Review: République Episode 1: Exordium (iOS)

[This essay previously appeared on my blog. Check it out for additional opinion pieces, reviews, bad puns, and more.]

[Note: I originally published this review on iTunes / the iOS App Store on 12/31/2013, with the following title:
The first part of a Kickstarter promise, made good. Well worth the full price for the whole game.]

Note: this is a review of the first episode of République, which is what’s out so far and what you’re buying. The remaining four episodes must be purchased separately within the app, and I’ll review them as they come out. The game began as a Kickstarter project and I backed it, so I started playing it with the hope that it would live up to the potential that prompted me to give money in the first place. After well over six hours to fully explore and inhabit the first chapter, I am more than satisfied. Read on for details.

The first episode of République plays like the stealth parts of Metal Gear Solid, controls like a point-and-click adventure game, and looks, sounds and feels like a vision of “1984”‘s paranoiac totalitarian state as influenced by Bioshock. (The emphasis on surveillance is also unexpectedly topical in our post-Snowden world.) If any of that sounds appealing–or you just want to see what it looks like to push the boundaries of what’s possible in “mobile” gaming–then you should check the game out.
In République, you don’t control the protagonist (aptly named “Hope”) directly. Instead, you have hacked into the surveillance system used by the totalitarian government to control its populace. Like a ghost, you inhabit the countless security cameras watching all of Metamorphosis, and, in a neat inversion, turn the tools of oppression against the oppressors by using the cameras to help Hope escape her captors.

Jumping from camera to camera at will, you scout out the terrain ahead of Hope and tell her when to move and where to go. You also hack into other parts of Metamorphosis like doors and voicemail to gather intel and help Hope elude the many guards. Hope herself has a robust intelligence and will smartly and stealthily navigate around the environment. She can pick guards’ pockets, hide in lockers, and use pepper-spray in a confrontation. She frequently talks to you and really feels alive, though sometimes she repeats dialogue, damaging the impression.
Though only certain areas of Metamorphosis are accessible in Episode 1, they are vast and nonlinear (I hope future episodes add a map function). There’s Metroid-inspired backtracking with new abilities to open new rooms and find more collectibles. There’s much to find, usually through environmental scanning ala Metroid Prime, and all of it fleshes out the rich narrative.

République looks and sounds beautiful. You won’t believe such a lush and detailed 3D environment runs with such fluidity on a mobile device–an amazing technical achievement. I played it on a 3rd-Gen iPad and had the occasional performance hiccup, but nothing significant. The music is as atmospheric and haunting as the visuals. And the game is fully and professionally voice-acted. Play this one with headphones.
Of special note is the “OMNI View,” which freezes time and allows you to scan the environment. You can trigger it even during in-game “cut” scenes where you lose control of Hope (this does interrupt the drama, but it usually feels like a worthwhile tradeoff). Everything turns ghostly and washed out, important elements are highlighted, and electronic shimmers run over everything. Beautiful. Although, because OMNI View freezes time and therefore feels safer than the regular view, it’s easy to spend the most time in OMNI View, which masks much of the color, detail and oppressive beauty of Metamorphosis. So, get Hope to a safe place and then take some time away from OMNI View to appreciate the sights.
The game controls wonderfully, if not perfectly. Everything can be done with a single touch, from hacking to directing Hope, and the game does a great job of indicating how to do everything. Because it’s only a single touch, sometimes you may do something like accidentally send Hope into harm’s way when you meant to pan a camera. That can be frustrating, but the game isn’t punishing (there’s no actual death or failure), and if you’re quick on your fingers you can take advantage of OMNI View’s time-freeze to find a helpful perspective and redirect Hope back to safety before she gets into trouble.
The narrative is the primary hook and reward. Episode 1 introduces a handful of characters and they’re all interesting and full of secrets, which hopefully will pay off in later episodes. Metamorphosis itself might as well be a character, with all the newspaper clippings, propaganda, emails, and voice recordings you come across giving you further insight into the nature of this flawed utopia–a great incentive to actually want to collect things. Make no mistake: twitch gameplay this is not. It’s slow and deliberate and sometimes mechanically repetitive. But unfolding the mysteries of this république is rich, rewarding and completely absorbing. It’s well worth savoring.
Episode 1 nails its conclusion. If this is how République starts, I can’t wait to see how it ends, not to mention all the bits in the middle. Bring on Episode 2!

That’s the review–what about the price? It’s $20-$25 to get the whole game (the Season Pass gives a discount). To those complaining about the price: it is ridiculous to complain about the price. This is not your typical smartphone fare–it is a console-quality game. If République came out for consoles, it would cost $40-$60 and no one would bat an eye. But just because they happen to play the game by poking a touchscreen, some people think it’s worth less than a cup of coffee. But there is nothing else like République on iOS.

Even if you finished Ep. 1 in 2 hours, you’d get 10 hours of play out of the full game for $20, vs. 6-8 hours of play out of a blockbuster console game for which you paid $60. And if you try to get 100%, the numbers only get better. So, what are you complaining about? More developers should have the courage to charge what they believe their work is worth. Mobile is becoming just another platform, rather than a genre, and pricing needs to reflect quality. On this, République takes a commendable stand.

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