Blackpowder Games’ first person action adventure Betrayer tries to tread new grounds in the olden days. It’s the early 17th century and you find yourself freshly arrived on the Virginian shore. Just one year ago, a large group of settlers set sail from England to seek their fortune in the new world. All of them seem to be dead. Your task is to find out what happened to the lost colony and set things right. Early on, you meet a strange young lady, all dressed in red, and together you venture forth to piece together all the small story bits you find along the way. This is made so much harder by the mysterious Spaniards roaming the landscape and hunting you down mercilessly as soon as they catch sight of you. Even more strange is your ability to cross over into some kind of nightmare world, where wandering spirits of the dead settlers are waiting to be released from their torment.
It’s all very mysterious and frankly doesn’t make too much sense at first, but it sets the mood nicely. Besides, the 17th century setting and borrowing from the Roanoke mystery make up for some amazing window dressing. While the disjointed narrative, told entirely in text blurbs, isn’t necessarily the game’s forte, Betrayer is all about atmosphere, and it delivers in spades. Its unique presentation is without a doubt the main selling point here. The stark monochrome graphics with an occasional touch of unnerving red are visually striking. The harsh landscapes will make you feel deceptively safe in ink-black shadows and vulnerable while traversing white open spaces.
You can actually fill the world with color via a slider in the options menu, but doing so robs the game of one of its most distinctive feature and makes it look a lot less interesting to boot. Instead of a soundtrack, you only get only ambient noises and eerie whispers. There is no big, obvious arrow pointing you towards the next objective. You are only given directional audio clues which ead the way. I’ve been getting the most enjoyment out of Betrayer while using headphones, and I definitely recommend you do the same.
There’s a whole arsenal of contemporary weaponry at your disposal. Bows are weak, but fast and sneaky, while guns pack a lot of punch, but they are noisy and take ages to reload. While the longbow was my weapon of choice throughout the whole game, it never felt all that satisfying to use. There’s something off about it; maybe it’s the speed at which you can nock an arrow and let loose upon your foes while quickly strafing in circles around them. I’m well aware of the irony here, but all of those weapons didn’t feel very authentic to me. There’s also a terribly ineffective melee attack, and a bunch of tomahawks which are stupendously powerful, but hard to aim. In theory, this arsenal allows for some versatile and tactical combat, but I mostly found myself shooting at my foes and then quickly running in circles. Cue the Benny Hill theme.
Stealth is possible but rather hard to pull off successfully due to the enemies’ keen sense of vision and hearing. Shadows and noisy gusts of wind can be used to sneak up on them undetected, but trying to line up a headshot from a distance is actually easier to pull off. Running around in plain sight draws too much attention to yourself, and incessant sneaking feels too slow. These issues would be less prevalent if enemies had a more limited range of vision. As it stands right now, stealth doesn’t feel rewarding enough and messing up is far too easy. Kiting large numbers of enemies on the other hand is pretty dangerous.
In some ways, Betrayer takes a lesson from the survival horror genre. It doesn’t take much for you to die, and there is a distinct feeling of helplessness as you make your way through abandoned settlements and lonely landscapes. You have no clue what’s going on, and the game delivers the appropriate amount of chills and thrills. Fortunately, Blackpowder Games toned down the overall difficulty. Betrayer used to be rather hard and unforgiving on release, but a recent patch introduced three combat difficulties which made surviving more manageable. For the bravest of players, there is still the option to have your equipment dropped whenever you die. And recovering your precious weapons from enemy territory while being completely vulnerable is rather terrifying!
I found the things Betrayer tried to achieve truly impressive, but the game would have benefited enormously from better pacing and just a little more polish. Before even reaching the halfway point, you’ve seen everything the game has to offer. There are only a few enemy types, and your surroundings never change, especially if you’re playing the game as it was meant to be. Betrayer’s biggest strength also turns out to be a weakness: the monochrome environment makes everything look kind of samey. Besides, the individual areas are too big and just don’t offer enough variety to keep your attention all the way through the game.
You’ll also be spending the last hour backtracking, which is important for narrative reasons, but should probably have been altered somehow in order to feel less tedious. However, the ending definitely makes all of this effort worthwhile. It is good to see that all the disparate elements and scattered pieces of narrative form some rather intriguing and satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s a rare thing to say these days, with most people being annoyed about short games, but less would have definitely been more. If Blackpowder Games had cut one or two areas from Betrayer, the end results would have felt better paced and a certain monotony avoided altogether.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Betrayer is a fine ghost story. Blackpowder Games have managed to create a scenario that truly feels fresh and the game is positively dripping with atmosphere, at least for a while. Pacing issues and some gameplay mechanics that feel unpolished prevent the game from achieving true greatness, but you still get your money’s worth if you’re willing to accept these problems. Just don’t forget to use those headphones.