Developed by Blackpowder Games. Published by Blackpowder Games. Released March 24, 2014. Available on PC.
It’s difficult to put Betrayer in an appropriate box. It’s laden with horror elements, but one is hard pressed to label it a horror game. It focuses on storytelling and features some character progression, but role-playing doesn’t seem a fitting genre. While there is sneaking and ranged combat, neither the stealth nor first-person shooter categories work. Betrayer takes a little content from many genres, but never enough to settle in one.
Despite this, however, the ex-Monolith employees that make up Blackpowder Games have based Betrayer on some fairly conventional gameplay, despite what first glances might tell you. While its stylized black-and-white visuals and obfuscating narrative initially remind one of Gone Home or Dear Esther, Betrayer quickly gives itself over to a fairly predictable pattern of fetch quests and shooting at skeletons.
As the unnamed protagonist, players wash up on a mysterious island oppressed by strange phenomena. Monstrous versions of pre-industrial Spanish soldiers stalk the pathways. Whooping men whose bodies crackle with fire dart out of the forest, shortbows in hand. The player’s only ally is a mysterious girl (not Peter Andre’s one) who has no memory of who she is or why she cannot leave the island.
Betrayer‘s world is separated into two distinct halves. According to the mysterious girl (not Peter Andre’s one), the Sun never sets, but players can enter the nighttime version of the island by finding bells in each location and ringing them. The daytime version of the world is populated by Spaniards and Burned Men, while the night is patrolled by skeletal beasts and houses ghostly NPCs known as wraiths.
Most of the adventure is spent in the dark and monochrome night world, as players ostensibly become the little boy from Sixth Sense – a paranormal grief counselor working out what happened to each wraith while it was alive and helping them come to terms with their miserable pasts. The island is split into sections, and each section has its own tale of death and treachery, which the player works out by digging up clues, talking to ghosts, and uncovering the fate of the former island inhabitants. Each story is fairly depressing, and very few of the characters reveal themselves to be likable – from traitors, to murderers, to rapists, every new story unveils a new web of seedy secrets.
While investigating each ghostly tale, monsters must be contended with. The game itself tends to encourage stealth, warning players that they can move with the wind to cover their footsteps, and take enemies out silently with a bow. This is possible, and may save one’s hit points in the long run, but it’s actually far quicker to simply take opponents out head-on. There are pistols, muskets, and crossbows with which to deal mighty damage, but the longbow is really the only weapon you need, able to fire far quicker than the realistic guns (realistic meaning they take forever to reload) and allowing for the retrieval of precious ammunition.
Enemies hit hard, and tackling more than one at a time is fairly dangerous, but once one gets used to the bow’s physics, and learns when to move and when to fire, one finds that the beasties drop easier than you do. Should you die – and it’s always very possible – you’ll drop your loot, and will need to recover it on your next respawn or lose it forever. Customization of experience means you can, however, alter the deadliness of monsters or altogether eliminate the loot drop system – which may save less skilled players a lot of frustration, given how expensive it is to buy items and how frugal with the loot Betrayer can be.
While there’s no leveling up to speak of, new weapons can be bought in each area, with the longbow, shortbow, crossbow, pistol and musket coming in upgraded varieties and purchased with that aforementioned loot. Of course, with 17th century armaments mostly all sucking, it’s worth focusing exclusively on one’s bow of choice, purchasing upgraded variants as well as purchasing quivers to hold more arrows at a time. Up to three charms can also be equipped, adding passive abilities such as enhance speed, better melee damage, or extra hit points. While weapons can be recovered from monsters, their poor quality means they’re better off being sold in exchange for more loot, with which you can buy superior alternatives.
Being able to swiftly navigate the map, rather then sneakily crawl around it, becomes more of a necessity than a preference, as Betrayer grows disappointingly formulaic before too long. Each new area of the world plays out in pretty much the same way – you find the bell and hang it up in the daylight, then run around at night to talk to NPCs, pick up objects, and talk to more NPCs. Along the way, you’ll find hidden pages of backstory to read, corrupted totems to cleanse by killing a certain amount of enemies, and treasure chests full of loot, but there’s nothing “new” to do in each map. There’s no “investigation” in each investigation, you just run back and forth and let the story tell itself.
Betrayer gets away with its repetitive nature somewhat thanks to its atmosphere. Each area of the island is effectively haunting, with a great use of sound and visuals to create a beautifully bleak little world. Monsters are bizarre and creepy, while each story is fairly well told. Players find their way around the world by using sound to locate the next important person or object, pressing a button to create an echo that gives away the destination. It’s a really cool way of the navigating the island.
The excellent visuals are also highly impressive. While the nighttime world is always monochrome with some splashes of dark red, one can choose whether or not the daytime island is similarly in black-and-white or full color, and both options have their merits. The black-and-white look is punctuated with bright reds on enemies and objects, and looks stylistically lovely, while the contrasting and lush full-color version is simply gorgeous to behold. Some may find the color contrast a bit too high, but the visuals can be fully customized in-game to find the balance that’s right for you. This is punctuated by a beautiful effect of wind blowing through the grass and trees, which looks breathtaking in full color.
Sound design is less consistently remarkable. General atmospheric sounds and audio cues are very nice indeed, but some of the stock sounds of enemies (especially the cartoon “clang” noise when hitting the Spaniard’s armor) are just silly, while the lack of any voice acting is starkly odd in a game so based around using the players’ ears. The spotty audio reeks of placeholders and makes the game overall feel unfinished.
Despite its setbacks, Betrayer manages to remain a surprisingly enthralling adventure. While at times I got a little tired of the backtracking, especially toward the end, I was still sufficiently drawn into the game’s mysteries, and found the combat to be especially enjoyable in spite (or perhaps because) of its simplicity. It’s not an outstanding game in any one department, but it’s an overall pleasant little title with a lot going for it.
Bottom Line: It could have done with being ten dollars cheaper and two hours shorter, but Betrayer is a beautiful looking title with a compelling atmosphere and enjoyably tense combat.
Recommendation: One may want to wait for a sale before jumping in, but if you like games with spooky atmosphere that manage to be a little different within conventional frameworks, Betrayer may have you sorted.[rating=3.5]