Friday, 14 October 2016

République - Review

Developer: Camoflaj, Logan Games 
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment 
Platforms: iOS, Android, PC, PS4 (version played), Mac 

It’s nice to see the return of fixed camera angles. Camoflaj’s République has a bunch of older mechanics that it plays around with, but there’s something special about the return to the neck-craning awkwardness of having to rely on fixed camera positions. The clever twist in République’s case is that these fixed camera angles are in actual fact CCTV cameras.  It’s the perfect mechanic for the ideas that Camoflaj’s game meddles in. Surveillance, modern security, the power of the state, are all themes that the game mulls over during its five episodes.

You play as a Hope a “pre-calibrated” teenager trapped in a mysterious totalitarian state. The references are obvious, Metamorphosis, the facility that Hope finds herself trapped in, is straight out of an Orwellian nightmare.

Where Camoflaj decide to experiment is in their approach to player control. Hope might be the game’s protagonist but you don’t actually control her, at least, not in the logic of the game’s plot. Frequently, Hope will gesture towards CCTV cameras, looking through the screen at you, demolishing the fourth wall as she asks you to help her. It’s a concept that’s perhaps all the more immersive if the game is played on its native phone/tablet platform but is still effective on a TV or PC monitor.

Naturally, République combines its fixed camera angles with simple stealth gameplay and basic, classic survival horror mechanics. Guards throughout Metamorphosis, the game’s foes, can’t be tackled directly and must instead be avoided. A lucky shot of pepper spray will incapacitate one for a while, and a stun gun shock will knock one out for good, but these resources are few and far between.

It comes back to the CCTV and hacking elements that round out République’s simple, sneak and search gameplay. A handful of upgrades can be purchased at various terminals through Metamorphosis, selling information gleaned from emails and posters grants you the cash to buy these various upgrades, be it seeing through walls or highlighting guard patrol patterns. Better yet is the ability to lock doors to cut off guards chasing you. It’s weird that something so simple would be so satisfying but by giving you so much power, but having you also assist someone who is almost helpless should she get caught, you get the tension of a stealth game with the satisfaction granted from your wider and more potent move set. Being dis-empowered doesn’t have to mean being dull.

There’s a perverse thrill to hacking through a guard’s private details to find dirt on him so that you can get him arrested. It’s perhaps the most striking moment in République's story. It’s a game about Big Brother, but it flips the script somewhat, in that you’re the one playing as Big Brother. Scanning  enemy’s reveals their passports, their sordid pasts open for you to see. It’s an efficient and simple mechanic, nothing more than pointing and clicking, but emphasizes the fact that you’re the one snooping around, invading on other people’s privacy.

It’s a very basic game system and sometimes the mechanics bely that fact. Obvious stacks of boxes are there for no other reason than to give you somewhere to hide. Why the hell are there so many boxes lying around, what were the guards moving? Flashing ornaments will clue you in to areas you can duck behind to break enemy line of sight. It’s not that these are bad mechanics, but that the world and its level design frequently stutter and clash, as one makes allowances for the other.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s collectibles. All enemies can be pick-pocketed, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll have a vial of pepper spray to grab or a stun gun handy. Most of the time though they’ll have floppy discs of classic indie games; Hotline Miami, Gone Home, Shovel Knight and so on. It smacks of a small developer slipping in advertising for their friends, “look, guys, check out these cool games”, as Cooper, one of Hope’s few allies, delivers deadpan text-to-speech synopses of each game you pick up. Even worse, it undermines the world that Camoflaj otherwise strives to create, one where everyone is watched and all art is carefully monitored and censored. If it’s so darn horrible to live here, why does every guard seem to be lugging around part of their game collection?

I bring this up because so much of République is centred on its overall world design and story. It’s as much a point-and-click adventure game as it is a homage to ‘90s survival horror. And as a dystopian world, Metamorphosis is at times very compelling despite its flaws.

The influences are obvious here, the Overseer’s Metamorphosis is a different take on Andrew Ryan’s Randian nightmare at the bottom of the ocean. Where Bioshock, or more specifically Andrew Ryan, obsessed over the nature of capitalism, République's Overseer concerns himself more with the state. Historical figures like Lenin are praised whilst surrealist artists and subversive authors are shunned as dangerous to the peace of Metamorphosis. Books can be collected throughout the game, with each being accompanied by a short monologue by the Overseer, allowing the player to slowly gather information about him as he bloviates as to why certain artists must be purged from Metamorphosis.

He makes for a curious and effective antagonist for the first few episodes of République. The times you get a glimpse of him in the CCTV during cut-scenes his face will be pixelated, adding to the mystery. There’s a particularly chilling moment where he gloats over removing Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from public consumption, boasting that he no longer needs to burn books, given that they are all accessed digitally, and instead can have them altered to remove any “subversive” intent. A sobering moment that hits at the game’s fears and obsessions better than many of its more grandiose moments.

Still, despite the (somewhat) effective writing and stellar voice cast – a very game David Hayter shows up to play revolutionary David Zager, whilst Jennifer Hale lends her voice to Metamorphosis’ administrator, Mireille Prideaux – you can’t help but get the sense that a lot of République is simply churning over the same ground that both Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid 2 have mined to much better effect. After a while, the constant monologues by the Overseer become tiresome and predictable, bordering on parody with the overblown dialogue. It’s possible that’s the intention, but the game’s villain grows dull long before any mystery surrounding him has been revealed.

The final two episodes also see a dramatic drop in quality compared to the first half, both in terms of the gameplay and the overarching story. Episode four comes out of left-field, changing the rules and having you sneak around from one larger more dangerous threat rather than contending with multiple guards, but the general point of the episode is rather trite by the end and feeds into the non-ending that is the game’s final episode. Perhaps it was a product of a strained budget but République's conclusion is both disappointing and muddled, grasping at multiple plot points without providing any satisfying conclusion to any of them. Much like any over-ambitious TV series, République sets up plenty of interesting mysteries, but by the end get think of a way to get them all to resolve in a satisfactory manner.

That’s the main sticking point with République. Were its story able to stick the course it’d be a worthy playthrough regardless of the uneven stealth and sometimes generic world. Its dystopian future has been done before, and, arguably, to better effect,  but that alone wouldn’t take away from the game’s successes, along with its genuine love of classic ‘90s adventure mechanics. What inevitably kills République is that its story feels like it were all for nothing, struggling to provide any meaningful ending to the tale it’s teased for over five hours as the credits begin to roll.


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