I recently had a chance to play through the first couple of hours of Blackpowder Games’s upcoming first person, horror-themed, action/adventure title Betrayer. Betrayer has hit Steam early access, so you can now play this alpha build to see what it has to offer. By now, if you have heard of this game, then you are probably familiar with its striking visual style. I wasn’t too fond of this style when I saw the first screenshots of the game, and after playing it for a couple of hours, I am still not a huge fan of it. However, I found that the game has a lot to offer when it comes to its atmosphere and its intriguing story. My brief time with the game has left me wanting to see what the final product has to offer.
Betrayer, like a lot of recent Indie games, is hard to fit into a specific genre or gameplay category. Like a role-playing game, it has a basic inventory system and gold that you can use to buy ammunition and better weapons. It also has a map with locations that you can discover and fast travel to, a journal, and some basic dialog trees. It even has a “corpse run” mechanic that strips away your gold when you die and forces you to retrieve it by revisiting the location of your demise. Its combat is purely action-based though, and doesn’t involve role-playing traits or loot (other than weapons and gold).
The combat is a key feature, but at its core, Betrayer is still a horror/mystery adventure game, where your task is to explore a dangerous landscape and attempt to piece together recent events. Who you are, what you are doing there, and what exactly has happened isn’t made clear. The game strongly suggests that you are a ghost and that you are in some sort of afterlife or spirit realm; this suggestion is reinforced by the game’s visual style. So, while it does appear a bit gimmicky at first, the game’s style plays a significant role in giving the world a creepy, supernatural, or alien feel.
The uneasy atmosphere in the game is something that I haven’t experienced for quite some time. It reminds me of the atmosphere in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. Even when there are no enemies around, it always feels somewhat threatening and tense. An ordinary phenomenon like a gust of wind suddenly feels like an ominous message. The clanking sounds of an enemy’s armor as he charges at you suddenly become frightening (especially when you hear those sounds behind you). The game seems content to show you little, give you the occasional mysterious clue, and then let you fill in everything else with your imagination. When it comes to the atmosphere, another good comparison is with the horror title “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”.
Betrayer also has a very unique setting – early colonial America. The Catholic Spanish are still a world power, and they are at odds with the Protestant English. Meanwhile, there is still a native population in this world that doesn’t take too kindly to threats to their homes and doesn’t necessarily want old world religions rammed down their throats. What I have played of Betrayer gives me the impression that Blackpowder has done a wonderful job of incorporating this rich period of history into the game. Religious conflict, privateering, Conquistadores and Englishmen fighting each other with crappy front-loading muskets, relationships with the natives going sour – they all appear to be in this game. It leaves me wondering why almost no other developer has ever taken advantage of everything that this period of world history has to offer.
Early in the game, you find an abandoned fort. The main objective of the game seems to be to find out what happened to the residents. Were they killed by natives? Were they killed by the Spanish? Did they relocate? Did they eat each other and then the last guy left starved to death? Who am I, and why is it my job to answer these questions? The mystery had me hooked immediately. As I explored the countryside, I soon found some clues as to what may have happened to some of these residents. In particular, I found some skulls, and when I returned those skulls to their proper resting place, I was able to talk to the spirit that the skull formerly belonged to and learn more.
I love that Betrayer is old school in how little direction it gives you. It drops you off in the world somewhere without an explanation, leaving you to discover the world’s secrets on your own. I don’t know if this is a deliberate design decision, or if it is the result of the product being in an alpha stage. Regardless, I hope that the final product is still reliant upon the player’s sense of curiosity and light on the hand-holding.
One aspect of Betrayer that I don’t love is the combination of combat and respawning enemies. Combat is kind of a clunky drag. Granted, some of that is by design because of the weapons that are at your disposal, but that doesn’t make it fun. Most of the enemies appear to be undead Spanish Conquistadores. They are highlighted in red against the black and white backgrounds. They look blurry though, so that they look more like little red blobs in the distance unless you are about 20 feet away from them. You can barely tell when one of them is entering into a shooting animation, and most of them just run straight at you, grunting like zombies. The game gives you a melee attack, but it is completely worthless since any contact with one of these enemies means insta-death (which leads to another corpse run). Since the game needs something dangerous to remain tense, combat seems more like a necessary evil in this game than one of its better features.
I am now at a point in the game where I am sort of stuck. There is a locked door that I think I have to open to advance the game, but I don’t know how to do it. It might be that I have missed a clue somewhere, or it just might be that the next area isn’t in this build. This is normally the time where I would visit a forum or consult a F.A.Q., but I especially don’t want to do that here. I want to discover as much of this mystery as I can on my own, without anything being spoiled for me. On the other hand, I don’t feel like roaming the countryside again looking for another clue, since it means lots of walking around and fighting more respawning enemies (which I am already kind of bored with). I think that what I will do is put the game aside until it is in its final release state. I am very eager to see what the game is like when it is finished.