I loved the first 10 minutes of Betrayer. And then the game part of it revealed itself and I grew kind of indifferent. Luckily, as more folds of the game begin to become apparent, it becomes a more interesting affair, but it’s a tempered promise from under Steam’s Early Access program.
Betrayer is the debut game from Blackpowder Games, a new studio composed of former Monolith developers who worked on No One Lives Forever and the first F.E.A.R. It’s a first-person action exploration game that has a fantastic and highly stylized look.
It’s set in 1604 and opens with you coming to on a shipwrecked shore. Everything is black and white; the water laps up in monochrome foam and panda-tinged barrels and crates litter the sand. It becomes apparent that something has gone wrong, namely you were sailing from England until a Spanish galleon decided that you, uh, weren’t.
There are no words to tell you what has happened, but your environment informs you of enough of this. Your skyward hull is adorned by tattered sails as the aforementioned Spaniards sail by, almost taunting you. Using a dagger, I smash open the crates and collect some musket load and loot some chests for some coin. A splash of red hits my eye as the pickups are visually highlighted.
With no discrete directive, I look around and see a wooden lookout structure atop the looming cliffs. I sprint up the path and walk into the tower to find another chest (more coins) and a whole mess of trees. I continue down the path until I see another hint of crimson atop a rocky outcrop, except it’s moving and it’s most definitely a person. I quickly dive behind a tree and hear an arrow *thunk* into something a little ways away.
I peek around the tree and see the Enigmatic Red Riding Hood disappear back into the forest. I approach the arrow, which has embedded itself into a strange totem pole. There’s a letter attached: she wants to help. She wants to trust me and lets me know that the Spaniards did not find my ship by accident. And, perhaps most importantly, “you will find more enemies than friends here and more questions than answers.”
So far, I’m loving this. It’s moody and the black and white graphics match my dichotomous experience of fascination and fear. Crows caw in the background and wind sweeps between the lush branches of the ubiquitous foliage, taking the place of any non-diegetic music. This is an amazingly slick veneer covering raw ambiance.
And then I get the second note from the girl. Attached are a rather crappy short bow and some choice words: “Beware the Spaniards, for they are much changed and are now more beasts than men.” It also warns that being spotted makes them angrier and stronger, that arrows may deflect, and that my dagger should be a last resort. It seems like I’m being prepped for battle.
A little further down this singular path, I’m proven right. An armor-clad Spaniard is emitting a bit of red flair and zombie-like groaning. I crouch down and am able to get ridiculously close; they don’t seem to be especially adept at seeing. Hiding behind a rock, I take one shot with my bow and duck back behind my cover. A disproportionately cartoonish metallic clang rings out and the enemy moans. I pop back out again and he goes down with another shot.
I approach as he fades away into a coin purse and a small pillar of red light and collect my loot and my arrows which are helpfully plotted on my compass. And so the game goes on for the couple of hours or so. And it’s somewhat boring as it filled with much more droll stalking and not enough atmosphere.
Every once in a while, I’ll come across a formerly inhabited patch of land littered with clues and notes that pique my interest and fill in your inventory of knowledge. It paints a largely macabre picture: a murder, a contagion, and a betrayal. A note tells me that I should be careful about what information I reveal to whom, but it thus far bewilders me. Besides the girl, I have yet to see anyone else to talk to.
The problem is that there is so much peek-and-shoot combat filling in the space between those points of interest. You health depletes rather quickly, and making sure enemies don’t get a clear shot at you require methodical stalking. Over and over again. Had I anything better to do at six in the morning, I surely would have quit during these massive dips of intrigue. This warning keeps me going on the presumption that this will lead to some sort of interrogation system that will enable me to crack this case wide open.
There is a fort in the middle of the area, however, that reinvigorates the soul, but it’s still not enough. Some more clues and notes inform you of the mysterious tragedy that stuck here (the locals and the colonists eventually turned on each other, apparently), but the important bit is a bell that you pick up off the ground, hang on a post, and ring.
It cries out with a terrifying, endless BWRAAANNNGGG and totally transforms the world from lots of white to a little bit of black to shades of charcoal. It’s an intense and scary moment and opens up the nether half of the game, dividing the world and your abilities in two. One of the ashen bodies has turned into a spectre that answers some of your questions. You click dialog options, but most of them are single linear choices, which could be part of folding into the warning and playing detective, but who knows.
Outside of the fort, the conquistadors become floating skulls (fueling one fantastic jump scare) that are much more aggressive and you have to touch totems to clear them of “corruption,” which prevents you from opening a gate to the south. You can speak to some colonists via their ghosts, which reveals that their skulls were stolen by a demon, but all of the aforementioned detective work is nowhere to be seen. Just combat.
It’s important to remember, though, that Betrayer is a Steam Early Access game. You can buy it for $14.99, but it’s neither feature-complete nor content-complete (though apparently somewhere around 70 per cent complete). It’s four updates deep, and each changelog is massive. I would say the aesthetic is gorgeous, but they’re still fixing stealth systems and balancing combat and progression and adding whole areas; until this latest update, the game used to end right after opening the southern gate.
Bugs are still present and persistent. I got stuck in geometry more than just a few times and some of the totems simply don’t activate. These are things that will most likely get fixed along the way to a final release, but that’s just a haphazard and somewhat blanket assumption with most Early Access games.
And honestly, there is still a lot that’s unknown with Betrayer. I love the exploration and adventure aspects of the game. They paint a story that I would love to know more about, even though it feels a bit familiar (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune anyone?). But once the highly repetitive combat kicks in, my interest immediately drops to zero.
Of course, that could change as well, and in fact probably will change. Covering these unfinished products that are being sold for money is even trickier than writing press previews for upcoming retail games. It’s a tricky gray area where you can’t recommend buying or not buying something because at this point, you know you’re getting into an unpolished and incomplete thing, but we also can’t talk about what we assume it will become. All we can talk about is what we experience in its current incarnation and leave it up to you if that’s enough for you to put your faith in.
That being said, I love the atmosphere of Betrayer. And the potential for piecing together a Roanoke-style missing colony mystery is great, but it’s just not there right now. Neither is the combat, though it is incredibly functional in this build. The scenarios just aren’t very interesting, not even sustaining the two hours of content currently in there, though co-founder Larry Paolicelli says they’re aiming for 10 hours in the final build. Aiming.
If that’s enough for you, then go for it. For $14.99, that’s a fairly big leap of faith for me. But the progress seems to be pointed in the right direction and the pedigree of Blackpowder is pretty great. I’m willing to bet, though, that many people will follow the same trajectory of my experience with the game: love to boredom to latent optimism.