It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a hard-core game marathon, the sort where you sit down to play with the morning’s coffee, then look up a while later to discover that the day has gone by, you’ve skipped lunch, and pretty much nothing else is going to be accomplished for the day.  But this week, as I enjoyed the between-term break provided by my generous and magnanimous employer, I wasted three days playing Betrayer start to finish.

Betrayer is the first game from the new studio Blackpowder Games, which is composed of several Monolith veterans – Monolith being the developer behind F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever and various other well-remembered games from the Golden Age of the PC FPS.  I first heard about this game on episode 3 of Tone Control, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network that is a series of interviews with game developers about their careers and the process of making video games.  The developer in this case was Craig Hubbard, and towards the end he discussed this game.  It’s been on Early Access for a bit, but I got the game on a whim when I saw the full release announcement on Steam. 

To steal a phrase from Rock Paper Shotgun, here’s what I think.

Betrayer keeps you in the dark, literally and figuratively.

Literally speaking, the game’s default graphics mode is black and white, with the occasional splash of red.  Furthermore, nearly half the time you’re in the “dark world,” which is quite literally dark and foggy and definitely tilted towards the black end of the black and white spectrum.  Figuratively speaking, the game tells you absolutely nothing about its fundamental mechanics or about the story.  I didn’t figure out how to use one of the most critical game mechanics until the fourth map stage, and when I got around to going back to early stages with that knowledge in hand, I was able to unearth tons of stuff which I’d simply bypassed the first time through.  Look to the spoilers section at the end for my discussion of this.

At the same time, Betrayer makes no secret about being a serious First-Person shooter.  This is clear from the opening scenes, where you learn to smash open crates with a COD-style super-fast melee attack and then find the weapon store and your first “real” weapon, the longbow.  Yes, that’s right, a longbow.  This is a serious first-person shooter where you’ll spend most of the game shooting arrows, because your only guns are single-shot black powder muskets and pistols which take forever to reload.

This is the split-personality of Betrayer – serious shooter mechanics of the strangest sort versus challenging tactical situations, on the one hand, and a grab bag of exploration, puzzle, investigation, and story mechanics on the other.  It’s the oddest mix I’ve run into in a long time, and while utterly captivating, it has its share of problems.

So, the story.  You wash up on the coast, mysterious protagonist, looking for . . . something.  An English colony, one would presume, given the remains of an English colony you find.  It’s not clear at first what’s going on – and as one advances, things become even more murky.  You meet nobody living, except, maybe, a mysterious woman in red.  She’s looking for her sister, but cannot remember her own name, or much of anything.  Is she really alive, or just another spirit in another form?  Are you even really alive, or just another wraith, like the other wraiths and specters and lost souls you meet in the dark world?

Ring the bell, and the world changes, from the “light” world, which does not seem quite right, to the “dark” world, which is very definitely the world of the dead.  In the world of the dead are skeletal and spectral enemies, who are just as vulnerable to musket and arrow as are the Spaniards and Natives you fight in the light world.  Also, there are wraiths, glowing ghosts who are actually friendly and communicative.  You help them piece together the events of their last days, usually by going out into the world and finding objects or interviewing lost souls, and helping them attain a degree of closure in their after-life.

Finding things is not easy, because you’re thrown into a series of very large and fairly open maps, where you are free to wander through the forest at great length.  One can be methodical, and through brute force alone scour the maps for all relevant clues, but the game provides you with the oddest of hint mechanics – and of course, it doesn’t explain it at all.

Why are you able to switch between these worlds?  The woman in red has no answers.  Indeed, she openly mocks you and your craziness, as she can’t see the dark world at all, nor does she see any of the enemies you face.  It’s all quite unnerving – you’re not sure who she is, or who you are, but it’s pretty clear that the final answer is not going to be all that simple, or pretty.

Solving puzzles means traveling around the world, and traveling around the world means combat.  There are lots of enemies in the colonial Americas, be they zombie-esque Spaniards (their presence is explained, sort of, but their bestial nature is not), Native warriors (who are on fire), skeletons, or wraiths.  The Spanish are a particular challenge, as much of the game is comprised of clearing them out of key towns or outposts.  There are a LOT of Spaniards guarding the game’s main areas, and they are quite tough.  Given your weaponry, it’s not a good idea to charge straight in.  Instead, you need to sneak up on the Spanish sentries, one by one, and knock them out with assassin-style headshots from your bow.  Problem is, it’s HARD to hit them in the head properly, and one false hit, and the whole contingent of guards is on your case.  Sometimes you can run away and hide, but more often than not they’ll hunt you down and shoot you to death.

When this happens, it becomes clear just how strong the influence of Dark Souls has been on the game’s basic design.  Whenever you die, the world and its enemies re-spawn.  Clear out an entire area, and it stays clear – that’s one little mercy the game provides, and after opening up an area in this fashion you’ll typically find all kinds of new stuff to investigate.  Should you fail in clearing out a new zone, though, you’ll have to start from scratch, and try again and again until you manage to kill every single Spaniard guarding your target area.  Succeed, and you’re rewarded with a clear audio cue and in-game message, “ZONE X UNLOCKED.”  This forces you to master the game’s stealth mechanics, which are quite forgiving, and it forces you to learn the bow.  It also forces you to get 10 to 15 successful headshots with your bow in a row, which is no easy accomplishment.  Betrayer is serious about giving you some serious FPS challenges.

After you figure out the nature of the challenges in both the Light World and the Dark World, the game falls into a bit of a rhythm.   Enter a new zone, find the key areas, clear out the Spaniards.  Find the bell, then enter the dark world.  Meet the wraiths and lost souls, look for clues, and clear out the evil forces.  Move to next zone, repeat.

I loved it.  I love exploring large open worlds, and discovering everything in them, wondering if I’ve found everything I need, and hitting the wall of incomprehension now and again.  There were moments where I was stuck, wondering if I’d missed something earlier (thanks Sierra games!), or wondering if I had failed to grasp some basic game mechanic – but soon enough, I figured out what I needed to know, and with that mastery, was able to move forward in a much more assured and competent manner.  It was awesome.

For anyone who enjoyed the moments of total incomprehension in Dark Souls, AND enjoys some serious if unconventional FPS challenges, this game is highly recommended.

Spolier-ey nitpicks below.  You don’t have to look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

In all honesty, the game’s main plot is a mess.  Vengeful spirit, ancient Indian burial ground, first-contact difficulties, asshole boss – it’s all there, but it just doesn’t make sense!  Where did Tabitha’s super-death powers really come from, and how on Earth did she turn into such a super-destroyer?  As if every young woman dealt a shit hand in life gets massive destructive super powers!  Then again, what exactly was the relationship of the woman in Red to the whole set of events?  Did she turn her sister into this death-dealing mega blight?  Was she merely the tool of the ancient evil powers of the woods, alluded to on several occasions?  Who knows.  None of it was made clear in the middle, and at the end, the developers threw a massive sucker punch at the player, but didn’t give them time to figure out its meaning.  Seriously, wtf was the meaning of that last scene?

Furthermore, what was the significance, if any, of all the little decisions the player made through the game?  Did any of those gifts to the Woman in Red matter? How? Why?  Did it matter whether you consigned the wraiths to Torment or to Peace?  I made judgements of each person on a case by case basis, forgiving most but condemning the worst of the worse – but did it matter at all?  I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong – the fact that I’m left with all these questions is a sign of success.  I care enough to wonder, meaning the developers did most of their job.  However, it’s a big problem with games as a medium in this particular historical moment that players can never tell how much this sort of end-game confusion is a result of poor design (nobody could get it because it’s just stupid), the player missing something (I failed to notice the scrollwork in the background which tied it all together, or something), the player not being on the same wavelength as the developer (expecting something so different from what the developer intended that the final reveal was incomprehensible), deliberate creative decisions (obscure for the sake of being artistic), or a failure to 100% the game (if you’d read the secret note hidden under a rock in the first zone, you’d totally understand everything).  The author of a book does not have this problem – if the reader doesn’t “get” the book, it’s either because the author sucks, or the reader didn’t get it.  With games, you have that ugly middle ground to worry about – maybe I didn’t do all the busy work, and if I had, I’d get the REAL ending.  I don’t know what the situation with Betrayer is, and it kind of bugs me.

All that said, the biggest let down in the game was discovering that the all of the little goody piles buried under rocks were just money, weapons, or charms.  I was CERTAIN that when I went back and unearthed all those little rock piles, there would be tons of story-related goodness, and I’d really start to understand what was going on in a much deeper and more comprehensive manner.  Finding 200 coins or a Warrior’s Shortbow was a massive disappointment, because by that point in the game I didn’t CARE about the FPS challenges nearly as much as I cared about the story and the world.  Thus, finding FPS bonuses was nice, I guess, but it was not at all what I was really looking for.

On the other hand, one of the most surprisingly cool elements was the use of sound cues as a primary navigational aid.  There’s a LISTEN command, which plays a sound effect.  This sound effect is rendered in Stereo, so you can use it to turn towards a target, and it gets louder as you get closer to a target.  You don’t really know what the sound is leading you towards, but it gives you a guide to help find MOST of the important things in both the Light and the Dark worlds.  I didn’t figure out how these worked until the third or fourth map zone, but once I did they were absolutely wonderful, especially in the Dark World.  It was awesome to figure this out for myself, but on the other hand, I wonder how many people may NEVER figure out how useful these sound-cues are, and thus suffer horribly from the difficult of finding things in the forest.