Tested On: PC
Blackpowder Games, the developers of Betrayer, is a studio composed of numerous veterans from Monolith, the company that brought you No One Lives and the F.E.A.R. series. For their first game Blackpowder have chosen to stick with the horror theme, crafting a first-person horror survival game that introduces some fascinating concepts into the genre. Betrayer is unique, and I got a chance to get some hands on time with it thanks to Blackpowder.
The first thing to smack you in the face like the hand of a vengeful God is the game’s striking monochromatic visuals. The entire world is painted in black and white, with the occasional splash of red used to highlight enemies and items of interest. LIke any unique style the black and white imagery of Betrayer is going to be divise and likely take the centre stage in most arguments about the game. A brief visit to the forums reveal that gamers are already split down the middle, arguing for and against this unusual chouce. And indeed it does take a while yo get used to the graphics as they give the world an almost 2d appearence and your eyes have to adjust to picking things out. But while it may not be too everyone’s liking the black and white style of Betrayer does exactly what it sets out to do, invoking an incredibly tense atmosphere.
This is coupled with a brilliant use of audio, or more specifically by a very careful lack of audio. There’s no background music, only the gentle sound of wind, the occasional bird and the creaking of an enemy that’s gotten close. It’s a quiet, eeiry world that leaves you feeling constantly unsettled, always wondering if there’s something lurking within the trees, watching you.
The game is set in 1604 where you’ve just sailed from England to Virginia, intending on helping a struggling colony. The preview build begins on the beach. A wrecked ship is was my first sight, and a sandy beach strewn with debris the second, indicating that I was a survivor, and probably the only one. It’s made clear from the very beginning that Betrayer is a game of little instruction: a few brief tutorial messages pop up and provide a quick and simple explanation to how the basic controls work, but apart from that there’s nothing else. The game just dumps you on a beach and lets you get on with things. It’s a wonderful sensation of freedom that is not often found it today’s rigidly scripted games.
So, as you do I smashed up a few crates, took the cash that came from them and sidled up the beach, intent on finding out just what the hell was going on. I didn’t get very far before I spotted a woman in read who delivered a message via arrow explaining she didn’t want to come near me, and warning me of the dangers ahead. Now exactly a warm welcome then. Still, here warning proved true because the Spanish Conquestadors roaming the land have all gone a little bonkers, red mist of a sorts emanating from them. Upon spotting me the first one that I encountered ran headfirst toward me, intend in causing some serious bodily harm. Not to worry, though, because I had scavenged up a bow and a few arrows in the face put him down.
It’s not much further on when I encounter a large wooden fort. Considering the atmosphere of the game up until this point I’m wary about entering a confined space because enemies can kill you very, very quickly, but caution is my is friend and I advance in to discover…nothing. Well, no dangers anyway, I do find several clues alluding to the fate of the people that once lived within the wooden walls, and a chest from which I can purchase some new equipment in return for money, though the nature of the chest breaks the illusion a little. This hunt for clues that provide small snippets of backstory forms the basic premise of the game: people are missing and there’s evil walking the land, so just what the hell is going on? Again, I was left to my own devices more or less, free to roam the open world and gather clues. Thus, full of slightly nervous optimist I ventured forth and was killed by…something. I’m still not entirely sure what happened because as far as I can tell there was nothing around me capable of doing such a thing.
Still, my demise gave me a chance to check out how death works in the world. Upon dying your valuables will dropped to the ground and you’ll be brought back to life at one of the checkpoint areas around the map. If you want your stuff back then you’ll need to go and hunt it down again, being a bit more careful in the process.
The act of combating the menaces walking the land is remarkably simple, largely because of the braindead way in which enemies behave: they either run straight for you, or remain stationary and take potshots. There’s a few different weapons like bows, pistols and muskets for you to use. Muskets and pistols may seem like an obvious choice to the unitiatated over a bow, but their long reload time leaves you very vulnerable to the enemy rabble, while a bow is quicker to draw and use. Regardless of which you choose to use, though, your attacks will often be deflected by the enemies metal armor, leaving you desperately back-pedalling as you reload. I found it helpful to have several muskets equipped, that way I could cycle through each of them rather than reloading. There’s also a tomahawk which gets introduced early on and proves to be the best method for taking down enemies who are a little close, while your knife is capable of doing heavy damage but also requires you to get very close, making speed and precision important. Combat is usually just about getting a few ranged shots into an enemy as it charges (or floats) toward you, or playing a game of strafe and shoot against ranged weapon wielding foes.
The bow currentlys feels a bit too powerful in comparison to the musket, and in comparison the beautiful physics seen in recent games feels completely unrealistic. You can land headshots from a vast distance by simply pointing the aiming reticle at the enemies face, rather than having to adjust for drop off. The speed at which you can draw and release an arrow also feels a bit fast. Adding in some realistic drop-off physics and slowing down the bow a little would help add some more tension to the combat, I feel.
The only true sense of direction within the game comes from the interesting “listen” mechanic. Press X at any time and the wind will gently blow. Listen carefully enough and you can hear the faint haunting sounds which guide you to points of interest. It’s a cool mechanic, but the sounds at the moment are pretty faint, so I do worry that those with hearing problems are going to struggle, and I also found that sometimes the system wasn’t very accurate in portraying direction. Still, a few small adjustments could fix up both of these problems and leave us with a neat system.
After exploring the landscape for a while I wind up back in Fort George, chatting to a ghostly occupant about the various clues and things I’d picked up. His insights help me piece together a few bits of the narrative, enough for me to start forumulating some theories. The current running favorite is that Godzilla showed up and just smashed the shit out of everything, although after some consideration I’m willing to admit that this may not be entirely likely. It was back at town where I began to experiment a bit with a pecuilar bell, which when rang suddenly transports you into a different version of the land you’re in where the predominat color is black and the enemies change to wierd floating ghouls who can only be defeated by hitting their floating skull head. Within this version of the realm there’s also ghostly people to hunt down and chat to, once again giving you an opportunity to fill in bits of the overall plot.
Though the concept of Betrayer intrigues me greatly I do have some significant concerns about the game at this point in its development. As creepy as it may intitially be, once I spent some time wandering the world it lost that pervading atmosphere and a lot of its interest, leaving me free to notice that it really is a pretty sparse environment with nothing outside of direct story clues to discover. Likewise the enemies who were rather chilling to begin with became less so after just a few battles as they’re relatively easy to deal with unless one manages to catch you completely unaware. They terrify because they charge straight at you or choose to swarm you with their numbers, but once you learn to keep calm and hit those headshots the sense of panic diminishes quite a bit.
Ultimately Betrayer has my interest, sporting a unique and engaging concept. It’s promising, but it needs to prove to me that it’s going to have enough to hold my attention for hours upon end, because from what I’ve seen thus far it’s going to struggle to do so. Still, it’s early days yet and only a small portion of the map is available to explore, so who knows just what is hidden in those other sections, and what new gameplay surprises await us.
Betrayer is currently available to download via Steam’s Early Access program, so you can help shape the game’s development by reporting bugs and providing thoughtful criticism.