Republished on Wednesday 28th November 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of December's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Just what is Papers, Please? Four years on from ex-Naughty Dog developer Lucas Pope’s chilling debut, we’re still not sure this long-awaited PlayStation Vita port provides any answers. Playing as an immigration officer on the border between Kolechia and Arstotzka, your task is simple: ensure that patrons have the appropriate paperwork in order to enter your slice of Soviet paradise. But to pitch it as a kind of arcade-leaning hidden object title would be doing it a disservice, because set against a bleak backdrop of suicide bombers and anxious immigrants, it becomes something so much more.
Utilising the PS Vita’s touch screen to allow you to shuffle around reference books, passports, and various other pieces of ephemera makes for a surprisingly tactile experience. At first you’ll be checking individual documents: is the issuing city accurate? Has the passport expired? Is the gender correct? But before long you’ll have a cramped workspace of books, identification cards, and even finger print references. The smaller display of Sony’s handheld does make for a quite claustrophobic experience, but in a twisted kind of way that busy workspace is a huge part of the title’s appeal.
Diligently checking every detail is a surprisingly engrossing experience, but the title layers additional pressures on top. Each document that you correctly check will earn you money, and with your family cold and hungry at home, you’re going to need every single ruble. Of course, sometimes you’re going to have to decide whether it’s worth bending the rules: a husband begs you to let his wife through, but seeing as she has the wrong paperwork, will you turn a blind eye – even if your gesture of goodwill means a fine, and your family missing out on the medicine it so desperately needs to survive?
This is a dark game, reflected by its muted colour palette and sinister subject matter. And yet it finds moments of levity in every life-changing decision; sex workers will leave you their cards, while one persistent individual even shows up with a hand-drawn passport – people will do anything to experience the glories of Arstotzka, after all. A neat save system allows you to go back and replay earlier sequences, changing your decisions and branching the narrative as a result. It does conclude in some repetition, but it’s a nice way of handling important forks in the short but satisfying storyline.
Perhaps the biggest achievement here, though, is that feeling of satisfaction when you play detective and it comes off. Whether it’s spotting incongruences in documentation, or even noticing an inaccurate passport ID, you’ll feel like the smartest person in the world as you reach for that red stamp. But it’s by humanising every single piece of paper that the title truly becomes something special. A young lady’s documents may not match – but what are you going to do when she tells you that she’s trying to escape her violent pimp? You’re on the clock, so you better decide quick.
Papers, Please may be a few years old now, but it’s still unlike anything you’ll have ever played. The title’s unique gameplay has been reworked nicely for the PS Vita, and while your workspace can feel claustrophobic on a 5-inch screen, that’s actually a big part of the game’s appeal. Its bleak setting won’t be for everyone, but by marrying moral quandaries to arcade-like gameplay, it offers something that will live in your memory long after you’ve filed your last piece of paperwork.