I played Betrayer back in October when it was just a part of Steam’s Early Access program. To quote, “I loved the first 10 minutes of Betrayer. And then the game part of it revealed itself.” And I stand by that. The first 10 minutes of Betrayer are beautiful and moody and an excellent piece of atmosphere and environment trumping overt storytelling. Then, much like its mechanical divide between night and day, Betrayer has a hard time deciding what it wants to be, and it suffers for it.
It is a decidedly ambitious game, which is not surprising since it comes from more than a few ex-Monolith fellows at Blackpowder Games. On a few occasions, you get the feeling that many of its problems would have been solved by throwing more money at it like in their non-indie days, but not here. Here, in the midst of telling an obtuse tale of a shipwrecked survivor in the 17th century, set somewhere in a densely forested area in the New World.
There’s a significant supernatural curve thrown in, though. Something strange has happened, and you eventually happen across a mysterious, scarlet-clad woman; more than a few zombie-ish Spanish conquistadors; and a bell that will shift your world into one full of ghosts and other such scary things. All along the way, you’ll uncover notes, letters, and evidence of a world that as unequivocally gone to shit.
The most striking (and perhaps best) thing about Betrayer is the way it looks. It is a hard thing not to notice. The game is presented almost entirely in black and white, save for accents of red. But it’s the way the game moves that is so strangely soothing yet unnerving. As the wind blows, the hard, striped blades of grass sway as the branches of the spotted trees sway overhead. It would be relaxing if it wasn’t so imbued with paranoia and fear.
Which, I guess, shouldn’t be surprising since Monolith made a name for itself by creating intensely moody games like F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins. The lively, natural appeal of the world contrasts with the stark, empty locales as much as the black stands sharply against the white. It feels unsettling. Even the rutilant archer, the closest thing you have to a friend, is an imposing figure, never once appeasing the sense of being a misplaced traveler.
The gameplay feeds right into that, being incredibly brutal with death often no more than a few musket shots away. It’s a taut experience, one akin to Dark Souls in that every encounter is a risky, almost harrowing one that could shuttle you back to square one. You see, when you die, your body drops along with all of your loot. Then, you have to make a corpse run, but if you die before you recover your goodies, it all disappears.
That makes combat a frightening affair. You don’t lose your weapons or ammo, but all that gold is what you spend on upgrading the former and buying more of the latter, and you will need to do a lot of both. You need to best their Spanish armor, which often repels weaker arrows and armaments (with a hilariously cartoonish hit-in-the-head-with-a-frying-pan sound effect, which I still can’t tell if is on purpose). And you need to replenish your scarce ammunition stores.
The limited ammo is part of what makes the combat interesting. When you’re caught in a massive battle between a few conquistadors or floating skulls (more on that in a second), you will find yourself trying to pick up arrows and tomahawks as you fire them. And pray they hit. It forces a deadly precision on your hand that you rarely experience in a first-person shooter.
The problem is that there are many times when this is not how you fight. Many times, you can see your enemy from a mile away since they are often highlighted in red. This gives you a chance to mask your movements with the wind and tall grass and take potshots from behind cover as they scramble to find you. It is the optimal solution, but it is also the most boring one.
For a game that relies so heavily on open-ended exploration (make no mistake as there is a ton of just wandering around), only at “night” does the dread of encountering those unseen exist. You see, in the first fort you come across, there’s a bell that you can ring. It sounds off, pauses, and then the world dramatically and suddenly shifts into a dark nether version of itself where the soldiers become skulls and skeleton dudes pop out from the ground.
And, for the most part, that is the only time you are genuinely surprised by enemies since they can come out of the ground or from anywhere, really. The first time is actually a very nice jump scare that, despite experiencing it months ago, still got me. That means that half of the game is spent sneaking around and waiting for AIs to reset when the most interesting bits are the actual, meaty encounters that have the potential to result in meaningful death.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t so much of that involved in simply getting from place to place. Often times, to find your next objective, you use a severed ear to hear a distant, misplaced sound. You then pivot in place until the sound is directly in front of you, and you walk. And then you see dudes in front of you and you stop and look for a way around. And then you realize you can’t go around so you find a hiding place and carefully fire off arrows until the two guys patrolling are dead after 10 minutes of methodical murdering.
Over and over again. For as much as I would love to find out more about what happened in this land, a lot of it doesn’t even hit the bar of ancillary and instead just hovers somewhere near disappointingly fruitless. A lot of the notes you find really just say how sad someone was when someone died or how hard it was to be alive. Probably all true, but WHAT ABOUT THE GHOSTS. Granted, you do find answers to that question as well, but after a few hours of going back and forth between ghosts and graves and talking to understandably reserved specters, it gets really tiring.
That’s what I mean when I say this game doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are moments when it is emotional and scary in just the right, imprecise ways that great horror games achieve. And then it embeds a combat system that very obviously has the potential to be scary and high stakes in its own right. And then it throws in a supernatural story that you have to unfold by collecting discrete clues and scraps of a time you narrowly missed.
And at any given point, two of those are undermining the third. The blend of the mechanics and design of all three, given more time, could have possibly been massaged into a more cohesive product. (That’s what I was talking about when “more money” would have probably helped.) I’m not saying that’s a definite outcome, but it’s likely. As it stands, Betrayer is a game that has its moments, but they’re all moments from three very different types of games. It’s just unfortunate that it all go lumped into one.
+ Beautifully striking visual presentation and impressive audio work
+ Combat has its moments of being utterly terrifying and nerve-racking
+ The opening sequence, the first bell ring, and the first encounter at night
– Fights that are just waiting in the bushes and taking potshots
– Objectives that very often boil down to fetch tedious fetch quests
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Game Review: Betrayer
Release: March 24, 2014
Genre: First-person action
Developer: Blackpowder Games
Available Platforms: PC