"Console quality" is a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit in mobile development. Both players and creators seem eager for something a bit bigger and more substantial than Angry Birds — but we've yet to really see a game that meets those lofty standards. Titles like Deus Ex: The Fall and Oceanhorn nearly look like console games with great 3D visuals, but ultimately fail with gameplay that's not well suited to a touchscreen. Even the excellent Infinity Blade series — perhaps the best-looking games to grace a smartphone — features gameplay that's fun, but severely stripped down. The next contender for the crown is Republique, a stealth action game from new studio Camouflaj. And the amazing thing is that it actually works — it's like Metal Gear Solid streamlined for a touchscreen, and it's one of the best mobile games of 2013.
Republique is set in an dystopic police state where everything is under surveillance. The first episode — the game is broken up into five episodes, much like seasons of The Walking Dead — takes place in a mysterious facility of some sort, where a young woman is attempting to escape. At the outset, you don't really know much about the world, but things slowly become clearer as you play. You'll learn more about the oppressive regime by overhearing bits of dialogue and collecting newspapers and cassette tapes. The game isn't exactly subtle — you'll uncover banned copies of Animal Farm along the way — but it's compelling nonetheless. It appears as if there's a deep, well-developed universe in Republique, though of course that's not totally clear just from the initial episode. You're left with more questions than answers by the time you finish.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the game is that you don't play as the escaping woman — you're not even physically present in the facility. Instead, you're a hacker who helps guide her to safety while opening up new areas to explore. You view the world through the many, many CCTV cameras littered throughout the facility, and tell her where to go and when to move. This creates an interesting dynamic where you're able to scout up ahead so you can see roaming guards that need be avoided. Just like in the Metal Gear games, much of the challenge comes from figuring out the guards' patterns and then reacting accordingly so that you don't get caught. You can collect Tasers and cans of pepper spray, which act as temporary "get out of jail free" cards, but they’re in limited supply.
This novel take on stealth not only makes the game feel fresh, it also makes Republique remarkably well suited to a touchscreen. Most of your actions involve tapping on cameras to take them over, and then tapping on locations to guide the woman where she needs to go. There are no frustrating action sequences where swipes or onscreen buttons are used to replace physical controls — when you get caught, possible actions pop up onscreen letting you act quickly and efficiently. What this amounts to is a fully realized stealth game that's been streamlined without removing any of the depth or challenge the genre is known for. It doesn't feel watered down; just different and very refreshing. It somehow manages to offer up a solid and entertaining challenge without being frustrating, a common characteristic in games where you spend a lot of time sneaking around.
The hardest part is waiting for episode two
It also looks fantastic, with 3D visuals that rival just about anything on iOS. The facial capture, in particular, looks surprisingly lifelike, making Republique's characters feel all the more real. The locations you'll be skulking around are filled with details that make them look like real places, whether it's cutlery and portable CD players laying around or propaganda posters espousing the horrors of pickpockets. The game also uses some nice filter effects to drive home the fact that you're viewing events through security cameras. It's a simple thing, but seeing ripples of static onscreen really helps illustrate your perspective on the world.
The most impressive thing about Republique isn't that it's a fantastic game — which it is — it's that the team at Camoflaj has managed to craft such a great experience without cutting any corners. The story is, at least initially, compelling and filled with plenty of promise; the visuals are impressively detailed; and the gameplay is fresh and engaging. Even the voice acting and music are fantastic, and you’re able to unlock additional developer commentary to see how much work really went into the game. It is, for lack of a better term, a console-quality experience you can play on a smartphone or tablet — and perhaps the first that doesn't make you wish you could hook up a controller to your iPad. In fact, my only real complaint is that I have to wait for episode two — which is expected to take two or three months to complete — to see what happens next.
The first episode of Republique is available today on iOS, with a PC and Mac version also in the works.