Review: Republique Episode 209 May 2014 0
The first chapter of episodic iOS stealth adventure Republique (released back in December) was a Potemkin village of a game: luxurious graphics and flawless controls fronting for tepid, toothless gameplay and an un-subtle script. As I said in my review, I didn't hate Republique Episode 1, exactly, but I couldn't get away from the feeling that it was a Telltale Age of puzzle-free adventure games, Episode 1's one-and-only brain-teaser was a disappointing gimmie. Republique needed help, but at least what it needed was pretty obvious.
Playing Episode 2 of Republique is a surprising case study in the power that a few small changes can have. The new chapter of the game tweaks one game mechanic and adds a new enemy to evade, and by doing so injects the game with the sense of danger that Episode 1 so desperately lacked.
Freed from the need to set up the game world, Episode 2 drops us right into the action. You get a phone call from Hope, locked in the room where we left her at the end of Episode 1, and once you spring her out using your camera hacking and door-unlocking powers, we enter a whole new area of Republique's (only?) city of Metamorphosis: the beautifully realised Library, the space in which you spend most of Episode 2.
The Library is one hell of a good piece of level design. It is comprised of three levels of catwalks surrounding a central atrium, which means that when you're on the ground floor and your chaperone Cooper tells you that you need to make your way to the third level, you can look up and see your goal and start thinking about ways to evade the guards on the way up there. The Library feels like a real space, but it's also thoughtfully designed to accommodate Republique's gameplay and to give you a tangible sense of accomplishment when you successfully navigate a level. It was easy to get lost in Episode 1's realistic but labyrinthine corridors -- Episode 2's setting is a much happier marriage of immersion and gameplay.
Tucked into rooms and corridors off the central atrium are puzzles -- more than one this time, and pretty decent ones at that. Nobody's going to come give you an honorary doctorate for solving them, but they're clever, and one of them even trots out Evita Peron -- a figure I never expected to see in a video game outside of Tropico.
Enemies have gotten an overhaul in Episode 2. Joining the predictable Prizrak patrols is a roving guard who stalks a long circuit around the entire Library. The addition of this one itinerant guard is the best thing that could have ever happened to Republique. When I got Hope spotted and captured in Episode 1, it was usually because I was bored, or careless -- or both. Episode 2's roving guard keeps you on your toes by disrupting your stealth tactics and forcing you to react to his sudden apparition. This new transient predator creates the moments of surprise and dramatic getaways that the previous chapter sorely needed -- it's hard to overstate what a difference his presence makes.
Not everything is better. The most jarring aspect of the game remains its wimpy fail state, in which getting Hope caught results in her being escorted to a detention cell that you escape from the moment the guard turns his back. Having now played through two episodes of Republique, I still don't like it, but I get why it's there.
Camoflaj are serving two masters here: good gameplay and deep immersion. The game's fail state is where a struggle emerges between those two poles. If Republique served up a "GAME OVER -- Continue?" screen every time Hope got nabbed, you'd be abruptly yanked out of the illusion that Camoflaj are trying so hard to maintain. But the fact that the security forces of Metamorphosis are unable to detain an unarmed teenager for more than 10 seconds undermines the game world in its own way: it makes the evil Headmaster seem like the least threatening dictator since Woody Allen in Bananas. Even Camoflaj seem to realise that the pointless perp walk back to the detention cell is tedious -- Episode 2 introduces a fast-forward button that lets you skip it and go straight to your escape.
Speaking of the Headmaster: you learn quite a lot more about your shadowy antagonist in Episode 2, and a bit more about the mysterious "Arrival" event that Republique has been building up to. I remain largely unconvinced by the game's writing, which continues to trade in cliches. The narrative's biggest idea is still that censorship and repressive governments are bad -- notions that few people outside of Pyongyang find controversial or stimulating. But perhaps I should be reserving judgement. Republique's gameplay now embodies the exciting stealth adventure that the game promised be in its Kickstarter campaign two years ago. Maybe in Episode 3 it'll be the story's turn to have a dramatic reversal.
Republique Episode 2: Metamorphosis was played on an iPad Air for this review.