Do you ever have that feeling when you look at a screenshot or trailer for a game and you know that you want to play it? I instantly had that with Blackpowder Game's debut title, Betrayer.
The untamed colonial settling, one that hasn't been explored very well in the video game industry, and eye-catching black-and-white art style with select red highlights stirred something primal in me. As someone who grew up alongside forests, the wilderness holds a deep fascination with me. The Devil lives out there, according to author Nathaniel Hawthorne, there in the woods. Someone needs to hike through the darkness to beat the Great Evil and level-up.
Betrayer tries to make the nature of evil more nuanced then its monochrome appearance initially lets on. No one is free from corruption, everyone is the devil in their own bestial way, Betrayer claims. The woods are just a place where you can get away with it; where civilization isn't looking. Or rather, too scared to. No one wants to see the Devil, especially in themselves.
Everyone is corrupted, including the game itself. Betrayer has an interesting argument it is trying to make, but every single aspect of its being is compromised in some fashion. Perhaps this lends some credence to Betrayer's ultimate conclusion, that even the game itself is an extension of this philosophy. But it didn't make me dislike playing through it any less.
Betrayer begins by dropping you immediately into the game with very little direction or hand holding. For some unexplained reason, your nameless player character arrives to the new world of North America. As you explore this new world, you encounter various supernatural forces such as monstrously disfigured Spanish soldiers and lonely, wandering spectral wraiths.
There is a central plot line in Betrayer, but the game is much more interested in you simply exploring and absorbing the world, helping out the forlorn ghosts and solving the mysteries of their death. The writing is generally strong, and there are frequently clever twists on the nature of the transparent people you're serving. Because of the nature of their existence, their memories are fragmented which leads to cases where they tell you one thing, only to have that memory change significantly when presented by evidence that you find in the environment.
Which leads to you performing a ton of repetitive fetch quests for faceless figures whose names all bleed together as they all share the same wraith character model. It is to be recognized for the fact that it tries more than throw up a waypoint marker on your map to the location of the knickknack that you have to collect for them. Instead, you have to press a button which then plays a sound effect that gets louder the closer you get to the object of desire. It's an interesting idea, but just led to me mashing the button while crouching walking ever onward, which isn't very fun or interesting at all.
And you'll be crouch walking everywhere because Betrayer presents itself as a first-person stealth action game. But Betrayer gives you too few and uninteresting tools to make it a viable mode to operate in. You can headshot people with your bow, throw a cumbersome tomahawk or backstab people. It's nothing you haven't seen before, and with questionable enemy hit boxes and inconsistent AI actions/reactions, the game never pulls off the couple of stealth mechanics that it did have in play.
As soon as you fail to eliminate an enemy, more often than not they will aggro you, and alert every other enemy within the general vicinity in the process. And lacking the ability to escape the combat scenario and reenter in an incognito state, you'll be forced to eliminate all enemies aware of your presence, chasing you obscene distances until they murder you. The game does give you a musket and pistol to quickly dispatch enemies in such states, but the shooting feels terrible and with Betrayer being a period piece, the reload times are so long with these blackpowder weapons and enemy hordes so vast sometimes that the only way to succeed in such situations is to manipulate enemies to get caught on the geometry or circle strafe. And frequently the game won't even give you the option to engage a scenario in stealth in the first place, throwing horde mode-like combat scenarios at you which feel clumsy, especially the atrocious one at the end of the game, where I died over-and-over again until I cheesed the fight in the most clunky way possible.
Death is punished harshly in Betrayer, similar to a game like Dark Souls. When you die you'll leave all of your currency, that you collect from various treasure chests scattered throughout the environment, where you perished. If you manage to reach that area again, you will recover your money. But if you die again before doing so, then it's all gone. It feels more extreme here because you primarily acquire ammunition and new weapons by purchasing them, and treasure chests don't seem to restock on currency and enemies rarely drop meaningful amounts of money. If you lose a bunch of money, you'll be hard pressed to make-up that deficit, unlike a game like Dark Souls which gives you myriad opportunities to dig yourself out of the deep, dark hole that you dug yourself in.
A small joy though is that the production values fair a tad better. The artstyle is striking with its black-and-white abstractness, but isn't utilized in new or interesting ways, again just repeating similar looking forest environments for most of the large, open areas that you'll traverse. Not to mention that the red highlights are inconsistently used, lacking any sort of thematic connection, just sort of popping up wherever and whenever. Betrayer has a promising style, but just doesn't know what to do with it.
But there is some good atmosphere going on here and there with the wind blowing the trees in interesting exaggerated way throughout the game, and insects and animals giving the natural world in Betrayer a voice. But the gameplay usually breaks the immersion, whether it be trying to engage with its poorly limited stealth or combat systems, broken AI, mashing on the "listen to the waypoint sound" button so that I knew where the hell I was supposed to go, or any of the many, many other many audio or visual glitches that haunted my entire playthrough of Betrayer that are too numerous to list here.
It's an eyecatching and fascinating sounding game upon first inspection, but looks can be deceiving. I cannot stress this enough: do not buy Betrayer. Despite moments of good writing and atmosphere, Betrayer is unfinished and under designed in every single way. It's an ambitious game with a lot of different systems going on, but all of them are really quite unpleasant to engage with. And while I'd rather play a mediocre or bad interesting game more than a stock good game, Betrayer isn't even that interesting when you really dig into its shallow mechanics and undeveloped fundamentals.
Betrayer is quite simply just a terrible game. There's nothing in those woods to find. Even the Devil himself wouldn't reside there.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)