Betrayer is a bit odd, that much is evident from the outset. You find yourself plonked down on a nondescript shingle beach somewhere in the New World as the ship that presumably brought you ashore sinks into the shimmering sea and another, more sturdy vessel, sails off into the sunset. No context, no explanation, no seeming reason or rhyme.
It's a puzzling opening, made all the more puzzling by the striking monochrome aesthetic that greets you from the very beginning. Everything is drenched in high-contrast black and white, with only the occasional vibrant streaks of bloody red breaking through at striking intervals. You make your way inland and in the space of a few moments discover a bow and arrow, and a strange, red-cowled figure who fires a message-bearing arrow into a nearby totem and vanishes.
This is Betrayer: a game that throws up more questions than it answers -- one that encourages you to puzzle things out for yourself.
The monochrome aesthetic is brilliant, and makes the game look better than it probably has any right to. Betrayer wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and the semi-open feel to it, not to mention that little scrolling navigational compass at the top of the screen is highly reminiscent of Skyrim in many ways, though not nearly as expansive. The narrative that unfolds through scraps of journals and interactions with ghasts and ghouls is heavily based on the mysterious mishaps that befell the Roanoke Colony. It's all too easy to make immediate visual comparisons to films such as The Seventh Seal and Schindler's List, though one gets the feeling here that the substance never quite manages to step out from behind the shadow of the game's style.
Unfortunately, you could go a step further and actually ask the question what substance?
There are some nice touches to aid you in your ramble around the wild countryside of the game's setting. Instead of a particularly detailed map, the game provides you with audio clues to go along with the shimmer and sparkly of loot glint. It's all a little contrived, but it works well enough, and there a bit of an exploratory thrill in combing the dense undergrowth and wind-worn fields that surround the English forts you come across with just your basic audiovisual senses.
That approach to revealing a narrative is admirable in theory, but the trouble is that it's just not that interesting. Your first interaction with a talking counterpart is stilted and awkward and does little to inspire mystery. Blackpowder have created a game that assumes a little too much that you're going to be naturally interested by all of these slightly diffuse elements. The strange growling creatures that stalk the landscape are there from the very beginning, introduced with little meaning. Without context, they're just arrow fodder I don't give a rat's balls about.
I'll admit to being slightly curious at first about whatever the hell was going on, but Betrayer doesn't make it easy thanks to some clunky combat and punishing damage-dealing that's cribbed straight out Dark Souls, complete with a feature that sees you drop your loot where you last died and forces you to pick it up without falling again, lest it be lost forever. Monstrous Conquistadors, skeletal wights, and the reanimated, charred corpses of Native Americans roam the place, often in different numbers and places to where you saw them on your last respawn. In Silent Hill-esque fashion, they make animal noises, snarling and slavering to give away their positions. The AI is a little wonky -- the idea is that you use the wind to hide your movements and sneak up on your foes, but sometimes they'll just spot you from half the map away, sometimes the crude pistol with no range will act like a sniper rifle, sometimes arrows will fly through rocks, sometimes you might just rage quit.
Sadly, the uninspired combat carousel sets in rather quickly, and the game descends into tedium rather quickly. The same goes for the exploratory aspects, as plodding about samey landscapes punctuated by the odd fort or lean-to becomes rather boring. It would have helped to have a world that felt a little more alive and full, perhaps, or a story that had a little more bite to it. The idea of players piecing together a narrative is not a bad one by any means, but the story in question needs to have enough by way of hooks to keep you interesting and pushing onwards -- I never really felt Betrayer did that.
The environmental sound design is fantastic, though, and oddly chilling when you flip between day and night at the tug of a bell. The rustling of the grass and the leaves of the trees is captured brilliantly, and the sound really serves to situate you within the game space, wonderfully augmented by the chirrups of crickets in the undergrowth and the snarls of enemies up ahead. The ringing bell that grows louder in volume when you near an object of interest is so pervasive that for a good hour after my first playthrough, I could swear I could still hear it faintly in the distance.
Again, though, Betrayer is something of a mixed bag. For all of its achievements in terms of audiovisual style, there are mechanical frustrations and questions over design. Moreover, that visual style is actually, rather inexplicably, completely optional, which makes no sense given that the game looks worse in full colour and loses all of its atmosphere and tension in the bright yellow sunshine. If you have the patience, if the story manages to grab you, and if you're willing to meet the game more than halfway, then there's some enjoyment to be had here. But all too often I felt like I was playing a demo for something greater. Betrayer did have an Early Access build, but the trouble is that the finished game still feels a little too sparse.
- Striking monochromatic visual aesthetic
- Excellent sound design
- Looks gorgeous on highest settings
- The piecemeal narrative concept is a good one...
- ...But it falls flat here
- Wonky AI
- Dodgy combat mechanics
- Relatively sparse and empty world
- For a horror mystery there were precious few scares or surprises or zzzzzzzzz
The Short Version: Though it presents a strikingly unique aesthetic and a daringly open invitation to the player to piece together a mysterious narrative for themselves, Betrayer is ultimately a bit of a disappointment thanks to uneven pacing, inconsistent mechanics, and a world and story that just aren't particularly interesting. In the end, Betrayer assumes a little too much and works too little for the player's interest, which is a shame because it ultimately makes a rather striking game all too easy to walk away from early on.