It begins with a plea for help, a closeup of 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 in-engine 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, in the voicemails scattered around the game. Either the future or we’re at least in a place with the future’s technology. A foreboding “headmaster” sees all, assuring an unseen populace that all is still right with the world. Except clearly it isn’t since you’re surrounded by guards, people are smacking our girl around, blathering on about manifestos, the dangers of information, and the poisonous influence of a dead rebel named Daniel Zager, who sets the tone at the game’s outset during the developer logos even more succinctly and ominously 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 resembles Xavier’s School for the Gifted more 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 keeps you guessing episode after episode through a mystery that’s all too reluctant to hand out 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 electronic equipment 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 the Prizrak to sleep. She can even pickpocket them 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.
I used to be angry at my government because I thought they weren’t listening. Now I’m angry because I know they are.
Or at least it would if getting caught meant death or punishment or higher security. Instead, losing means being marched, hands up, to the nearest confinement cell (these 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 putting the boots to anyone who disobeys, they seem to handle Hope the way you would a bratty four-year-old, and it works every time. It doesn’t make the stealthing around any less fun, and arguably, the infinite retries are often a blessing, considering the amount of Metroid-ish backtracking that you already have to do, but it does mess with the game’s immersion.
Indeed, breaking the hypnotic, curious spell that the game can cast when it’s doling out more of the mystery is its biggest problem. 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 reference 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 Stephen Hawking voice. He’s a strong character, whose role in the facility is pieced together bit by bit and who just so happens to have floppy disks referencing fellow indie developers scattered all around the place as collectables. The game certainly has supporters in high places who deserve 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 a job the game does of world-building for such extended periods. 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 find a new piece of the puzzle of what we know about the Headmaster’s plans and ambitions, the rampant, terrifying censorship and moralizing, the journalism-turned-propaganda-machine, the failed, or the hostile attempts by the 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, and we can already tell that she is in for some hard times if she ever does. Episode 3 drops a few major bombs as to who and what Hope might be, and it’s worrisome stuff that threatens to absolutely ruin a girl we’re already forced to tread lightly with. One of the only moral choices in the game involves that very idea of how much of the world’s worst lies on her shoulders. Where Republique’s gameplay is satisfyingly simple, the plot driving it on is anything but.
The dystopian nightmare is a compelling veneer for a rather simple stealth game.
Needless to say, despite its mobile game roots, the world of Republique is meant to immerse, to beckon the your curiosity, and to involve you enough in the city-state’s ins and outs to get Hope, our frightened girl, out of danger. The good news is that, in transitioning to PC, the game remains largely successful. All that remains is for the game’s two remaining episodes to stick what is undoubtedly going to be a rough landing for everyone involved.