Pixelhunter – République

Pixelhunter

When thinking of genres that would translate well to the iPad, stealth action games would not be high on the list. Dystopian drama République’s greatest contribution to the medium, then, is that it makes it work. Not work in a jury rigged, improvisational way but work in a way that fully utilises the fundamental qualities of the iPad, making you wonder how it seemed so unlikely in the first place.

The game opens with an impassioned plea for help from Hope that immediately upends all of your hairs
The game opens with an impassioned plea for help from Hope that immediately upends all of your hairs

Developer Camouflaj, led by Ryan Payton who was formerly a producer at Kojima Productions and a narrative designer on Halo 4, cleverly fuses the essential elements of the stealth genre (cover to cover movement and good timing) to the mechanics of a point and click adventure, a genre that categorically does work on the iPad. In République clicking a location will see protagonist Hope move there and stick to it. She’s even intelligent enough to sidle around her cover if a guard gets too close, which, along with the ability to freeze the game and line up movements, removes a lot of potential frustration, allowing the player to focus on the bigger picture.

The point and click adventure Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (a sequel to which is currently in the works) attempted to modernise the genre by introducing stealth and fighting mechanics in 2006 and failed; diluting the impact of its narrative with clumsy controls and seemingly dooming any further experiments in this field. Camouflaj should be congratulated for taking a risk and having another crack at it.

Beneath your freewheeling ability to move through the environments (which may have stolen Watchdog’s thunder), is the pressing need to guide Hope through the well designed physical landscape

The episodic République opens with an incoming phone call, and accepting it introduces you to Hope, the game’s protagonist, who delivers a panicked and impassioned plea for help directly to you. She’s part of an oppressive secret regime. She’s in trouble. She wants you to help her. For all intents and purposes she has dialled a random number and you’re the schmuck who answered, now you need to step up. It’s an incredibly powerful pre-credits opening that sucks you into the game better than any amount of cutscene exposition could (a lesson Payton perhaps learnt from Metal Gear Solid 4). It gives everything a real sense of tension and import.

The opening sequence sets a high bar for the game's storytelling ambitions
The opening sequence sets a high bar for the game’s storytelling ambitions

What follows is a scene in which Hope is disciplined by authority figure Mireille Prideux, played by Jennifer Hale, and here you realise that you can jump from Hope’s mobile phone to one of the many security cameras. This introduces you to the central mechanic of moving like a ghost in the machine through the facility. Imagine Resident Evil style camera angles that can be panned and tilted. In this scene you are also introduced to Cooper, an anxious guard who witnesses your intervention and decides to help, becoming a guide much like Atlas in Bioshock. This superb opening establishes the main characters, introduces the core mechanics, contextualises the player’s presence in the gameworld and teases many of the themes of the game without text or tutorialising.

Beneath your freewheeling ability to move through the environments (which may have stolen Watchdog’s thunder), is the pressing need to guide Hope through the well designed physical landscape and past the danger of the guards. This involves using the cameras to observe patrol patterns, or to disrupt them by sabotaging electronics. The tension between the omniscient point of view you inhabit as the player, and the vulnerable reality of Hope is incredibly interesting and mechanically offers a much more satisfying relationship than Booker and Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, in which Elizabeth was effectively rendered invisible to enemies (part of an incredible cop out regarding her role in the game).

Switching to camera mode pauses the game and brings up a tactical overlay
Switching to camera mode pauses the game and brings up a tactical overlay

Although there is the odd incongruity of a password conveniently given in an email, the kinds of documents your roving camera eye turns up feel more believable than the voxophones and kinetoscopes of Bioshock Infinite; more like the subtler environmental storytelling of Gone Home. The collectables themselves are fascinating too. They include recovering Cooper’s collection of stolen game cartridges: other iPad indie hits from Papa Sangre to Sword & Sworcery, each with an audio byte from Cooper, a self confessed ‘hardcore gamer’, extolling their virtues and with a link to their App Store profile. This amounts to an incredibly generous piece of joint promotion, proving that the indie scene benefits more from supporting one another than competing.

Other collectables include several banned books, from Animal Farm to Naked Lunch, each featuring a fascinating audio clip from the Overseer on why he considers it subversive; background conversations about the game from the development team (unlockable if you buy the season pass), most of which rather thematically have been recorded secretly; and cassettes recorded by the revolutionary Zager, voiced by David Hayter, who interestingly presents him as a morally bankrupt drunkard rather than a righteous revolutionary. Incredible to think that Camouflaj scooped the voice talents of Hayter, only to use him for optional collectibles, but this seems typical of their uncompromising approach to design.

République, then, not only reinvents the rules of the stealth genre for a touch interface, proving that big budget games aimed at a core audience are possible on the iPad, but manages to tell its dystopian narrative in a more grounded, less dissonant manner than its triple A brethren, and all this after only hitting its Kickstarter goal by the skin of its teeth. I have nothing but admiration for Camouflaj’s achievement and can’t wait to see what awaits in episode 2.

Republique's context sensitive controls work better than anyone could have expected
Republique’s context sensitive controls work better than anyone could have expected

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