An Early Look at Betrayer (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Blackpowder Games is an independent developer formed by ex-Monolith staff who has worked on titles like F.E.A.R., No One Live Forever, and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. The company announced their debut title Betrayer at the beginning of the month and a little over a week later it was already up on Steam Early Access. Like some of the titles that have been added through this program, the game is extremely early and right now only has one large area to explore. But the gameplay elements and ideas that the developers are working to portray are quite interesting even this early on, and it’s this type of risk taking approach that has me very excited to see what Betrayer adds further down the road.

Betrayer is a black and white action adventure game that takes place entirely in first person. In the game you have sailed from England in 1604 to join a struggling colony, only to find a completely deserted outpost and inhuman conquistadors that are out to kill you. There is also a mysterious woman early on who provides you with some early in-game clues but it is unclear just what role she will play in the overall storyline. Rather than going for a linear narrative Blackpowder Games has placed the emphasis on exploration and mystery, literally dropping you on a beach with no direction and letting you explore the wilderness and abandoned colony for yourself. Players will quickly discover that every clue, colonist grave, and other tidbits they discover will be cataloged in a journal (which can be accessed by pressing Q at any time). It’s also possible to speak with a couple of ghosts, and after you discover the major outpost location in the game it is possible to activate a dark spirit filled version of the world by ringing a bell. Right now, since this is only a snippet of what the overall game will offer the plot elements are scattered but I like the exploration elements and how one must transition between the light and dark worlds to progress.

The current alpha version of Betrayer grants players access to the initial beach area as well as the first major in-game section. While this may not sound like much, the scope of the area that is available is impressive and it is possible to get lost as you’re exploring the landscape. Much of the game is spent traversing the environment, taking out the conquistadors or evading them, and taking out evil spirits in the dark version of the world. The in-game world is breathtaking, as the size of the areas are not just impressive but smaller details like grass blowing in the wind helps it to come to life. Combine that with the very distinctive look created by the black and white graphical style and you have a game that really stands out. I’ve seen some people complaining that the black and white hurt their eyes, but I didn’t find that to be an issue as I made my way through and the only real issue was the darker black variants of the spirit world made it a bit hard to make out items in the environment. One of the first things that will be added to Betrayer in an update is the ability to change the contrast, which should alleviate some of the issues that certain people have had, but I personally really liked the style and thought it added to the mystery/supernatural feel that Blackpowder was going for.

Controlling your character is handled in the same way as a traditional first person shooter, and as mentioned earlier Q is the default button to bring up the clues and notes you have collected about the world at any time. Weapons in the game include muskets, bows, throwing axes, and daggers. I’ll dive further into the combat system in the next paragraph, but the weapons you shoot are fired using the mouse much like a traditional shooter while the dagger and throwing axes are mapped to the keyboard. For a game so heavily focused on exploration it is easy to get lost, and the in-game map only seems to showcase what areas you have found and been to before rather than marking where you currently are. Thankfully the map allows you to quick travel to any of the major locations, so if you feel too lost you can always re-orient yourself that way. Blackpowder has implemented a “Listening” feature, which can be activated by pressing X. What this appears to do is make sound when you’re getting closer to a clue or new location, but I’m not entirely sure of the best way to use this right now and hope it gets better implemented or utilized more in later sections of the game. My only major complaint with the two areas right now is that it is hard to tell when you’re at the edge of the main environment and the initial beach area, and if you accidentally cross over the divider there is a loading screen taking you back to the beach. The reason this is an issue is that if you’re exploring the dark spirit realm and cross over to the spirit realm, it resets back to the normal daytime world when you go back and can be a bit annoying.

In the normal version of Betrayer’s world you fight conquistadors who appear to have been possessed by something and sound inhuman. They pop up in random locations and this seems to change when you die or load a game, providing a constant sense of tension as you explore. Since the game is set in 1604 and there is no radar, enemies glow bright red in the black and white world and are also possible to track based on the noises they make which can result in a hunter/prey type of relationship as you try and take them out without attracting attention. This is important, because as I learned early on melee weapons are one hit kills. Bows and muskets take you down to about half health and it’s the same for enemies, but if you melee and enemy or they melee you that’s it. Because of this, the best course of action is to either sneak up behind an enemy and melee them or keep your distance. There is a real sense of danger to each encounter, as melee requires a specific timing and distance to prevent the enemy from killing you and muskets are quite slow to reload. Additionally, ammunition is limited and can be purchased from one vendor at the outpost or from dead enemies. However, with arrows or throwing axes if they make contact with an enemy you can recover them after the enemy is dead. This encourages players to aim their shots carefully and not just fire blindly hoping for the best, and I really like the way combat is handled overall. If you do happen to die though, it’s not a major issue as you respawn at the outpost and lose any money you had collected and whatever ammo you used in the encounter. Betrayer auto-saves on a regular basis, and I’m not sure how often it does it as it is handled behind the scenes but I’ve loaded saved games and still had all my clues from the previous play session. The AI seems a little erratic at the moment though, as sometimes they see you from far away and immediately start firing and other times are completely oblivious when you’re right in front of them. There appears to be some occasional path finding issues as well, and my guess is as the game’s development progresses further the AI behavior will likely change as well.

When you ring the bell at the outpost and transition into the dark spirit realm, the conquistadors disappear and the only enemies are ghosts. They don’t appear at random quite as often, and mostly pop up when the player tries and purifies totems around the environment (which is required to progress). Like the other enemies they can one hit kill you if they touch you and can throw projectiles that take half your health away. The best way to handle these ghosts is to hit them directly in the face with an arrow, as this will result in a one-hit kill. Blackpowder Games has stated on the Steam Forums that they want to make the dark world even scarier than the daytime one, but at the moment the lack of enemies on a regular basis actually made me prefer it. This is the one area I’m interested in seeing them expand upon, as I get the impression that the team is just scratching the surface at the moment.

Sound plays a significant role in Betrayer, and enemy footsteps and environmental noises help to add suspense to the gameplay. There is currently no music in the game, and while it is unclear if the developers intend to add some in the future it wouldn’t hurt things if they choose to just let the sound effects drive the experience. As you make your way through the environments you might hear the sudden appearance of a spirit or the inhuman growl of a conquistador, and sometimes just the wind blowing through the trees and grass might be enough to make you paranoid that an enemy is nearby. Some further tweaking wouldn’t hurt, as the player footsteps seem a bit too soft to really use as a gauge for how stealthy you are being, but so far the way that Blackpowder is using the sound design is great and it reminds me of the type of eeriness F.E.A.R. was able to create.

I already mentioned that I liked the overall look and level of detail the developers were able to create, but it’s worth mentioning that the game runs quite well for an alpha. Aside from getting stuck on a rock and being unable to move once, everything ran smoothly and even with the game up on max settings I didn’t have any major performance issues. Betrayer is running on the Unreal Engine, and I really got the impression that the development team is making the most of it as the game looks good for such a small team and runs without any major bugs.

Betrayer seems to be building a truly unique feeling experience, but I’m not sure that I can recommend it just yet. At an hour and a half in I think I’ve found almost all of the clues in the unlocked area and am nearing completion, and while I’ve enjoyed the danger and tension from the enemy encounters and the sense of discovery in exploring the world everything still feels a bit too empty. The development team has said that by the time the next major area is available for exploration they should have some additional enemy types and features integrated, and based upon what is already in the game I’m confident they have the technical know-how and ambition to make Betrayer something special. For $14.99 you get access to the game for good and can experience all of its iterations and progress, so whether you want to pull the trigger now or hold off will depend on whether you are okay in playing in spread out bits and pieces or want a longer experience. I’ll be checking back in on Blackpowder’s debut title once a significant update has come out, so expect more impressions later in the year.

Edit: Since I finished writing this it looks like the first patch has been released which adds in the black and white contrast adjustment options and several other tweaks.

Betrayer is out now on Steam Early Access for $14.99.

System Requirements

OS: Windows Vista
Processor: 3.0 GHz dual core or better
Memory: 3 GB RAM
Graphics: DirectX 9 compatible with 1GB video RAM or better (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti/AMD Radeon HD 6870)
DirectX: Version 9.0c
Hard Drive: 4 GB available space
Sound Card: Windows compatible stereo sound card

OS: Windows Vista / Windows 7 / Windows 8
Processor: 2.4 GHz quad core or better (enhanced for multi-core processors)
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: DirectX 9 compatible with 2GB video RAM or better (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti/AMD Radeon HD 7950)
DirectX: Version 9.0c
Hard Drive: 4 GB available space
Sound Card: Windows compatible stereo sound card

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