Between 1997 and 2005, Monolith Productions became one of my favourite developers. During the golden age of the FPS they contributed some of the most fun, interesting, and inventive shooters to grace the genre - most of which are still just as playable today. No One Lives Forever, Aliens Vs Predator 2, Blood, Tron 2.0, SHOGOMobile Armor Division, all the way up to 2005's twin classics of F.E.A.R. and Condemned represent a supremely talented developer at their peak. Then the buyout by Warner Bros happened, most of the talent left, and the studio became less special overnight. Some of that talent ended up forming Blackpowder Games, so to say I was excited about their first game Betrayer is a major understatement.
Of course I've had a look at it before last year when it first launched on Steam Early Access (mere weeks after being announced!), but after that I left it mostly alone since I wanted to wait for the final experience. Now Betrayer's finally gone gold and everyone can find out just what a weird experience it is. It's first-person and does have shooting in it, but it definitely isn't a first-person shooter. It's an exploration/survival game, of the type that'll have its own genre soon. FPSE perhaps? Survive 'em up? Whatever, it's a game where you're not told anything but the basics, and it's up to you to work out what to do and where to go while not getting killed by the many things trying to kill you.
Company could be worse
The setting is particularly interesting. It's 1604 and you arrive at the dawn of America, the New World, and something is terribly wrong. Your ship is sunk, strange corrupted Spanish Conquistadors roam the landscape, the colony has met with some terrible fate that left the residents dead and entombed in ash, and the only one not trying to kill you is a mysterious girl in a red cloak searching for her sister. You'll find all this out fairly quickly (and I'll be avoiding all spoilers from now on), but after that you're on your own - you have to search the open landscape for clues to what happened to the colony, help the girl in red, try to put any ghosts you meet to peace, or just go looking for trouble. The choice is yours, really.
It's rather liberating, not being told what to do. Even the likes of Skyrim gives you stories and waypoints, in Betrayer though you just get a vague map and the basics of control. You're in the time before civilization imposed itself on America's harsh lands, so the landscape you'll be exploring consists mainly of trees, grass, rocks and the occasional outpost. The map as mentioned is pretty bare but at least tells you where you are, and you'll need to rely on it, your compass and your senses to stay alive, plus the odd weapon.
Superficially similar to other survive 'em ups like Don't Starve or DayZ in description, thanks to some skilled design work you're never at a loss of what to do. You're never required to eat and the "survive" part is all about not being killed by murderous ghosts rather than staving off starvation. There are no waypoints but Blackpowder cleverly bringing in "hotter, colder" mechanics to nudge you in the direction of something interesting, like a clue, a treasure chest or a cool location. Items glint softly, just enough to catch your eye but often easily mistaken for sunlight off the trees. Sound effects play and get louder the closer you get to something interesting. Then there's the "Listen" button which is really clever - you'll hear a sound (possibly many) and you'll have to find the direction its coming from and follow it. Sound also plays into how you take on or avoid combat, since enemies are very nearsighted but have excellent hearing. And then there's the Dark World, which I haven't even got into yet.
That's the problem with those giant Spanish helmets. You can't see some guy about to stab you in the back
I want to mostly avoid spoilers but I do have to talk about the Darkness. Betrayer's world is divided into different areas, and in each area is a settlement with a ruined bell. Put the bell back together again, ring it... and hold on to your hat as the world becomes twice as big as you thought it was, and three times as creepy. While in the Light World you're hunted by creatures that at least resemble and fight like human beings, in the Dark World you're taking on outright ghosts and monsters in a world of shadows, and you're reliant on sound since you can't see very far. The goals and rules remain the same though, so once you get the knack of Betrayer you'll generally know what to do - although you may have to travel back to areas you've already been to in order to complete the story.
We've got this far and I've barely touched on Betrayer's most striking feature, and that's the monochrome graphics. Despite running on Unreal Engine 3 and having some wonderful graphical features, like wind whipping up the grass and trees, the entire game is played in black and white, with the odd dash of red to highlight important objects. It's really quite cool, and adds to the unique atmosphere making your exploration feel otherworldly. And then you go to the Dark World and the colour gets inverted and the whole thing gets unnerving fast. If you don't like it then Blackpowder have you coveredyou can change brightness, sharpness, and even put colour back in if you want (although I suggest saving that for a later playthrough as it makes spotting things harder).
Unfortunately I do have a couple of big problems with Betrayer that really knocked my enjoyment of it down. The first is that, despite facing monsters, weird growling ghosts, squealing skulls and other horrific nightmares, all of which can kill you quickly as you explore an unsettling world, the game is rarely actually scary. Considering this is from a team formerly of a developer renowned for some terrifying horror games this is hugely disappointing. The first few steps into the Dark World are creepy, but once you've sussed out all the enemies and their predictable attack patterns both Light and Dark stop being frightening. In fact the scariest thing in the game are actually the friendly ghosts! Just imagine walking through a shadowy forest and then suddenly spotting two white piercing eyes shining next to you - I nearly jumped out of my chair the first time I saw one. Far more terrifying then poxy skeletons with swords.
Everything seems in ordERAAGH KILL IT KILL IT
The other even more major problem with Betrayer is that sadly it gets very repetitive, very fast. Every time you enter a new area and are confronted with exactly the same black and white forest you thought you just left your heart will sink more than a little. Once you've worked out what's expected of you then you'll just continue doing that until you've cleared every area. Yes you'll find new parts of your investigations and the story, get stronger and more confident as you upgrade your weapons, and occasionally Blackpowder experiments with different enemy types for a particular area, but for the most part you'll be doing the same things in the 6th and 7th areas that you did in the first. This is a real shame. An early fort area brings some surprises, especially when there's a massive attack that you can either fight off or flee to play guerrilla warfare on later, but this is a highlight that Betrayer never really attempts again. There are surprises, but not enough, and moreover the ending is... well, no spoilers, but it's not that satisfying. And it takes a lot of doing too - you can get to the final area and not be able to finish the game, you have to go back and complete your investigations to get to it.
The assault on one of the forts is heart-in-mouth stuff. I ran for it.
Betrayer is a hugely atmospheric and unique game, with a cool exploration/survival thrust that never gets frustrating thanks to some excellent sound and visual design, but it’s really let down by these two major flaws. It desperately wants to be scary but never manages it, but most importantly it gets way too repetitive way too fast. A game that relies on exploration needs to have a lot of surprises to spring on players, and Blackpowder only manages a handful. This is just plain disheartening. I did enjoy Betrayer for the 9-11 hours it took me to finish and I never felt like giving up, but I never really felt the joy of discovery that’s really needed for a satisfying exploration-based title either. A cautious recommendation then, certainly worth a try in a Steam sale at the very least, but I can’t see myself playing it ever again. I’m on my fifth playthrough of F.E.A.R. incidentally.