In a world where nothing is certain, how do you find the truth?
Developed by veterans of the F.E.AR franchise, Betrayer is a first person action/adventure game with supernatural overtones. Though it welcomes players with an unsettling atmosphere and fearsome enemies, it also has its share of flaws.
Blackpowder Games has stated that they wanted to create a game with a lot of exploration and little hand-holding involved, and they’ve done just that. The game plays like a first-person RPG, giving you a simple inventory menu and gold to purchase weapon upgrades and ammunition. Start playing, and the first thing you’ll notice is the art style – heavily saturated monochrome visuals, shot through with splashes of red in a manner which recalls The Unfinished Swan, or perhaps Madworld.
While much of your time will be spent engaged in combat (or trying to avoid it), Betrayer is a horror/mystery adventure game at heart. Taking place at the turn of the 17th century, your goal is to determine what terrible fate befell a colony in Virginia. You’re left to explore the dangerous terrain and uncover what happened to the colonists. But this isn’t made immediately apparent; who you are, where you came from and what you’re doing is revealed in a piecemeal fashion; you aren’t even given a real goal to start with – you begin the game on a beach, and it’s only through experimentation and exploration that you’re able to work out what you’re supposed to be doing.
You’re aided in your mission by the “Maiden in Red” – a young woman looking for her twin sister. The Maiden allows you to travel to the Otherworld – essentially, a parallel universe – where you learn the ability to speak to the spirits of the deceased, picking up a fair share of quests from them in order to help put them to rest, and unravel the mystery of the missing colonists.
Betrayer is certainly visually appealing – sharp white and black tones contrast with splashes of crimson – but it can quickly become bothersome. The visual style, while certainly bold, makes navigation difficult – something which the developer has stated is entirely deliberate. Thankfully, delving into the options allows you to bring color to this otherwise colorless world. Do so, and you’re greeted with one of the most beautiful games of recent times. While Blackpowder clearly fell in love with their original aesthetic choice, it’s a little sad that the game only comes into its own once the entirety of the color spectrum is allowed to seep in. Sure, the monochromatic look fits the feeling of Betrayer – enhancing the game’s supernatural feel – but it can also be sore on the eyes.
That’s about as engrossing as Betrayer gets, unfortunately. The quests you receive have no guidance. For instance, you’re told of a general location – such as the side of a hill – and you have to travel around and find that specific hill, not even knowing exactly what it is you are looking for. There are a lot of times where you spend more time looking for the unmarked locations than actually paying attention to the storyline. Though Betrayer is classed as an action/adventure, there really isn’t a lot of action, and far too much adventure. Instead most of the time, when you aren’t looking for some hill or some pile of bones next to one of the million trees in the area, you’re searching for corrupted totems – which are sporadically placed throughout the entire map. Upon finding said totems, you summon a handful of ghostly enemies and have to defeat them in order to cleanse the totem. Cleanse all totems in the area, and you unlock the next part of the map.
The atmosphere that is built around you in Betrayer is unlike anything we’ve seen for a while. The sense of isolation and vulnerabulity sometimes manages to evoke memories of playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series; but for all its supernatural overtones, it’s left lacking in the horror department. It simply isn’t captivating, and the terrain is just bland – being filled with nothing but trees, woods, the occasional creek or river and the even more rare fort – that your motivation to continue with it can falter.
The enemies you encounter on your journey are quite difficult to defeat, even on the lowest difficult settings. Those of you who like to drop the difficulty down and just enjoy the storyline should prepare yourselves for a difficult time; the enemies are strangely overpowered, and many times you will find that you’ve stumbled into an area with five or six enemies, creating a much more difficult scenario for you. With a lack of guidance – Betrayer almost exclusively relies on your own curiosity to progress – it isn’t uncommon to walk in to an area that you just aren’t prepared for. Sadly, though Betrayer has all the makings of an eventful and fun-filled adventure, it too often frustrates more than it satisfies.
You can arm yourself with a bow and arrows, crossbows, and different kinds of muskets and pistols. They’re fairly enjoyable to use, though it would be even more fun if the stealth-based gameplay was a little more forgiving. Betrayer allows players to use their environment around them to crouch down and hide in tall grass or besides trees to attempt those elusive headshots. But unfortunately, most of the enemies are standing so close to one another that, by the time the first skeletal Spaniard hits the ground, you have the rest of the enemies in the vicinity chasing you down. This is not only frustrating, but it undermines the core stealth experience that Blackpowder has so clearly sought to infuse the game with.
Most of the enemies you encounter run much faster than you, and they don’t like to give up on their chase. If you come face to face with four or more enemies, you’re most likely going to die. And you will die a lot. It’s inescapable.
All of this would be fine, if the gameplay was varied enough to allow you to mix up your approach. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of variety on show here. You’ll engage in fights with the same enemies every single time. You’ll spend much of your playthrough running through woodland – and you’ll do that just as much at the start as you will towards the end. Sure, there are a handful of new enemies that get introduced late in the game; but the combat mechanics remain the same: shoot, reload, shoot and reload. Every area of the game has the same set-up as the last. There are clues, notes and treasure boxes spread throughout the areas you’ll visit, but you have no good way of finding them, short of just running around everywhere and being lucky.
What sets Betrayer back the most though, is Blackpowder’s version of hand-holding – or, rather, the lack of it. While the developer clearly intended to give players a completely open world with the lack of arrows, waypoints and map markings increasing the tension, the lack of direction is frustrating. You’re encouraged to listen closely to your surroundings; much of the game will therefore be spent standing still and listening to your environment. Eerie sounds can be heard and – if you follow them closely – will lead you to your next clue. Unfortunately, the audio cues aren’t particularly useful at guiding you through the environment. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves lost somewhere on the map, searching earnestly for something that we weren’t even close to. While we’re certainly not averse to being left to our own devices in a game, some guidance is welcome; otherwise, we’re just floundering around with no clear purpose.
Persevere, and eventually the story does begin to reveal itself. Answers to your questions are eventually found, and the plot eventually makes sense. Unfortunately though, Betrayer isn’t a game that lets you choose if you want to be curious and diligent in your search – you have to be if you wish to finish the game. Many other games are lenient, allowing you to ignore their peripheral details; but Betrayer all but requires you pay attention to everything around you, no matter how inconsequential.
Aside from the listening technique, the music and sound effects in Betrayer are sparse. You’ll spend most of your time listening to the grunts of the enemies around you, and the occasional gusts of wind which allow you to run without being detected. This isn’t a criticism however: the lack of sound plays well with the suspenseful atmosphere. At a time when seemingly every game is doing its best to overwhelm with a bombastic orchestral score, it’s nice to play something a little – dare we say it – quiet.
There’s nothing really enticing about Betrayer. With a lackluster storyline and repetitive gameplay, it doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. At times it can even be boring. It certainly looks the part – and the time period, gorgeous visuals, and atmosphere are all welcome – but they’re not enough to detract from the game’s flaws.
Betrayer is not a game that you would expect from the people who helped to create the F.E.A.R. series, but it does just enough right to make you think that they could be on the right path. Perhaps, with a little more refinement to its core systems, a sequel to Betrayer could be something rather special. As it is though, Betrayer is a gorgeous game with plenty of atmosphere – but also a lot of frustration.