Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Blackpowder Games is a small game development studio that is made up mostly of ex-Monolith developers, which means that we’re looking at veterans from the likes of No One Lives Forever, FEAR and the Condemned games. This isn’t a bad starting point and from here we also look at more of the development history of Betrayer as it is a Steam Early Access game gone gold. This represents an interesting change to the pace of many of the Early Access games currently gracing Steam, as the number appears to only go up. Seeing a game pop out of Early Access finished and then released proper is nice and is something of a relief in displaying that the scheme can actually help games to develop *and* release. Betrayer itself is a first person action adventure game set in a New World colony in 1604. You’d think that a first person game set in the 1600’s would be the defining enough feature of a release but Betrayer ups the ante with a very very distinct visual look based on black, white and red high contrast post-processing, there is little about this game that could be considered entirely cookie-cutter.
The gameplay basis of Betrayer is that of a first person, semi-open-world, stealth ‘em up… sort of. As I stated in the introduction; this game does not sit very neatly into gaming categories, so let us go through those sort-ofs one by one: First of all is the first person perspective which for an eerie game like this is a well considered decision. The settings allows for FOV alteration, many will be glad of this and the overall feel of the first person perspective in relation to the atmosphere, immersion and combat is right on the money. Next is the open world nature which in this case is far closer to the multiple mid-sized areas of STALKER than it is to the large open sprawl of Skyrim. This actually works quite nicely in Betrayer as it allows the game to control the pace and path of the narrative by locking out areas. Finally there is the stealth ‘em up element, which isn’t technically true as you are never forced into using stealth however the combat is brutally unforgiving even with attempted stealth, nevermind without it. Combat is first person with era appropriate weapons; so longbows, shortbows, flintlock pistols, muskets and the like. These weapons can be bought from the store but poorer condition versions can be looted from enemies (like STALKER). Money is acquired through looting chests and buried items as well as killing enemies, although this does not happen at any significant rate. It will be a long time before you accrue enough wealth to purchase a better weapon. Death is punished through an interesting mechanic not so detached from the likes of Minecraft, upon dying you will drop your pocket load of money but not inventory and it is then up to you to do a corpse run in order to retrieve it. Luckily this is tied with some degree of mob-movement so it’s not too likely that the enemies that killed you will be able to camp your corpse and dropped wealth.
The stealth is something I take some issue with as it can be rather arbitrary. Getting a stealth kill is plausible, although difficult with the somewhat different bow mechanics. Rather than the normal alert status of nearby foes on a stealth kill that we often see, every enemy in the area is immediately alerted to your presence and your exact location past, present and future. The result of this is that stealth is practically useless after the first hit as every enemy in the area will be able to track your exact location through walls, bushes, trees and across half the map. I was really looking forward to some nice bow based stealth kills, taking precise shots honed to the correct elevation. Instead the bow seems to, against every instinct, fire above the reticule and as I’ve said the stealth is a hopeless endeavour after the first hit. It would have been nice to see some bow action more along the lines of Far Cry 3, a weapon that proved to be my absolute favourite weapon that title because of how it handled. These problems also work to waste the wonderfully detailed environment to some degree as beyond that first hit it just becomes a pretty obstacle course back to a health point to regain some of the health being constantly chipped away by the eternally tracking enemies. This all sounds very negative and I’d like to point out that the combat is still enjoyable, I’m just sour that it’s not as good as it could be and instead involves a tiny bit of sneaking followed by 5 minutes of running backwards shooting at every enemy in the area that’s now pursuing you relentlessly. All of this seems like something that would have been worked out during Early Access so perhaps I’m missing something. It could be my low level weapons or I might have missed a technique of breaking pursuit, but I’m no newcomer to stealth in games and nothing in that particular playbook seemed to work. Other, less stealthy combat revolves around the flintlock pistol and the musket, which are fun to use and have proper reload times and animations which is very satisfying and powerful.
Beyond the combat the gameplay revolves around exploration and the completion of ‘investigations’ which revolve around finding pieces of evidence and removing corruption. These are done through two modes per se, light and dark which each have different quest types and enemies. The investigations are interesting and lead to interesting little sub-narratives that work to explain what has happened to the colony, whilst the removal of corruption requires the completion of different tasks, some of which assist the narrative and other which are just killing enemies. I applaud the setting as it is one rarely approached by games and makes for interesting and different quest types as well as the differences in combat.
The aesthetic is something that I really should discuss as it is such a massive part of the game that it’s all some will see. The game is graphically quite attractive using the Unreal Engine well, but on top of that is some significant high-contrast black, white and red post-processing. Some people will bounce right off this and in their FAQ the developers respond stating that many of the negatives that people have with the effects are in fact the exact reasons for having them. These can be configured, all the way down full colour normal contrast however the game loses much of its atmosphere in doing so as it strips the ambiguity of vision by making everything very clear. It’s not absolutely necessary to keep the game’s default look, but I’d at least recommend trying it for a spell to see how you feel about it. Personally I quite like it, the hindrances to play only work to reinforce the tension and eeriness. The sound also works towards this goal as the game uses ambient sound in the place of music which I have always liked, although at times the bird song can seem a little too upbeat for the eerie creepiness of the rest of the game, although maybe that could be considered the splash of red contrasted against the black and white of the rest, much like the visual appearance.
In short, I enjoy the game as it’s different and interesting with challenging combat, however I genuinely think that the weird bow mechanics and arbitrary stealth need patching before the game could reach its full potential. I do recommend checking it out if you want to try something new, different and rather eerie and at the present release price it’s not going to cost you much to try it either. The game screams improvements that were made through player feedback and that’s a really encouraging sign. Currently Betrayer is available on Windows through Steam for £13.49 (approx $22.35) or through the Humble widget on their site for £10.85 (approx $17.99). As ever I’d suggest the Humble widget as you’ll still get the Steam copy but for less.
Game Website (with Humble widget):
Betrayer Steam Page: