Betrayer

Betrayer is a first person action/adventure game brought to you by some former Monolith guys who worked on the F.E.A.R. series.  Given their pedigree, it comes as no surprise that they have managed to provide another first person, supernatural-themed game with an unsettling, eerie atmosphere.  That atmosphere is ultimately the strength of the game, but it has other admirable qualities as well.  As a blend of FPS, adventure, and a little bit of RPG, it competently combines some gameplay elements in a unique way.  It also provides an interesting story in a time period of history that has largely been ignored by video games.  Its simple mechanics and visuals get stale by the end, but if you are in the mood for a good indie horror-ish game then Betrayer Is a quality title that is easy to recommend.

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 right off the bat.  The goal of the game isn’t even made clear – you are simply dropped off on the beach, with the debris of an apparent shipwreck floating around you.  This somewhat confusing introduction to the world is typical of the game’s old school approach.  Very little of the goings on are explained without you having to hunt for clues.  For better or for worse, Betrayer is a game that rewards curiosity and patience – or rather, it requires them.

The uneasy atmosphere in the game is something that I haven’t experienced for quite some time.  The best comparison that I can make is with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.  Whereas most horror games require claustrophobic environments to produce a scary atmosphere, Betrayer takes place entirely outdoors, in wide open areas, mostly in sunlight.  Even when there are no enemies around, it always feels somewhat threatening and tense.  An ordinary phenomenon like a gust of wind can feel 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).  Betrayer probably shouldn’t be called a “horror” title, but the constant sense that something is out of place and that you are in danger means that indie horror fans will probably like it.

Betrayer also has a unique setting – early colonial America.  The inspiration for the game seems to be the lost colony of Roanoke.  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.  Colonists arriving in the new world don’t find the Promised Land that they expected, but rather a harsh existence where mere survival is a challenge.  Religious conflict, privateering, Conquistadores and Englishmen fighting each other with crappy front-loading muskets, relationships with the natives going sour – they are all in this game.  The New World, with all of its natural and manmade challenges, is portrayed here as an appropriately miserable place to live.  The source material is put to great use.  The story, while it includes all of these elements, is ultimately a timeless tale about human evils.  It is a good story, although your role in it is limited.  In Betrayer, you are almost like a forensic investigator, piecing together a story that has already happened, rather than guiding it yourself.

Combat is also atypical, thanks to the game’s selection of period appropriate weapons.  The three weapons that you have available to you are the bow, the flintlock pistol, and the musket.  These three weapons make for some rather slow-paced clunky combat.  The firearms are agonizingly slow on the reload, and thus can only be used sparingly.  Before each musket shot, you have to watch a realistic three step animation where the powder is put into the barrel, the ball gets dropped in, and then the rod is used to pack it down (I don’t remember ever seeing this in a game before).  You may find yourself getting killed occasionally while you wait for a reload.  The bow reloads faster, but it doesn’t penetrate armor as well.  The combat might be clumsy but it is good, because it feels authentic.  Plus, your enemies have the same issues that you have.  You can sometimes pick an enemy off while he reloads his own musket.  Enemy AI is surprisingly robust, and it adapts well to the situation.  Enemies will attack you with everything that is available to them, and they will adapt their tactics based on how far you are away from them.  More than once, I got killed in this game as I charged up to an enemy while he was reloading his musket, only to see him pull out his pistol and shoot me in the face.

Betrayer has a lot going for it that separates it from other games, but its visual style is what makes it stand out immediately.  The game was originally intended to have a black and white, high contrast look to it where the only color would be the occasional bright red object or person.  This look is still the default on startup, but in an apparent response to feedback from the early access build, you can add color back into the world by adjusting a slider in the options menu.  As you can see in the screenshots below, this slider dramatically changes how the world looks.

I am torn as to where I come down on the graphics.  On one hand, the black and white look fits the story better because it gives the world a distinctly alien or supernatural feel, and it gives you the sense that you are some sort of spirit in the afterlife or a parallel world.  On the other hand, that look can be really hard on the eyes, and the foliage doesn’t appear to have been drawn with it in mind.  As a result, the pure black and white world is horribly ugly in some places, because so much of the environment looks like little blobs.  Adding back the color solves that problem, but the color takes away most the game’s unique look without making it particularly attractive.  With full color, it just looks like an ordinary wilderness where somebody went crazy with the lighting.  In the end, I played the game with the slider set most of the way to black and white, and I enjoyed it that way.

Another feature that separates Betrayer from other first person games is its music and sound effects, or rather, the lack of them.  Betrayer has been designed with a minimalist approach in a lot of areas, especially the audio.  The game has an eerie, unsettling sense of calm and quiet to it, unlike lots of horror titles, which feature lots of music and environmental sound effects.  Here, the most commonly heard sound is the wind blowing through the trees and whipping the occasional flag.  Audio cues are subtle and rare.  As the product of a small studio, Betrayer is also clearly the product of a small budget, but it puts its limited resources to good use.

The Achilles heel for Betrayer is the game’s lack of variety, in both its enemies and its scenery.  By the time that you are about a quarter of the way into the game, you have seen the majority of what it has to offer, and from that point on, you are progressing the story.  You are introduced to most enemies early in the game.  There are a few other types that are introduced as it progresses, but combat still gets repetitive.  Each major area has the same basic setup.  There is a central settlement in the middle where you respawn if you die.  Clues, notes, and treasures are spread throughout the countryside, usually with enemies patrolling near them.   You clear out an area, engage in some dialog to wrap up your investigations, and move onto the next area.  There are too many of these areas, and Betrayer is guilty of overstaying its welcome.  The material could have been condensed into half the areas without making the game feel rushed, and it would have been less monotonous.  The story is strong enough to keep this routine enjoyable, but by the end of the game, you will have had your fill of it.  The game makes it relatively easy to collect and see everything in it, so there isn’t much reason for you to play it a second time.

In the end, Betrayer is still $20 well spent.  It is at least a few hours too long, and that problem is not trivial.   It isn’t the prettiest game in the world, but there isn’t another experience out there quite like it.  The time period, the combat, the aesthetics, and the atmosphere in Betrayer should be enough to make the game worth your time and help you get to the end, even if you get a little bored walking around or shooting enemies with muskets.