Your Phone Is Your Only Friend In Republique: Remastered
Note: this review is currently in progress. It will be updated with each episode. Republique casts you as a fly on the wall; a ghost in the machine, given immense power over your adversaries even as you remain distant, unsure for what purpose you’ve been called on.
Residing in the security cameras of a totalitarian society of Metamorphosis, you act as the eyes and ears of Hope, a brave but uninformed resistance fighter attempting to break free of the government's constant surveillance. Your instructions are her only hope for escaping “recalibration”, a punishment for those caught reading the resistance propaganda left behind by the recently executed Daniel Zagar, and through the lenses of the city’s prying electric eyes help free it from the control an all-seeing police state.
Easy comparisons can be drawn between Republique and its clear inspiration from the likes of 1984, but unlike many of its contemporaries its world isn’t just an unnerving shell for its narrative, but the point at which the entire game pivots. Developer Camouflaj has invested fully in its haunting near future view of a fully controlled and monitored city, every hall lined with cameras, phone lines and computers tapped in case of a potential uprising, and patrols stationed at every point in the city, and molded them into its camera hopping stealth gameplay in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a different setting.
Republique’s devotion to keeping the player aware of their position within the world as a disconnected entity traveling through its electronics, but not a physical all-powerful being, is what makes it so easy to buy into the reality it puts before you. Though you have a significant advantage from the viewpoint of a wall-mounted camera, you’re still at the mercy of their positioning and the signal of Hope’s phone. It’s a subtle but important element in projecting the city’s continued control over its citizens, and in making the moments where you can do nothing but sit and watch Hope fend for herself that much more affecting.
Being fixed inside the city’s connected networks also allows you to learn more about it independent of Hope, by snooping inside emails or zooming in on the documents carelessly left lying around. The different pieces all provide small insights into what life is like within Metamorphosis, with censored recordings, doctored newspapers, and the perpetual discomfort and dread buried in the writings its citizens. With how much of it reads as disturbingly similar to the always connected state we all live our lives in, the possibility of Metamorphosis being a potential future gives it credence in ways that had me investing in Hope’s freedom that much more.
It’s world is so brilliantly executed in fact that it becomes a liability to far less exceptional stealth gameplay, which served as a frustratingly consistent reminder that, yes, I am indeed playing a video game. It spends so much time building a believable setting that being told I needed to upgrade Hope’s phone, or collect intel to buy upgrades with, pulled me out of the experience as its very traditional “game” elements tried their damnedest to disrupt the credibility of its narrative. Watching guards patrol awkwardly along absurdly impractical routes or refusing to follow me through doors felt more artificial than they’ve ever been, and made me rather annoyed anytime I’d stumble upon them while attempting to immerse myself in an environment that kept pushing me out.
Much of this though could be the result of Republique’s move from smartphones to PC. Though the graphics and control have been improved, all the subtle contextual features tailored toward mobile (such as everything existing within a call, or watching firmware updates and receiving texts) ring hollow when presented on a platform they so clearly don’t belong on. I can’t really fault the game for it, as I’m not sure how they could have reworked it so as to fit on a new platform, but it does result in an experience that isn’t nearly as clever in how it presents itself.
Republique’s first episode is both incredibly successful at selling its world and the potential its narrative begins to touch on, and at breaking it down by inserting outdated gameplay elements that stand out among its otherwise impeccable vision. I’m no less interested in seeing where Republique goes with future episodes, but I’m certainly much more cautious of how it decides to get there. There’s the makings of something incredibly at the heart of Republique, but it could all start to fall apart if it doesn’t begin to pay more attention to how it's pulling itself apart from the inside.
Episode 2: Metamorphosis
Despite what the closing events of episode one might seem to imply, the second act of Republique isn’t a chaotic narrative progression, but an extended look into Metamorphosis as a city and it’s creator, the unnamed overseer. Placing you within the city’s library, exposition comes in the form of commentary on certain banned books by the self obsessed dictator of Metamorphosis, which serves to delve into the ideological framework it was built upon and the overseer’s incessant attempts to control every thought and action of its citizens.
It’s a fascinatingly grand and consistent exploration of city built and run on the beliefs of a single man, so confident in his ideas he deems himself the only one capable of leading the world out of the darkness it supposedly resides in. Though there is never an attempt to paint Metamorphosis as anything but invasive and inhumane, the scarce logic in the overseer’s creation provides it the thread of believability so often missing from the artificial worlds of most games.
Save the original Bioshock, I doubt I’ve ever played a game whose world is so intrinsically shaped by the ideology of its architect. Bioshock’s Rapture was designed on the basis of complete freedom from law and natural limitations, while Republique’s Metamorphosis posits the inverse; a police state of surveillance and censorship, built-in the image and for the glorification of one person and the godlike wisdom they feel they possess.
Episode two of Republique hasn’t fixed the issues of the first, that being the poor stealth and poorly contextualized mechanics, but it has built up and expanded on the areas it was already strong at. In only a few hours Metamorphosis and the key players within it have been developed into complicated, intriguing characters which in themselves are so compelling that I have no qualms recommending the game for its lore and narrative along. I’ve yet to given up hope that Republique’s stealth aspects will become more fleshed out and engaging as time goes on, but regardless developer Camouflaj has got me hooked wherever the game intends to take me.
Episode 3: Ones and Zeroes
Secrets. Secrets and lies. Lies and motives and distorting the truth to get what we need. For the first two episodes of Republique the line between sides and who you could trust had remained clean. Characters could be sympathetic and understandable whatever they believed, but they never wavered on those beliefs, and nor did I on where they ultimately stood. Episode 3: Ones and Zeroes changes that.
Throughout the first two episodes you would occasionally stumble upon a newspaper, a document often detailing a citizens treason or praising Metamorphosis officials, accompanied by an audio diary that tended to say something far different from what was in print. There’s the feeling that, to nobody’s surprise, the news and reality rarely lined up, and yet there was nobody to question what was said. To do so would only result in you becoming the next person to have their secrets sketched eternally in the paper’s ink, a sentence equivalent to death or whatever worse fate “recalibration” entails.
Ones and Zeroes takes us not only inside the newspaper’s point of origin, but its inner network of prying eyes and unethical practices, and then it asks us to take the pen and write our own story. Suddenly I was the one pulling quotes and images out of context, or outright fabricating them for my own purposes, and it’s in the bluntness with which this is presented that caused it to slowly eat away at me.
It wasn’t immediately clear what I was doing or who I was harming. In my mind I was just unlocking another door by removing the guards from their post. But as I listened to their stories as I looked for damning evidence, and eventually saw them being dragged off as if they were already dead, I saw myself for the monster I had become in trying to guide Hope to freedom.
The way Republique has come to play with morality and justifiable means to an end feels so much more powerful than other games, because it’s never presented as a thing. In a city so corrupted by its own aspirations for utopia it can feel as if anything you do is eternally defendable, that it’s nothing compared to what the people you’re fighting have done. But the truth is so much more complicated than that. These people I’m condemning, I don’t even know them. They have families, baggage; they might not even believe the things they’ve sworn themselves to but see no way out anymore. But I have to keep moving forward, and to do so means removing them whatever the cost, and I’m forced to live with that.
Republique is always exact in telling me that I’m the one doing this, not Hope or anyone else I might meet. I’m the one jumping from camera to camera to find evidence, putting it in tidy boxes on the front page, even signing my name when it’s all done. I suddenly saw how brilliant Republique had become in transporting me into its world, and I almost wished it wasn’t because it made my acts weigh down on me the way other games have rarely accomplished.
I’ve been talking a lot about Republique’s narrative and word because those are the moments that work unbelievably well and are doing things that games so often fumble with or use as cruxes for other systems. That dynamic is reversed in Republique, with every small bit of world building and exposition helping support the crippled stealth mechanics that three episodes in only continue to drag down an otherwise exceptional experience. They were easier to excuse in the first two acts because even if they were dull and unrefined, encounters were also easy to get through and didn’t require I pay too much attention to my least favorite portion of the game.
In episode three stealth has become tedious and over complicated. The mechanics themselves have barely changed, but now there are more guards, more elaborate level designs, and more ways to screw yourself over if you aren’t paying enough attention. I was never caught during episodes one and two, but in three it happened continuously. Every time it did, the world began to feel a little more hollow and mechanical. After all why did the guards keep bringing me back to the same unguarded cell I had already broken out of several times? I’m the most wanted person in Metamorphosis and yet nobody even seems to care that they found me deep in a restricted server farm (in a city where data is valued above all else).
Republique is doing so much right that it’s agonizing to have it continue to pull itself down by inserting systems that only hurt the game more every time they’re brought to the foreground. At this point it’s as if the game is running in two different directions. One is full of captivating characters, blurry morality, and a narrative that continues to catch me off guard despite how intensely I’m analysing every line of dialogue. The other is full of systems for the sake of systems, pulling me out of the experience by my feet as it yells “why do you care so much, it’s just a game.” I want so much to be able to care without the constant distraction of a voice I keep trying to shut up, but that becomes so much harder when the game itself is doing the talking.
Episode 4: God’s Acre
Republique’s 4th episode has been a long time coming. Just a few days shy of 14 months to be exact. Some of that rather immense delay can be attributed to time being taken off from developing the game in order to port it to PC, but all the same, stepping back into the world of Republique after so much time it is hard not to feel as if the gap between episodes has taken its toll. Episode 4: God’s Acre feels like a pit stop between where Republique was at the end of Episode 3, and wherever it hopes to go come Episode 5. It’s a messy, meandering affair that is disorienting in all the wrong ways, placing so many layers of abstraction between you and the plot that simply figuring out how we got here from the end of Episode 3 proves difficult to suss out. All the same Episode 4 introduces some of the most monumentally important pieces of exposition in the entire game, but they’re so buried and unclear that it’s possible you’ll miss them entirely.
Throughout the previous three episodes there have been hints of Republique playing with concepts of cloning, DNA manipulation, and what consciousness actually is, but Episode 4 takes these fragments and expands on them in ways that are so massive in terms of the overall plot that it feels ridiculous that we are only now beginning to seriously explore what may become the game’s predominant theme. That feeling of bewilderment isn’t a complimentary one, but one of unease at where Republique is heading as it gears up for its conclusion.
For the past three episodes Camouflaj has been building a game focused around a city constructed upon its warped ideologies and a lust for information and control. While there is certainly room for Republique to intertwine the ideas proposed by episodes 1-3 with the rather divergent ones of episode 4, I’m beginning to worry Camouflaj has jumped the shark. There are so many lines running through Republique at this point, weaving in and out of each other as they continue to splinter off into yet more plot lines, that I don’t know how Camouflaj is hoping to devote enough time to any of them to justify their inclusion. Rather it is beginning to seem more and more that Republique has bitten off more than it can chew, attempting to encompass so many incredibly complex topics and ethical discussions that it fails to have much to say on any of them individually. Republique’s plot has become a melting pot of mutual but disconnected questions and it isn’t doing enough to connect the lines between them to stay consistent. They may all be universally fascinating and difficult to reconcile, but none of that matters if it’s impossible to actually get at what Republique is trying to say as it shovels on more bits of exposition that never seem to quite fit convincingly within the larger picture.
Through all of this Republique’s mechanics continue to feel wholly contrived and unconvincing, even more so within this episode due to its smaller scale and larger number of decidedly artificial game devices. Episode 4 diverges significantly from previous episodes for being the first episode to take place outside. It also adopts a more horror like atmosphere, both from being set in a dreary rain soaked garden, and by pitting you against the garden’s massive caretaker (whose mental illness is portrayed in a way that often feels gross and entirely unconsidered). For reasons never explained Hope has lost all her upgrades from previous episodes, so you must now contend with a much narrower set of tools to solve what are primarily the same type of problems.
This could have been a chance for Republique to reboot and try something different from prior episodes, but instead it has just found new ways to make doing the same things as before more finicky and tedious. Instead of zooming in and snapping photos from the safety of your camera, you must now position Hope near an object and enter an awkward first-person mode to snap a pic with her phone, a change which doesn't add anything but yet more ways for the game to demonstrate how clumsily it can handle even rudimentary mechanics. Similar alterations have been applied to unlocking doors and outwitting guards, marking a change from you having a directorial role to now one that is far more manual and hands-on. Which in the context of you ostensibly guiding Hope rather than controlling her feels weird, because it breaks the game’s internal logic for the sake of videogame conventions. The bizarre TVs scattered around the garden and the hazy explanation given for why you always respawn in front of them similarly serve to give this episode to a surreal, disconnected, almost knowingly and excessively gamified tone, as if the developers are trying to make some meta point about their own game by critiquing the same anomalies they have been employing since episode 1 (while continuing to use them in this episode).
Taken as a whole, Episode 4 is bizarre and concerning. It is undeniably the series weakest episode even as it packs in so many inexplicable revelations that it retroactively makes itself essential despite its flaws, flaws which have warped and snowballed from previous episodes into a mess of problems entirely separate from the narrative. At this point I don’t know what to make of Republique. For a game that seemed to begin with so much promise (even with its early flaws), it has arrived at a place that feels alien from itself. I want to believe Camouflaj has a plan, but it is seeming far more likely that time has simply caught up with them.