Betrayer was something of an oddity for me. It was the stark black and white art style that drew my attention and interest, the previews and advance content that intrigued me. Once actually playing the game though, it was less that art style and more the concept and ambition behind the title that stayed with me – so much so that I found myself playing the game to one-hundred percent completion over nineteen hours. In a gaming world so rife with an achievement-laden culture, it is something of a rarity for me to 100% a game. Well… I’ll give it a good try if it has the words “Hatsune” and “Miku” in the title. But I digress…
Black Powder Games who are notably comprised of former Monolith developers created Betrayer. They are also a group who worked on titles that I have a special fondness for including No One Lives Forever and F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon). Knowing the pedigree that was working on Betrayer I found myself expecting more than I might have done were there not that developing background behind it.
Where Monolith’s output covered the range of Anime inspired Mecha combat (Shogo Mobile Armoured Division), Blood 1 & 2’s ghoulish, tongue in cheek combat, F.E.A.R.’s Koji Suzuki/Hideo Nakata; Ringu inspired paranormal action and glorious slow motion combat …and not forgetting No One Lives Forever, a 1960’s inspired comedic spy game which was equally comfortable with stealth and action. Betrayer again tried something a little bit different from the rest of the crowd. Just from those titles you know that these are developers that are keen to work within the First Person Shooter genre and experiment with setting, tone, mechanics and atmosphere. Betrayer is another fine example to add to that extended legacy of Monolith and former Monolith developers.
The setting alone is an intriguing one and a rarely seen premise. 17th century Colonial Virginia, single shot muskets, bows and the clash between Native Americans and New World Colonists. Just the mention of these elements gives plenty of rich potential for intriguing directions to apply solid FPS mechanics to and provide a compelling and fresh experience. Pairing that setting with having the player function as an investigator, uncovering the myriad ways that the inhabitants of the area betrayed one another under strain, paranoia, jealousy and hostility to disastrous effect makes for an intriguing combination. By traversing the real and spirit worlds to uncover the mysteries that run through the narrative offers a variety and flavour that I’ve been looking forward to. Betrayer certainly has the ambition to do this but it provides mixed, though for the majority positive results when playing the game itself.
I said that it was the art style that is what drew me primarily to Betrayer and it’s worth mentioning straight away that due to player feedback an option to disable the desaturation filter was enabled, allowing the player to go through the game with a colour scheme that most would be familiar and arguably comfortable with. I would encourage you though to play the game with the desaturation enabled however. Sharp scarlet highlights and more subtle reds draw the eye in amongst the greyscale world to threats and player aids.
Your eyes become trained to instinctively focus on those flashes of red, between the trees, as you quietly skulk through to an abandoned fort or make your way through a forested expanse. The sharp contrast between the two, the greyscale and the red helping the player to rapidly acclimatise to the game’s mechanics, naturally enabling the player to efficiently navigate the game’s challenges. There is something of a twist though, which subtly coincides with an increase in difficulty, tied to the two planes that the game features. The first of those planes is what we would consider the real world, the one we recognise. The sun beats down on you, the landscape stretches out infront of you and the players vision is obscured only by the terrain infront of you. The second state however is key to moving the narrative forward and exists as a spirit plane where by recovering and restoring a bell within each of the game’s visit-able zones and ringing it the player is able to enter this second plane of existence and is able to communicate with the remaining spirits, questioning, investigating and further increasing understanding of the events that transpired within the colony and its surrounding areas.
There is a shift in tone and display in this plane – the sun, obscured behind a grey sky, sun shafts occasionally breaking through giving the feel of being trapped under an ocean. Terrain is obscured by fog, the view distance closing in, suffocating the player and again providing that underwater feel while enemies are less distinguished by those scarlet flashes that exist in the real world plane. Instead, they blend more into the surroundings – more able to get the edge on the player.
Betrayer’s audio follows this pattern established by the game’s visuals. While in the real world plane we can hear the ambient sound of the world – wind rushing through the trees, insects rustling, the creaking of structures and the calls and howls of the world’s corrupted inhabitants. The player is able to make use of audio cover as a distraction to close distances on enemies providing a cadence to movement, a rhythm to action that when disrupted creates an enviable moment of atmosphere and panic – perhaps you misjudged the timing on moving between cover and were spotted, maybe you missed that shot with the musket. When that rhythm has been disrupted, it comes together with the uncomfortable tone and atmosphere already existing and makes the feel of both more effective, the player’s weakness and vulnerability are re-established and made clear, we’re reminded that we are an interloper in this twisted world. We become more cautious and aware, taking the time to observe surroundings as we try to get back into that rhythm of movement and combat.
Handily though and on the flip side, when that sequence of events, our movements and actions are concise and efficient – maintaining that rhythm, we feel powerful. Darting between the trees as the wind rushes past us, a jab and a slash with a blade, an enemy down, back into the trees, moving on the wind – catching a flash of scarlet, the howl of an enemy. The wind settles, the cadence takes a beat, crouched down by a hedge the clanking of armour grows louder as the enemy nears, the wind picks up, the beat passed as the cadence continues, the musket is fired or tomahawk thrown, howls carry on the wind as we rush to cover. It’s fast, brutal and exciting, a brief moment of action – a flash in the pan. It’s this collection of instances that comprise the bulk of Betrayer’s best moments, at least in terms of straightforward action.
When in the spirit plane however, it is the reverberation of the bell that is going to be the main thing you hear outside of enemies, its proximity an indicator of how close you are to returning to the real world plane and its relative safety. The scarcity of sound in this spirit plane was an interesting design choice that at least for me really helped with the feeling of isolation, making a return to the real world plane and its ambient sounds of the surroundings a welcoming presence.
This isn’t so much an overt horror of shocking sights but one of creeping dread that builds as information is uncovered. Betrayer’s manipulations take place in the player’s mind with each new connection made and story uncovered. This does require that the player be the one that makes the effort to seek and understand the connections. If you are looking for a passive experience where the story will be largely told to you then you are likely to get much less out of Betrayer as an experience.
Throughout music is sparsely used in Betrayer, that ambient sound of the environment or conspicuous lack of instead being the focus. It is a trade-off that for the most part works, though it would have been interesting to have seen and heard what could have been done with a more expansive use of music within the game – the menu music for example giving a simple but effective atmospheric jolt.
It’s in the quieter moments while uncovering the background of the areas events that the freedom of movement that the player is afforded can be a double edged sword. If the player is fortunate to uncover the clues and areas that reveal and move the narrative forward swiftly and with a regular frequency then Betrayer’s pacing remains strong, compelling and compounds and encourages the overall atmosphere. When the player gets lost or perhaps is unable to find a clue or location that they need to progress then the pacing starts to stumble and the game relies more heavily on its general atmosphere. There is a function available when in the spirit plane where the player can listen out for items or areas that have importance and an indicator is displayed on the UI’s compass to give a general indication of the direction of the location of importance that can be subsequently homed in on. If you are having difficulty however finding a location or clue in the real world plane then you may find yourself wandering in circles. Betrayer’s environment and ambience can just about carry the experience in these instances fortunately and it is likely that you’ll stumble on an item or area soon enough that is going to put you back on track and back into the game’s rhythm of discovery and challenge.
If there was something that made a dent on that atmosphere or a sense of something missing, then it is the lack of a voice over for spirits and the omnipresent girl in red. I can understand if there were limitations regarding budgeting but I cannot help but feel the flavour that would have been provided by voiceovers is a missed opportunity. Particularly given the charged nature of the dialogue, vicious and brutal actions, soaked in recrimination, regret and sadness. There are compelling, individual featured stories that could be extended in their own right. They are however all brought together into a wider collection and further extrapolation or exploration is left to the player as reflection. This manages to work well I felt as by the time you reach the end of the game’s narrative – with an ending that perhaps might catch you by surprise, you’ll have been encouraged to question the interactions of characters and the sequence of events that brought you to the ending. Another nice touch is with the aforementioned girl in red you can give her the items and clues that you recover as gifts with different dialogue options pointing to different intentions. It’s not hugely developed upon but it is a nice way of helping to foster a relationship between the player and her which can make for an interesting reflection on reaching the end of the game.
It is that steady delivery of information. Assessing and piecing it together to find its relevance in the overall narrative that is the crux of Betrayer. Take away the combat and you still have a mystery to play though, take away that ongoing puzzle and you have a direction-less sandbox. Put the two together and the atmosphere in enriched. While the exposition is not as clear as it could perhaps be in places, overall the focus on maintaining an atmosphere first and foremost carries Betrayer through.
As much as Betrayer looks to have you uncover events in the world it doesn’t neglect your own development as a combatant. There is a point where you gain the ability to search stashes for unique weapons, which allows the player to find an approach that best fits their play style. It is another missed opportunity for these unique, recoverable weapons that they didn’t have unique models but again I can understand the time and budgetary constraints. Between tomahawks and grenades that can be thrown for massive damage, a bladed melee attack, shortbows (used by the natives), longbows, crossbows, muskets and pistols (used by the invading conquistadors) there are a variety of approaches available and finding the right approach for you is a big part of progressing and mastering the game. The stealth advantage provided by the bows and crossbow are offset by loading speeds or power offsets. The musket and pistol are highly powerful by comparison but their noise draws attention which when combined with their load time makes large groups of enemies a case of managing the environment to get the advantage on them. Betrayer encourages you to experiment with the tools it has available and find what works best for you personally.
Difficulty can have moments where it spikes – though this is of course going to vary from one player to another. There are three options for the level of damage that enemies can deal out to the player and an option for equipment to be dropped on death and need to be recovered, if it is not and the game is exited then that equipment will be lost. Again it will likely take a little experimentation to find a difficulty mix that suits each player. Overall though Betrayer is challenging but fair. Take the time to prepare and gain an understanding of your surroundings and you’ll be better equipped and gain more from the game, it doesn’t particularly favour a twitch style of play however. The AI can be unpredictable at times with varying levels of persistence in how long and far they will follow you, whether they will band together to rush you and the approach they’ll take to reach you. This variety helps to keep the experience fresh when the actually menagerie of enemies you’ll face is quite limited. Keeping things fresh and you intrigued, on your toes from beginning to end is what Betrayer eagerly seeks to do and it makes a solid effort towards this and largely succeeds throughout.
DRM concerns? Steam swallows into its maw another single player title – aside from that no extra DRM measures.
I’m not aware of their being any mods for Betrayer though I suspect it would likely be possible to use SweetFX with it (the game being based on Unreal Engine 3). The main adjustment to the game was done by the developers with the previously mentioned ability to select the level of desaturation present in the game’s visuals.
I’ve got a soft spot for Betrayer, that’s no secret. I can’t help but see it as a first step though towards something bigger – something that I would absolutely look forward to. An experiment to test the waters that has little things that could be neatened up or expanded upon from an inconsistent user interface when using a controller to the lack of voice over – which I felt was Betrayer’s biggest (though understandable) missed opportunity or repeated models for unique weapons. It’s that desire though to try something different and its overall solid nature that I enjoyed Betrayer for and encouraged others to try it for and would encourage you to try it also.
For me Betrayer is a good title – a 7/10 rating. That is a game described as: “Good – a few problems, but worth the time to play.”
Do me a favour though, have some optimism beyond the “safe” score and read that 7 as an 8 as Betrayer’s overall solidity in mechanics, ambition and desire to do something a little different in presentation and setting made it that extra bit more and a much appreciated and great game for me.
I hope you get to enjoy it as much as I did.
Official site: http://www.blackpowdergames.com/