Touchscreen stealth gaming. Yeah, I just got a little shiver down my spine as well. Stealth is one of those gameplay styles that is so hard to get right, and so maddening when it's wrong, that far too many games can't even pull it off when using the multiple precision inputs of a joypad. What sort of mad fool would attempt it on a touchscreen?
The mad fools at indie developer Camouflaj, for one. Except it turns out they're neither mad nor fools. They're actually kind of ingenious.
Republique is a stealth game, but it makes more than a few tweaks to the expected formula. Key among these is a small but important shift in context. You're not controlling Hope, the main character, but rather you are helping her remotely by hacking security cameras and other systems. Rather than trying to ignore the barrier of the touchscreen, the game embraces it and makes it part of the fiction. When Hope talks to you via her phone, she's talking directly to you, through the physical device you're using to assist her. Suddenly, the interface pulls you into the game rather than separating you from it, making it a first-person game unlike any other.
The setting is typical dystopian sci-fi territory. In the city of Metamorphosis, dissent is crushed, provocative art is banned and indoctrination is mandatory. When we first meet Hope, she's begging for help as casually fascist enforcers are closing in on her for owning a doctored version of the Republique's manifesto. She's that rarest of things: a female protagonist whose gender is largely irrelevant. She's not sexy, she's not a superhero. She's just a person, desperate and scared, but willing to trust the player if it means an escape from her nightmare. In that respect, she's a lot like Jade, the still-inspiring star of Beyond Good and Evil, and that's not a comparison I make lightly.
You control Hope's environment by using something called OmniVIEW. When activated, this freezes time and allows you to access any available systems nearby. You can move around the world by hopping from camera to camera, but can also download data, hack emails and tap phones once you've upgraded your abilities. You do this by trading information found on your travels to a sinister figure called the Data Broker.
Drop out of OmniVIEW and, once you've used your technological advantage to scout ahead, you can then direct Hope by tapping where you want her to go. She's not completely without agency of her own, however. She'll intuitively crouch behind objects, pick up nearby items and even shuffle around a corner by herself rather than be caught by a patrolling guard. She's certainly not infallible, but she's smart enough that the game never feels like a horrendous escort mission. You feel like her partner, not her shepherd.
Republique is an attempt to reclaim stealth gaming from the bloodthirsty action path it's headed down
In its best moments, this partnership really works. You might wait for a guard to wander into a storeroom, only to lock him in so that Hope can scurry past while he's trapped inside. The guards aren't exactly hard to outwit - they follow very strict patterns with large blind spots, which means that the game is rarely frustrating but also never quite as challenging as you'd like. There's a feeling that Camouflaj, headed up as it is by former Metal Gear Solid 4 producer Ryan Payton, is erring on the side of playability, and given how painfully frustrating stealth gaming can be when executed badly, it's understandable.
Even so, Republique's stealth doesn't always work as planned. More than once my attempts to pan the camera were interpreted as a tap for Hope to move towards, and there are times when the camera options available to you can feel limiting. That contextual distance - you're guiding Hope rather than controlling her - softens these blows, and there's no game-ending punishment for being caught, so the occasional moments when things feel a bit like a fumble don't damage the overall experience.
What is most noticeable is that Republique is an attempt to reclaim stealth gaming from the bloodthirsty action path it's headed down. This is not a violent game - the worst Hope can do is pepper spray or taser the guards, while they in turn simply march her to the nearest detention room - yet it feels far more tense than any of the more high-profile sneaking games released in the last few years. Games like Splinter Cell, Assassin's Creed and, yes, Metal Gear all use stealth as a way to empower the player, giving you the illicit thrill of being the unseen killer who snaps necks and stabs hearts from the shadows. Here, stealth is about being vulnerable and defenceless - a practical necessity, not a gross power fantasy.
There are similarly smart ideas sprinkled throughout Republique's first episodic chapter (there are four more to follow - a season pass costs just over £10 and comes with developer commentary). The story's debt to Orwell and others is deftly acknowledged by collectable books hidden throughout the game, each of which triggers a short explanation of why it is banned in this dystopian future. From Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Scarlet Letter through to Naked Lunch and 1984, it's a fine crash course in controversial and confrontational fiction.
Also lurking in the game - often in the pockets of guards, where you must pickpocket them - are "old" game cartridges. Containing today's best and brightest indie iOS hits, this is a lovely example of how Republique folds the real world into its fiction. You're collecting them on behalf of Cooper, a mysterious turncoat in the system who acts as your tutor. Speaking via deadpan text-to-speech, his interjections offer both welcome levity and potted reviews of the games in question. There's even a direct link to the App Store so you can download them.
This is a game that marries the best aspects of quirky leftfield indie design with the polish and connected thinking of experienced commercial game production
In fact, what impresses most about Republique is how robust it feels. This is what happens when developers with big ideas, independent spirit and AAA experience are liberated by generous crowdfunding. From its motion-captured characters to its intelligent script and excellent voice acting (courtesy of Jennifer Hale, David Hayter and even Dwight "Howling Mad Murdock" Schultz), this is a game that marries the best aspects of quirky leftfield indie design with the polish and connected thinking of experienced commercial game production.
There's so much of Republique that feels comfortably familiar, yet it has a subtle flavour of its own. It certainly isn't the first game to pit a lone fugitive against a repressive state, and it won't be the first time you've crouched behind boxes while watching to see what a guard does. Yet beyond those obvious touchstones, it forges a distinctive path of its own. There's Metal Gear here, but also reminders of more obscure games: Konami's oddball voice-controlled experiement Lifeline or Free Radical's psychic adventure Second Sight.
It has a strong, interesting female lead, a story that is smart but also funny, and gameplay that takes full advantage of the iOS platform while still delivering the depth and variety you'd expect from a major console release. Republique ticks a lot of boxes, in other words, and the only criticism that really sticks is that there's not quite as much challenge as you may like. With another four chapters to go, however, there's plenty of time even for that to change. Fans of smart sci-fi and bold game design should jump aboard now.