Imagine a high-tech Orwellian dystopia. A teenage girl known as 390-H (or Hope, as she calls herself) is caught with an illegal political manifesto and scheduled for “recalibration”, an unexplained but undoubtedly nefarious process. Using a cellphone, she contacts you – the player, a mysterious entity in an undisclosed location – and begs for help. Your task is then to help her escape by jumping between the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in the strange facility, hacking doors and other equipment, and telling Hope where and when it’s safe to go in order to avoid patrolling guards.
The elevator pitch is great, but sadly, Republique completely fails in delivering a satisfying, cohesive experience.
When the gameplay undermines the story
Republique’s overarching problem is one of ludonarrative dissonance. The narrative centers on modern-day fascism, ubiquitous privacy-killing technology, censorship, and escaping a state who knows so much about you that they can all but read your mind. The gameplay, on the other hand, centers on and guiding Hope around hallways and rooms to escape detection by the most mind-numbingly stupid guards I have seen in this millennium, using the very same network of cameras allegedly used by the state to prevent just such escapes.
The guards stick to their impractical or outright absurd patrol routes like clockwork, often staring pointlessly into a wall on one end of their routes. One guard apparently decided that standing in the men’s room staring indefinitely at a butterfly on a plant in the corner is a good way to prevent your escape. All the guards look identical, and seem unable to move naturally, often having to alternate between turning on the spot and walk in a straight line. They don’t notice you as long as you stay just outside their field of vision, not even if you’re walking just behind them. Your footsteps are unnervingly loud, the doors make noise when you go through them, and the hinges on ventilation shafts screech uncomfortably when you crawl through them, but as long as there’s no visual contact, the guards won’t see you. Unless you run, that is – then they’ll then they’ll hear you through walls and across floors.
Don’t sweat, though – if you’re discovered, you’ll likely be able to outrun them. They don’t shoot, they rarely leave the room, and if things get physical, you can use pepper spray or tasers to get away. Pepper-spraying someone will make the unfortunate guard (once he has come to his senses) call in and elevate the “threat level” (though I never figured out what this actually did), and then after a minute, everyone decides the situation is perfectly normal again. Should you be so unfortunate as to get caught, you just get escorted to a nearby cell, from which you effortlessly escape a moment later.
The lack of real challenges and real consequences means that Republique never feels as dangerous or oppressive as the atmosphere would have you believe. Simply put, the game lacks the tension it so clearly seeks to establish. It wants to be a narrative experience commenting on important topics, but it barely manages to be a mediocre game.
Click here for exposition
Another unfortunate design choice is delivering almost all of the backstory through activating random objects in the world. Basically, click yellow icons to hear an audio clip detailing events more or less related to the object, whether a statue, a poster, or anything else. The audio clips are actually quite good, with each one being almost a tiny radio play, but the problem is the sheer amount of them. You are constantly interrupting the gameplay to listen to what after a while becomes your average tedious audio logs, and the result is severe pacing issues where you’re constantly dragged out of Hope’s predicament in order to get another tidbit of information on what the heck this place is. The story more or less gets reduced to a simple case of “for maximum exposition, click all the colored icons to make them gray”. And if you’re not into the idea of looking for audio logs, well, good luck trying to understand anything at all.
There are also two kinds of collectibles you can hunt down. One are banned works of classic literature (why is contraband lying out in the open everywhere?), from Animal Farm and Brave New World to Lolita and The Invisible Man. For each book you collect, you’ll hear a short clip where “Big Brother” himself talks about why this work of art is dangerous and must be banned. I expect these comments are more rewarding for those who have actually read the books in real life.
The other kind of collectibles are those you get from pickpocketing all the guards in the game. This will reward you with floppy disks of modern real-world indie games, like Shovel Knight, Firewatch, Journey, and Bastion. These are confiscated games belonging to a guy called Cooper (why the heck does every guard carry one of these?!), and you’ll hear Cooper making a comment on why he liked the game.
A waste of voice talent
Ah, Cooper. Woe is thy voice. Cooper is a guard who, in the game’s first minutes, turns out to be on your side, and for “security reasons” he insists on talking to you using text-to-speech (i.e., computerized voice). (Also, his file says he has selective mutism, so that could be it too.) I could have lived with the computerized voice if the floppy disks were the only times Cooper said anything, but unfortunately he’s more central to the story than that. The first episode of Republique is, in essence, just one long tutorial, and Cooper is the one showing you the reins. After this, Cooper is always the one giving you instructions on where Hope should go and what she should do. While the game starts off on a high note, with you – the player – being Hope’s only hope, the emotional intensity dropped significantly for me when I realized that I was more or less just a middleman for Cooper’s suggestions. Delivered in a computerized voice. All. The. Time.
Apart from the computerized voice of Cooper, the voice acting is actually not bad. I’m a bit sad though that stars like Jennifer Hale and David Hayter (Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid) are relegated to roles which does not at all allow them to shine: Hale’s character is an uptight French antagonist speaking English with a very heavy French accent, and Hayter’s character is the game’s main political dissenter, which you only hear very occasionally during certain audio logs.
I have only played two of Republique’s five episodes. After finishing the second, I read some reviews to see if things would get better. Sadly, while opinions on the game as a whole differ, most seem to agree that the two final episodes seem to fall apart both from a narrative and gameplay perspective. I therefore decided it would be justifiable to cut my experience short.
I applaud Republique for attempting to explore issues like surveillance, privacy, and censorship, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s simply not a good game. If themes like surveillance and totalitarian regimes interest you, you’re probably better off reading 1984. Unless you’re absolutely dying for some Orwellian dystopia in the form of a game and are willing to look past Republique’s significant flaws, I suggest you stay clear.