShep) and David Hayter (come on now), both of whom do an awesome job with their roles of Mireille and Zager, respectively. Khary Payton, AKA Zack from Dead or Alive (or if you want a not embarrassing role, Cyborg in basically every DC cartoon for years now) also does a great job here, as his role as Quinn is amazingly loathsome for someone who’s spent so much time playing heroes and goofballs. Surprisingly, though, the best performance in the game goes to Dwight Schultz, AKA Howling Mad Murdock from The A-Team, who gives an outright transcendent performance as Headmaster Treglazov, and he carries much of the weight of the narrative on his back with little trouble. The soundtrack is also top notch, featuring a lot of ambient music that really fits the experience and, while it’s barely noticeable on its own, does a lot to color the experience as you’re playing.
On sneaking around and spying on people
The core gameplay of Republique is based around pure stealth mechanics, meaning that you’ll need to hide from basically everything and have very few options for properly defending yourself. You control Hope with the left analog stick to move her around the game world, and can either crouch behind objects if you want to keep her silent and hidden or have her run around if you’re in a pickle and need out fast. The stealth mechanics applied to the game mostly work as you’d expect if you’ve spent any time playing the genre; Hope can hide behind anything and has to avoid the line of sight of any Prizrak searching for her, and she can hide in rooms and lockers as needed if she’s in a jam. She’s not totally defenseless, mind you; should an enemy catch up with her, she can potentially respond with a consumable item, if she has any on her, including Tasers and pepper spray to either temporarily disable an enemy or knock them out for the rest of the chapter, though some enemies are resistant to some items as you go. She can also use Tasers and gas mines proactively to remove a particularly annoying enemy at the moment if you want to clear the way, though you only have limited stock of anything, so weighing your options is always a concern. Finally, Hope can pickpocket enemies if she’s behind them, which can earn her extra consumables, as well as screwdrivers (for opening vents for fast travel) and other novelties, though again, that’s a huge risk, especially if the enemy turns around before she finishes and you get popped. Of course, even if she gets popped she just gets locked up and you can let her out and try again.
Oh, right, that’s the other part: you’re not exactly playing as Hope here, but rather as some sort of hacked-in unknown user who’s monitoring her through her phone. Well, that’s also not entirely a perfect explanation: while you’re dialed into her phone, you can hop around between any security cameras in the immediate vicinity as needed, which controls your view at the moment, allowing you to move Hope within the field of view of that camera. This also allows you to scout ahead a bit to see what’s awaiting Hope around the next corner and judge movements as needed, as you can basically jump within a certain range to scout out whatever you need at any time, allowing you to plan the best routes whenever you wish. Pressing R1 kicks the action to a halt, allowing you to see every item you can interact with at the moment, which doesn’t just include cameras; you can study signs and notes as well as Prizrak passports by default, and as you go along you can also hack email messages, voicemails and other things for more information. This not only acts to fill in the backstory of the game world, but also earns you credits to give to an information broker who can be accessed in lockup rooms; he’ll buy the info you provide and sell you upgrades that allow you to read emails, predict Prizrak routes, scramble radio conversations, see Prizrak through walls and other neat things. As such, you can constantly keep yourself upgraded with new toys and tools to help Hope along so long as you’re constantly looking at everything.
The above mechanics make up the majority of the experience, but they’re by no means all of it, as there are a few other things to note that come up now and again. The game uses a few mini-games to act as puzzle sections, which help to break up the experience a bit; for example, in one chapter you’ll have to assemble news headlines to put the heat on some Prizrak, and in another you’ll have to unlock pumps to drain a ditch. They’re simple enough tasks to perform, but they’re good at breaking up the experience of sneaking around all the time, if nothing else. You’ll also need to upgrade the OS in Hope’s phone every now and again, since various doors and objects are often locked up by higher OS levels, which will involve hunting down pyramid servers to do so. This allows you to unlock doors and boxes, among other things, allowing her to get to new locations and find loot as you go. It’s also worth noting that, while some actions you perform can be done for free, others drain some of the battery in Hope’s phone when performed, and generally speaking, the more involved the action, the more it drains the battery (so locking doors or predicting movements cost battery, scanning the environment doesn’t, basically). You can recharge the battery in lockup rooms as well, or by finding consumable battery packs, but you’ll want to keep track of your charge, as even though you get more battery charges in later levels, the levels become more challenging as well to balance against it.
On collecting everything while avoiding technical issues
You can complete Republique in around ten hours, give or take, if you press forward to the end of the chapter with minimal stops, but there’s plenty of stuff to keep you busier if you’d rather. The game features a lot of different collectibles to find in the environment, including Zager tapes and banned books (in the game world), as well as discs of popular PC and console games (on enemies when pickpocketed), and if you want to collect everything you’ll have to take a lot of risks to do it. The fourth chapter also includes some collectibles that are unique to it (TVs and petri dishes) to collect, and there are also a sizable amount of hidden locations to visit if you know where to look. There are also some DLC costumes to use in the game if you preordered it that will presumably be available at some point (if they aren’t already) which can change the game experience a bit depending on the costume used. Finally, beating the game once unlocks the ability to listen to developer commentary at various points, which sounds less like developer commentary and more like someone recorded the dev meetings, but it’s neat either way if that’s something you’re into.
That said, plot issues aside, it’s still hard to recommend Republique, as even when the game is working on all cylinders, the game still has its failings. For starters, the game is a pure stealth game, which may not be for everyone, but even if it is in your case, it uses specific camera angles to up the challenge a bit more while giving the game a unique feel. The problem is, this was an annoying mechanic in The Experiment and Lifeline, and giving the player direct control of Hope doesn’t change that. It can be frustrating finding the best angle to plan out movement, and sometimes the game will yank you back to another camera because it thinks you’re too far away, while others it’ll refuse to change the angle automatically even though you’ve clearly moved Hope off-screen to the next waypoint. It also doesn’t help that the game has to load each time it changes the camera, which is bizarre given that the game isn’t really a technical marvel on the PS4 (and is doubly problematic considering I have the game installed to the HDD), considering some load times are upwards of fifteen seconds. Combining all of these elements, it’s definitely possible to bumble into a Prizrak because of a poorly timed camera change or a bad angle, or to bumble between a loading break several times because of the direction shift, which is something that was tiresome with Resident Evil in the nineties.
Further, the game falls apart a lot once you get to the last two chapters, and it never manages to recover from several significant missteps, not just narratively, but mechanically as well. The fourth chapter is based around avoiding a single target, except all of Hope’s tools are completely gone, as are all of your skills, and the environment now has hazards to avoid on top of everything else. It’s a weird transition that almost feels like you’re playing a different game, and it’s not enjoyable in the least, especially since the game goes back to its traditional play in the next chapter, making the fourth chapter a giant disruption that isn’t enjoyable or well thought out. Further, the fifth chapter leaves you stripped of your gear and provides you so few chances to acquire new gear that it’s dramatically harder than anything before it; it’s still manageable, since being captured has no long-term consequences, but it’s still frustrating. Of course, if you are stuck you can always quit and reload, as (at least in the fifth chapter) doing so removes all enemies from the area, for… some weird reason. I have to assume it’s unintentional, considering that the fifth chapter is also the only chapter where the game crash-locked on me, twice, during scene transitions, leaving the entire chapter just feeling incomplete at the best of times. Oh, and the final puzzle leaves you with no indication of what to do (hint: hold down R2), at all, which is just… not great in general.
At the end of the day, the idea of Republique is interesting, and there are clearly some good ideas here, but in execution the game just massively falls apart in the fourth chapter and never recovers, and the core mechanics are flawed enough that it needed a stronger… everything to carry the rest of the game that just isn’t here. There’s definitely promise, as the aesthetics and aural presentation are great and there’s a glimmer of an interesting plot thread here, especially in the first few hours. The gameplay is good enough if you’re a stealth fan, and it does some novel things to keep it fresh between the security camera tools and the puzzles to break things up, as well, and there are a bunch of collectibles if you want to find everything here. However, the plot has nothing to say about any of the lofty concepts it brings up and the actual narrative itself falls apart in the last two chapters before limping to a terrible ending that, at best, poses the same question Pony Island did, only in a less compelling fashion. Further, the core gameplay mechanics often feel touchy, as the camera swapping system can leave you hunting for a good angle or swapping inappropriately, and between the at times long load times between camera swaps, the technical issues in the last chapter, the strange gameplay changes in the fourth chapter and the lack of explanation of the final puzzle, the whole thing just feels like the last two chapters were rushed. If you’re really looking for something new and different, Republique might be worth a look, but if you’ve played The Experiment or Lifeline you’ve seen that thing already, and the rest of the game doesn’t hold up well enough to make it worth a shot unless you’re really in love with the stealth genre.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Republique is a game based around its narrative, aesthetic and gameplay novelties over all else, which would be fine if they all worked as intended, but the aesthetic is left to cover the heavy lifting due to a narrative that falls apart two thirds of the way through and gameplay that suffers the longer you go, making it a novelty at best and hard to recommend at worst. The story starts off with some interesting concepts at least, and the game world is visually and aurally pleasing in most respects (if a little low tech on the visual front). The gameplay has some interesting ideas, also, especially if you like pure stealth games, and there are some novel gameplay elements to see as well as a ton of collectibles for those who are interested. However, the plot falls apart in the last two acts and fails to say anything meaningful about the high-grade concepts it bases much of itself around, leaving the experience feeling like a story about things it isn’t interested in saying anything about as it falls apart in the last two chapters and limps to an unsatisfying finish. Further, the gameplay mechanics often end up leaving the player with poor visual angles to accomplish tasks and getting stuck between camera transitions (often with unreasonable load times), the fourth chapter massively disrupts the experience mechanically, and the fifth chapter is buggy and doesn’t explain its final puzzle. While Republique feels like it could be a really interesting experience, in the end it feels like the worst parts of the narratives of Bioshock and Watch Dogs smashed into the gameplay of The Experiment or Lifeline, and it’s really only worthwhile if you adore stealth games a lot; everyone else will find it too frustrating and poorly paced to be worth the time.