Dystopias are by definition bleak, but they also function at least to the benefit of a few. The problem with Metamorphosis, the mysterious facility in which Republique takes place, is that players are rarely the beneficiaries. Instead, they’re in the same position as protagonist 390-H, also known as Hope: They’re the subjects of an experiment. Over the course of the game’s five episodes, the developers at Camouflaj make significant alterations to their original concept, and rarely for the better.
That Republique remains somewhat captivating through all of its diminishing returns speaks to the high notes of early episodes like “Exordium,” which offers a clever, non-violent twist on Metal Gear Solid. Instead of controlling Hope, players operate the various cameras inside the facility, pinging safe locations to which she can move. Hope isn’t a fighter, and while she gains access to pepper spray and tasers, the game’s emphasis is purely on stealth, surveillance, and story, with literal and figurative rewards for digitally scouring each room from its various viewpoints.
Reading a newspaper, hacking an email account, or eavesdropping on a phone conversation doesn’t just fill in the ominous backstory; it also provides Hope with saleable data that can be used to upgrade her OMNI phone’s features, such as predicting a guard’s route with a yellow overlay. For an additional challenge, players can even try to pickpocket the patrolling soldiers, a literal theft that acknowledges its gaminess by yielding unique collectible cartridges that, while unplayable, pay homage to fellow indie developers.
The irony here is that the more control it supposedly affords Hope, the worse the game itself functions.
The second episode, “Metamorphosis,” builds upon that solid foundation, mainly by getting away from the one-dimensional hallways of the Dormitory area and setting itself in an ornate, three-story library that also houses a museum dedicated to Metamorphosis’s overseer, Treglazov. Some light puzzles appear in this installment, from avoiding a maze of laser tripwires to properly assembling a 3D blueprint. These innovations, however, are accompanied by a sense of wheel-spinning. There’s only so much that Republique is willing to spill about Treglazov, which means that the majority of characters introduced—like Derringer, the leader of the Prizrak soldiers, or Senor Octavo, the librarian—are stuck repeating the same information from slightly different perspectives. After a while, hearing about “The Arrival” gets irksome, since it’s obvious players won’t learn what that is until the final episode.
This sense of ennui weighs particularly heavy on “Ones and Zeroes.” Once Hope gains the ability to plant sleep mines, or to remotely trigger electronic devices, in order to distract guards, there’s never any need to. At one point, she’s able to access data outside of Metamorphosis, hacking into nanny cams and laptops to find incriminating information she can publish so as to discredit several overzealous guards. Instead of the natural evolution of Republique’s surveillance-as-game conceit, this plays out as a tedious point-and-click mini game that reduces player agency to a few cameras and a handful of sordid soundbites. Consequently, these characters aren’t fleshed out enough to elicit any real sympathy; it’s hard enough to feel bad for Hope. Without a sense of connection, Republique can do nothing more than preach a very obvious warning about totalitarian governance, and without the subtlety of BioShock or the humanity of Life Is Strange, the game feels emptier the more players learn about it.
By the end, even Camouflaj seems bored with the project. The fourth installment, “God’s Acre,” is a shallow attempt at embracing the more horrific elements of its plot, going full Resident Evil: Nemesis as Hope runs around a cemetery, pursued by Mammoth, a grotesque gardener with an unexplained split personality. Meanwhile, the fifth and shortest episode, “Terminus,” offers only one explorable area (depending on which rebel you side with) before the lengthy, largely non-interactive finale. Here, where all of Metamorphosis should have at last opened up, the game instead seals off many of the facility’s pathways. Players can still wander around collecting cartridges, but because Cooper, Hope’s hacker ally, has gone missing and no longer has any commentary to add, it’s a largely thankless, meaningless endeavor.
The irony here is that the more control it supposedly affords Hope, the worse Republique functions. On mobile devices, or the PC, the story is the only thing that falls flat, with many characters (like Weep and Zager) remaining cyphers throughout. But on consoles, which allow players to directly move Hope about the facility, the gameplay literally falls apart. Switching between camera angles can result in nearly 10 seconds of frozen static, and it’s not uncommon for Hope to get stuck on objects in the environment. Treglazov, keeps threatening to recalibrate 390-H, and it seems that Republique’s own overseer, Camouflaj, should have done the same to their product.