Betrayer review: Amazing atmosphere isn't enough to save this odd shooter
At a Glance
My longbow is cracked. It's nearly worthless in this state. It's also the only thing standing between me and an army of Spanish conquistadors, hell-bent on my blood. An army that may or may not be in my mind.
"I haven't seen anyone except you on this island," the woman in red tells me. She also might be fictional. I'm not sure.
After all, can you really trust your instincts once you've started speaking with ghosts?
Holiday in Roanoke
Loosely based on the "lost" colony of Roanoke, Betrayer is a first-person game set in the early 1600s. Betrayer is best in its early hours. You awake on a beach, your ship wrecked off the coast. This is a lush land, a forested land, albeit one rendered in stark black and white. As you meander down the forest path (the only way forward) you spot a woman in red on a nearby cliff. She fires an arrow towards you, a letter attached to it—"I do not know who you are or why you've come here, but you should turn back lest you become trapped in this place as I am."
It's a hell of an opening.
And it just gets weirder. Before long you're hunting down Spanish conquistadors that growl like wolves when they see you, eyes burning with otherworldly flame. You're wandering around a fort, flag snapping in the wind, the only inhabitants a bunch of "people" made of ash and embers like some sort of modern Pompeii. You're ringing a bell, whereupon the white sky turns black and skeletons burst from the ground to kill you. You're digging an eye out of the ground to help you "see" what's really there. You're talking to ghosts.
Betrayer is grisly. There's a lot more horror here than I was expecting, though not really in a "jump out and scare you" way. Even the skeletons you fight are more cheesy than creepy. But it's all vaguely unsettling—the lackadaisical way the ghosts talk of their (mostly horrific) pasts, the notes hidden all over the world, the way the wind picks up at the worst possible times. From the stark visuals to the audio (with the exception of one arrow ricochet "bonk" that's cheesy and misplaced), Betrayer is a game that nails atmospheric horror.
But there isn't much fun here.
I said it's a hell of an opening, and I meant it. Betrayer puts its best foot forward, and unraveling clues in the early hours of the game is full of intrigue. Why do you ring this bell? What is the relationship between the light and dark worlds? Who are the enemies? These questions drive you through the opening bits.
There's just too little, though. Betrayer turns out to be a ten hour experience with multiple maps, but you're basically doing the same set of fetch quests on each. You enter a new area, find the main camp, hang the bell, ring it, kill skeletons, and then talk to the region's main ghost. The ghost gives you some new crime you're "solving," but the solution consists of mashing the game's "Listen" button, running to the area it indicates—directional audio leads you to the next objective so headphones are highly recommended—and then sprinting back towards the ghost with whatever you found.
And you do this on every map. For hours.
The early hours end up as the best because you're weak and underpowered, and thus forced to play the game with some semblance of caution. In your first fights, a group of two Spaniards is a real challenge and three is probably death. By the second area, however, I could dispatch an entire horde of enemies with just my trusty longbow. Not only do you earn better equipment, but you learn that the AI is highly exploitable, eliminating any challenge.
Shooting is also unsatisfactory. You're armed with a litany of colonial-era weapons such as pistols, muskets, and bows. These are heavy weapons. Guns should have a real kick to them. Bows take physical strength to pull back and fire. These are tactile weapons to equip a player with.
But not in Betrayer. In Betrayer, the guns lack any semblance of weight—although the lengthy reload time is a nice touch—and the bows don't really feel dangerous. It's a hard thing to nail, because at the end of the day you're just controlling a set of pixels that determine whether the gun "feels" right or not, but Betrayer's shooting mechanics are fairly lackluster for what is a first-person shooter. The repetitive combat encounters get tedious after a while, especially in a game where you spend most of your time running back and forth doing fetch quests anyway.
I want to see a second effort out of the Betrayer team. The early hours show a knack for historical settings, atmosphere, and real out-of-the-box writing. It's missing something fairly important, however: A compelling game to wrap all these fantastic peripheral elements around. Your actions are too simplistic, the fetch quests too nakedly fetch quest-y. There's just not a lot to compel you to actually play through what is, at its core, some truly risky and interesting story.