There’s something to be said about a game that doesn’t explain itself, and that instead relies on you to figure out the gameplay as part of its mystery. That something is often, “screw this game!”. We’re used to tutorials breaking down for us one step at a time how to move, fire, change weapons, and bunny hop (WASD, left click, the mouse wheel, and space bar, respectively). All the other stuff will fall into place just as obviously.
But one of the early hooks in Betrayer is that it doesn’t explain itself. The mystery of what’s going on and how to play sustains Betrayer early on. This isn’t quite a corridor shooter and it isn’t quite an open world. It isn’t quite an adventure game and it isn’t quite a period piece. It isn’t quite Silent Hill and it isn’t quite FEAR.
But even more than the mystery — or perhaps part of it — there’s one thing that really sustains Betrayer.
After the jump, what’s black and white and dead all over?
Betrayer’s aesthetic is unimpeachable. Any horror movie would be thrilled to look this good, with its stark high contrast black-and-white, with the wind blowing a dappled interplay of light and dark underneath the trees, with the gloriously dark luminous fog, with the occasional touches of red (compare it to The Spirit if you don’t like it, or Schindler’s List if you do like it). The setting is the New World, at some point when some of the enemies would be zombie conquistadors. Your weapons are decidedly retro and the levels are decidedly wilderness.
It reminds me of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a period piece of 17th century soldiers stumbling around the periphery of battles on English fields, shot in lovingly stark black-and-white that recalls The Seventh Seal. There’s something so iconic about soldiers in the countryside in black-and-white. As I play Betrayer, I almost wish Werner Herzog had shot Aguirre: The Wrath of God in black and white. It’s harsher and more unforgiving, a chromatic representation of deprivation and disease and superstition and madness. The modern world is in color, with Technicolor for the 20th century and high-definition digital video for the 21st century. The 19th century is sepia toned. Therefore everything earlier is high contrast black-and-white. That’s just how it is and Betrayer is one of the few (the only?) games to get it.
The audio design is equally evocative. Here is a game that understands the idiom “the dead of night” is about sound, and not zombies and vampires. There are even audio gameplay tricks in lieu of a map. Betrayer doesn’t need an overhead map because it has sound design and touches of red that stand out vividly against the black-and-white. And the lovely bird and insect sounds aren’t just ambience. They’re a sign that all is well. For now. It’s a bit of an odd choice to make the enemies sound like bears, boars, and bobcats when they’re not, in fact, bears, boars, or bobcats. But I get what the developers are going for. The sound design even gives Betrayer the equivalent of the air raid siren in Silent Hill.
I’m loathe to explain the basic gameplay progression, because part of the point is figuring it out. But once you figure it out, Betrayer quickly runs out of steam. It’s like when a horror movie finally shows the monster. “Oh, so it’s that,” you realize, at which point a thousand doors in your imagination slam shut and you’re left to gawk at some dude in a latex suit. Remember when I didn’t know what the heck was going on? Remember when I liked Betrayer? Those were the days…
Unfortunately, Betrayer falls apart quickly, and it can’t afford to do this given how short it is. There are bits and pieces that aim to make it a longer game, but they’re mostly filler. The minor inventory management, the weapon upgrades, the timid charms. Each map is like the last, with only minor variations. Crisscrossing the map from point A to point B to read a text snippet so you can go back to point A to read another text snippet. Offering gifts to the mysterious maiden in red, randomly choosing among dialogue options hoping for the good one. Your journal is crammed with names and clues, ticked off like that list of miscellaneous quests in Skyrim but without any results. Oh, here’s 200 gold pieces you don’t really need. Eventually, all the mystery drains from Betrayer as surely as its lack of color, and with it whatever goodwill you had for its stunning aesthetic. And now here you are playing just another game about running backwards while you shoot at something.
Betrayer is a first person action adventure game that takes you to the New World at the turn of the 17th century. The year is 1604. You sailed from England expecting to join a struggling colony on the coast of Virginia. Instead, you find only ghosts and mysteries. What catastrophe blighted the land and drained it of color and life?