Review: Betrayer

Betrayer

Drawing inspiration from the legends behind the Lost Colony of Roanoke and other happenings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Betrayer‘s intriguing tale is rooted in history but veers off to chart its own course through the time period with a suspenseful, supernatural twist. The story takes place in 1604, during the English colonization of North America. The game opens in Virginia as you begin your adventure as a nameless explorer who has landed on the coast of a troubled colony all by himself. Some terrible blight has left the settlement abandoned, except for a mysterious Maiden in Red, apparently the only other living human around, as well as cursed Conquistadors and native Savages that are abnormally hostile to your presence. Initially, the only evidence of prior life is represented by human statues which appear to be the petrified bodies of former settlers.

The story of Betrayer unfolds within the framework of a first-person exploration adventure, supplemented by elements of action, horror, and stealth. The main gist of the game involves methodically exploring the non-linear environments, searching for clues and talking to NPCs to slowly unravel the secrets behind the colony’s shady past and sudden downfall. One of the main elements to Betrayer, is its dual world design. The game does not take place in one seamless open world, but rather a series of seven individual maps (not counting an opening coastal locale which serves as nothing more than a linear introduction) which are open to free-roaming exploration within a more compact and contained body of virtual terrain. Within each zone, you will come to a fort or encampment and find a warning bell, and once this bell is found and hung from its post ringing it will switch the world back and forth between the light, physical world and a pitch black ghost world.

Different things occur on the same map depending on which plane of existence you are on. In the light world you can converse with the Maiden in Red and more easily search for the clues needed to push the story forward, all while contending with possessed Spanish conquistadors that breath and groan like demonic bears and ashen, flaming Native Americans that mimic sounds of nature to lure you into a false state of comfort before springing their sudden ambush. The dynamic shifts in the dark world, where wraiths and the lost souls of deceased colonists haunt the realm and the enemies manifest as skeletons and flying spirits shrouded in black with animal skulls for heads. It is in the dark world where most of the story development occurs, as the lost souls make up the majority of the game’s NPCs, and as clues are gathered you must bring the evidence back to the appropriate ghosts to uncover the events surrounding their demise. Progression to certain areas will also be blocked off at times, requiring a trip to the world of the dead in order to seek out cursed totems and release the corruptive fog enveloping them by killing all nearby enemies.

When not digging up clues and conversing with the spirits of the dead to understand their plight, you will occasionally be required to engage in battle against the aforementioned forces of evil. In most instances, you are given the opportunity to stealthily eliminate enemies, using quiet bow and arrow fire to pick off patrolling foes from afar, or waiting for gusts of wind to mask the sound of your footsteps while you sneak in close for melee backstabs with a knife. Muskets, flintlock pistols, and throwing tomahawks round out the authentic arsenal of period weaponry. Obviously, combat becomes a lot more intense and difficult to manage once enemies know you are around. Given the outdated weapon technology, guns can only fire a single shot at a time and reloading takes a lot more effort than quickly popping in a new clip, so if you’re used to run-and-gun twitch first-person shooters you will probably find the action in Betrayer overly simplistic and maybe even a little clumsy. However, for the style of game that this is, where killing takes a backseat to exploration and exposition, the deliberate approach to the action fits the theme.

Once you figure out how to best utilize each weapon an empowering feeling of skill-based satisfaction begins to take hold. In any given confrontation you may have to cycle through every single weapon at your disposal, scoring an initial long-distance kill with a rifle and then switching to the pistol to pick off another foe and even the odds a little before breaking out your bow to mop up any stragglers. And because the guns require lengthy reload animations that leave you vulnerable, the pressure to make every musket and flintlock shot count adds palpable tension to every encounter with danger, otherwise you are likely to be outnumbered and forced to run for your life. Or you’ll just die, at which point you will respawn at the last map destination and have the opportunity to retrieve your body to recover any loot you had at the time of death, which is crucial because every last coin in your pouch is precious (at least early on) for buying ammo capacity upgrades, special charms that provide passive stat bonuses, and more powerful weapons sold at outposts operated by a disembodied merchant who only makes himself known in the letters he leaves at each shop along the way.

As far as I’m concerned, the only weak point is the rigid stealth design. As long as you remain crouching, you can be out in the middle of an open field or in close proximity to an enemy and they will be completely oblivious. Yet when you are just normally walking/running around, enemies seem to have this uncanny ability to spot or hear you before they are even within your field of view/sound. On numerous occasions I would be walking along and hear the battle music kick in to indicate I had been detected, only to stand there circling around for like 15 seconds waiting to see what spotted me, and from which direction. They were so far away that it took that long for them to reach my position. The logic is just too black and white.

The black and white part of the game that does work, is the visual design. While the options menu offers a set of sliders that allow vibrant color to be toggled on, the black-and-white-with-red-accents style sets a mood that heightens the ambiance and maintains the integrity of the creators’ original artistic vision. The minimalistic style of both the art and audio allows the natural beauty of the New World to capture your senses and sweep you away until you feel completely lost. Through much of the game the only sounds you will hear are gusts of wind, the rustle of grass and trees, and the chirps of birds, or, in the dark world, the rattle of skeleton bones and the faint voices of spirits on the still air, which collectively sets an eerie tone of isolation and loneliness. Atmospheric immersion plays a vital role in the game’s effort to draw you into its world, so even though the lush vegetation and untainted landscapes are stunning to behold in full color, the overall tone is diminished.

Ambiguity works for and against Betrayer. On one hand a great sense of immersion and discovery is created when you are dropped into an unknown world and pretty much given free reign to explore the environment and investigate the hidden storyline at your own pace from the very beginning, with only little bits of narrative guidance to point you in the right direction. On the other hand the lack of clarity in what is required to advance the plot and ultimately reach the climax of the adventure can sometimes go too far and leave you roaming around the monochrome wilderness to find overlooked clues and revisit NPCs to see if any new dialogues have opened up.

Fortunately, the designers built in a number of helpful features to make navigation and clue hunting intuitive without outright holding your hand. The map system’s quick travel is a huge plus as it allows you to immediately jump between any marked destinations you have discovered, even across individual zones. Directional audio cues also play a huge role in navigation, which means you are going to want to play with a good pair of headphones or a surround sound system for the optimal experience (or toggle a setting which applies icons to the compass to visually represent the audio cues). By pressing the ‘X’ key, a listen mechanic is activated which uses a ghostly echo as a sonar-like ping to pinpoint the location of the next spirit or clue. The voice gets louder the closer you get, as well as when you are facing in the correct direction. Additionally, collectibles and points of interaction are painted red to clearly contrast with the stark black and white coloring of the surroundings. They also give off a visual shimmer as well as a sparkly sound effect to let you know when you are within close proximity.

The one thing missing from the map interface, is the ability to create manual markers or waypoints. Especially early on, you will discover numerous treasures and important locations hidden well off the beaten path that will be involved in closing an investigation further on down the road, or simply can’t be obtained without first receiving a required piece of equipment (a shovel) that isn’t provided until a later map. When the time comes to revisit previous locations, chances are likely that you will no longer remember where to find them, and that means unwanted time will be spent trekking back and forth across the map to re-discover things you already found before but couldn’t do anything with the first time around.

Perhaps this map marking feature is something the developers will consider adding in a future update, but at the moment more urgent technical matters need to be addressed. Betrayer may now be out of Early Access, but unfortunately it is still a bit rough around the edges. At random times the game will crash, usually when pressing a key to open the map, journal, or inventory screens. (I have personally encountered this crash at least half a dozen times.) There is another serious glitch, which I believe is contained to just one of the game’s maps, that causes the red contrast and sparkle effect of collectibles to switch off. Trying to find black and white treasure chests hidden in a black and white forest without any distinguishing contrast is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Of lesser concern, I have also witnessed loot items becoming stuck in parts of the environment so that they are impossible to pick up, as well as enemies getting stuck in weird AI loops where they will endlessly run back and forth along the same path until they are killed. From discussions in the Steam community hub, the developers do appear to be aware of some of these problems, so hopefully an initial fix will be on the way to squash these bugs sooner rather than later.

Due to the play at your own pace structure of the game, it’s difficult to pinpoint how long it is and exactly what is and isn’t required to finish the story. As an OCD completionist, it took me around 20 hours to complete all investigations, find all collectibles, and earn 100% achievements, but for less obsessive gamers, taking a narrower path through the story will probably require more like 10 to 12 hours. What’s really nice, is the ability to continue the game in free play after concluding the story. As soon as the credits scroll is over, you are dumped right back into the world to roam around and hunt after any remaining collectibles. [Spoiler Alert] On the downside, the developers also used this phase of the game to deliver an unsatisfying and in my opinion unnecessary addendum to the shock cliffhanger ending. You can return to the Maiden in Red for further explanation, only she still barely explains her motivations. Frankly, I would have been much happier had the ending remained left open to debate rather than explained in such a vague manner in a post-credits free play mode. It just felt like something that was hurriedly written at the last minute without the same level of care that went into the rest of the script. [End Spoiler]

Even though it was made by the original creators of games like F.E.A.R. and Aliens versus Predators 2, Betrayer is a different beast altogether, emphasizing non-linear, player-driven exploration, mature, nuanced storytelling, and a more subtle brand of supernatural horror that keeps you constantly on edge but never resorts to cliché scare tactics or gross out hyper violence. I wish the ending had been better executed, but all in all the story and characters are engaging and well written, and the process of slowly piecing together the treacherous tales behind the deaths and misdeeds of the former colonists is truly fascinating. If Betrayer is indicative of the quality of games we’re going to get from Blackpowder Games, the indie studio’s future is going to be a bright one.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Bold, refreshing take on an underutilized historical setting
+ Compelling and well written storyline
+ Play at your own pace progression leads to great sense of discovery
+ Beautiful, eerie atmosphere sucks you in

Cons:
– Lack of objective clarity can lead to confusion and tedious backtracking
– Ending isn’t executed as well as it could have been
– Rigid stealth logic and enemy AI
– Still needs to shake off some of the Early Access rust

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Blackpowder Games
Developer: Blackpowder Games
Release Date: 3/24/2014
Genre: Action/Adventure
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

[nggallery id=3295]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!