“Where are the triple-A games designed specifically for touch-based devices?” asks Republique’s Kickstarter campaign. Exordium is the first part of an attempt by developer Camouflaj – a team of industry veterans who’ve worked on the likes of Halo, Metal Gear Solid and FEAR – to answer that question. It’s successful in the sense that here is a visually polished, well presented and smartly acted action game boasting both high production values and a decent, intuitive control scheme tailored to its platform. And yet it also offers several reminders as to why there are so few of its kind available on mobile formats.
It begins with you receiving a breathless phone call from Hope, a woman apparently desperate to escape the clutches of a totalitarian organisation. Your job is to help her escape, via a stolen phone that allows you to hack into the online network of the facility at which she is being held. If the world is a familiar kind of dystopia, it’s a reasonably well constructed one, but its attempts at topicality are rather simplistic. Though the dialogue is often smart and witty, the story has little new to say. Oppressive governments and the loss of civil liberties are bad, apparently, while full-body scanners are not only an invasion of privacy but potentially hazardous to a person’s health. Republique may have a social conscience, but its commentary has all the subtlety and searing insight of a Banksy artwork.
Still, its systems feel a good deal fresher. It’s a stealth game at heart, with patrolling guards to sneak past and distract as you attempt to guide Hope through the facility. Tap the eye icon in the top right of the screen on you’ll enter Omni View, which pauses the action, allowing you to shift between cameras (which can be manoeuvred up to a point) as well as lock and unlock doors, scan propaganda, read newspapers and emails, and listen to answerphone messages. Return to your regular view and simple taps send Hope scurrying into cover, allowing her to pickpocket guards for key items, to hide within lockers and unscrew vents.
It’s an unusual idea and it works well in the main, requiring a degree of dexterity and timing to pass through an area unseen. Hope will take the quickest route to her selected destination, but she’ll only crouch behind walls if you have a direct line of sight to the surface you want her to stick to. She’s smart enough to manoeuvre around corners if a guard is nearby to stay hidden, and it’s a tense but engaging plate-spinning act as you rapidly switch between viewpoints to keep her safe. If she’s spotted, a blast of pepper spray is enough to evade capture; when that runs out, it’s a matter of sprinting for the nearest door and locking it remotely before they can follow.
In theory, the guards should be easy to outwit, as their simplistic, looped AI routines are straight out of the PS1 era. Their predictability, however, is less of an issue when you consider how tricky it is to keep Hope out of sight. If they were any smarter, you’d be led to the nearest holding cell – a lengthy and tedious process each time, particularly when you’re then scanned for contraband – within seconds. No, the problem lies with the sometimes inconsistent context-sensitive controls. Attempt to move your current camera with too sharp a swipe, and the game will occasionally misinterpret that as an instruction for Hope, sending her blundering clumsily into plain sight. Similarly, you might attempt to pickpocket a guard, only to walk straight into them. Icons denoting your intended action only appear when you tap, yet quickly correcting an erroneous one may be read as a double-tap, which sends Hope into a sprint. At least you can escape quickly, hacking her cell door open before the guards have left the room without an eyelid being batted in response.
Elsewhere, Republique is rather too keen to remind you of its origins. In Omni view, you’ll see giant developer logos representing the game’s interactive commentary – fine on a second playthrough, perhaps, but somewhat intrusive on your initial run. Scan a guard for items, meanwhile, and you’ll see an ID card with ‘KickStarter Backer’ emblazoned on the top-right corner. One room holds several posters for other successful KickStarter projects, while the game’s main collectables arrive in the form of old game cartridges, all of which are existing iOS titles – with a link to their App Store page, of course. For a game sold on the idea of immersing you in a detailed and visually striking world, it’s odd that it frequently allows reality to intrude so jarringly.
It seems later episodes will give you access to a wider range of tools to distract and disarm – and presumably more of a reason to care about Hope’s plight – which should allow Camouflaj to build on the promise shown here. For the time being, Exordium represents a kind of success, even if it’s tempered by the evident struggle to achieve an objective that may, in the end, prove to be a fool’s errand.
Republique is out now on the App Store.