By Alec Meer on April 1st, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Betrayer is a pre-industrial, mostly monochrome first-person action game from Blackpowder Games, among whom number several ex-Monolith developers. It’s out now.
The bloody red cross of an English flag flickers against the bleached horizon like arterial spray on snow. Brittle, near-dead pines rise from the grey-white ground, silent, skeletal giants forever threatening some terrible fate to those who dare approach. A bell tolls, endlessly, through the dark and fog of The Night, an funereal peal that sounds forever and brings madness, not comfort. A flash of scarlet amid the monochrome grass signals danger. A flash of scarlet amidst the colourless, low buildings of a long-abandoned colonial fort signals… well, not safety, but at least a link to something human. The colour red. The sound of that damned bell. A switch from white to black, and back again. So much from so little.
To think all these years, we’ve been crying out for more colour in first-person games (those tireless ambassadors of grey and brown), only for the most visually striking one in some time to neatly remove almost all colour.
The Schindlertastic monochrome-with-flashes-of-red visual style is just one of several ways in which this 17th Century-set tale of conquistadors, brutality and darkness conjures up a deeply haunting atmosphere. It is a ghost story of a sort, it is also an unforgiving game of combat and death with a very (very) slight hint of Dark Souls to it, and it is also a game of strange, spectral audio puzzles.
It is a particularly ambitious effort from an indie studio, even if said studio comprises a number of Monolith veterans. In fact, Betrayer’s greatest problem may be that it is too ambitious, causing it to hit the kind of walls that only a colossal budget could knock down. I’ll return to such griping later – first, let’s talk about what Betrayer is, and does.
Set in the New World at the turn of the 17th Century, it spins a supernaturally-inflected tale of military brutality, native revolt, guilt and, inevitably, betrayal. Consciously opaque and jumbled, it’s perhaps more about mood than it is narrative. Puzzle-pieces of what went on in this place prior to your arrival are connected together loosely and out of order, and while there are overt answers it’s really more to do with conveying how cruel and brief were the lives of those who dwelled in this contested land.
It’s really more to do with walking through trees and long grass and feeling afraid. Not of what is there, but what might be there. What a world this is simply to move through – the waving of monochrome grass in a sudden breeze, the unexpected discovery of an abandoned fort within a valley, the maudlin beauty of a lone gravestone on a forest floor. The white. The black. The silence. The solitude. The sudden shattering of the solitude and silence. Audio cues are as important to Betrayer as those occasional flashes of red are – horns and growls denote that the enemy is aware of you, and the stealth options afforded by your bow are for now lost to you. Faint chimes lead you to clues and loot. The Bell means you have moved into Night, where it is dark and full of terrors.
Here am I playing a short section of Betrayal. Make this fullscreen and HD, then stay awhile to appreciate the sound and the setting.
There is a great deal going on in Betrayer, but most of it is mood: that insidious sense that you shouldn’t be here, that you can’t trust anything, that everything in this place wants you to be dead. Enemies – be they the possibly demonic conquistadors of the daytime, with their warning flash of blood-red livery, or be they the Harryhausian skeletons which haunt the night – are not individually terrifying on close inspection. Rather, the threat of them popping up at any time is – fights in Betrayer are difficult and death comes quickly, so encountering even a single enemy without being prepared for it is often lethal.
Encountering a pack of them is a desperate exercise in running, precision bowmanship, ammo conservation and retrieving arrows and tomahawks from the the very thick of battle despite the overwhelming urge to flee. My heart pounds with terror during these larger fights, because a single mistake means doom, because my weapons (bow, musket, pistol) are so crude and slow, because falling in battle means doing it all again, because there is no safety. It is punishing stuff, and it is thrilling stuff.
While a recent patch means the game now offers the option of whether your loot (spent on weapon upgrades and ammo) is dropped or kept upon death, most of my time with Betrayer pre-dated that, and so defeat meant retreading my steps and trying to retrieve my lost coin from a place still patrolled by a fully-respawned group of enemies. If I fell again before I could reach it, this lost coin would become permanently lost. I think that’s a better way to play – Betrayer best gets under one’s skin when the stakes are as high as can be – but it’s also the most stressful. At least it’s option rather than a mandate.
Outside of these sporadic, anxious battles is exploration of a sort, the hunt for clues, and the need to switch between a daytime world that is at least superficially that of mortals and a night-time world inhabited by conversational ghosts with dark secrets, cursed artifacts and the murderous risen dead. This is where Betrayer struggles. While there’s much to admire about a game which asks you to put two and two together yourself to some degree, and keep a mental note of what’s where in each of largeish ‘levels’ (for lack of a better term), unfortunately it winds up being both bitty and repetitive.
Go here, fetch letter/skull/shoe/broken dagger/etc, return here, give object to sad ghost, listen to fragment of a tale about what happened to them, plus oblique hint about where the next object is, repeat. Advancing to a new area becomes a pay-off for grind rather than a triumph in itself. Increasingly I entered new areas (of around half a dozen in total) with a sense of weariness about the traipsing ahead, rather than anticipation for its thoughtful horrors and desaturated landscapes.
An audio scan (achieved thanks to someone’s severed ear you picked up from a blighted fort) will tell you roughly what direction to head in next, and whether you’ve exhausted objectives in the current world (i.e. night or day) and should switch to the other instead. Freeform exploration achieves relatively little as the ghosts and objects are so few – you can stir up a few more enemies and find a new chests of loot, but bounding walls and largely empty terrain ultimately make straying from the ghosts’ objectives redundant.
Unfortunately the audio scan element is weakly realised, and rather than offering careful, sinister sonic puzzles winds up being simply a far slower and more inefficient objective arrow. Hit X, hear spooky noise, swivel your viewpoint until said noise sounds like it’s coming from straight ahead, wait several seconds before you’re allowed to do it again, eventually reach ghost/shoe/etc. A novel idea quickly becomes a chore and a tedious routine.
Moment-to-moment Betrayer can be incredible – the tension and desperation of combat, the chilling beauty and strangeness of the world you travel through. When it comes to progression and advancement it can labour badly: the clues and quests are glorified fetch missions involving repeated backtracking, weapon upgrades make little appreciable difference, and while the ghosts’ tales are twisting and haunting, the means of unravelling them is too routine. Betrayer’s great trouble, really, is that in some respects – the combat and the atmosphere – it makes a convincing pass at being a high-end action game, but this sits ill with the cruder exploration systems. It’s forever unfair to expect too much of an indie game, but in this instance it goes all-out with the look and the central dynamic, which raises perhaps impossible expectations for the other systems.
Betrayer is an ambitious and very different experience, and one which very boldly avoids convention. Both literal and metaphysical horror are woven through it, and while aspects of it might evoke other games (STALKER, Dark Souls, Sir You Are Being Hunted) it is unlike any of them. Singular of vision but faltering in execution and in need of some fleshing out – something’s missing here, in terms of exploration and progression, but what is there is really quite special.