Betrayer is not what you think it is.
Even if you’ve seen screenshots or watched trailers, it’s still probably not quite what you’re expecting. Which is actually great, because half the joy of Betrayer is the slow process of discovering just what the heck it is.
When you wash up on the shore of this strange land, some surface details will be immediately apparent. The first-person perspective. The striking monochrome visuals. The profound lack of information or context.
If you’ve read the blurb on Steam or the developer’s website, you’ll at least know that this is 1604 — and that you’ve arrived in the New World. But as far as in-game cues, you will have to piece everything together yourself. There’s no opening cutscene, no introductory text, no background information whatsoever.
You, like the nameless, faceless character you play, have no idea what you’re getting into.
As you move inland, the shadows — and the mysteries — only deepen around you.
The colony and all its forts are abandoned. Instead of British colonists, the landscape is crawling with Spanish soldiers — soldiers who’re, well… not quite human anymore. And those aren’t the only horrors you’ll find out there.
There’s at least a glimmer of hope, though; two colonists contact you almost immediately. The first, a strange girl dressed in red, has lost her memory and is just as adrift here as you are. The two of you agree to trade information as you find it, and she will meet you at the forts — the closest thing you have to a home base — whenever you return there.
The second is the merchant John Howe, who you communicate with only via notes, and who leaves stashes of weapons and equipment for you across the land. These work off an honor system where you take only the items you can afford, and for payment leave loot of equal value for Howe to pick up later.
So, with a little help from John Howe and the Maiden in Red, you set out across a vast landscape to piece together what happened to the colony… and to its people.
But how do you do that? What does it play like? It may feel like no one on the internet is talking about Betrayer, and while that’s kind of sad, it’s also totally understandable. Betrayer is hard to classify, or even to describe. And it’s most definitely not for everyone.
The closest comparison I can make is with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. Not only does it feel similarly dreary, barren, and oppressive, but Betrayer works on the same marriage of equal parts stealth and shooting. Plus, the world is laid out just as Shadow of Chernobyl was: unhindered movement across huge, open zones, but with each zone gated off from the others.
It would be very easy to get lost in the sprawling, monochrome world of Betrayer, especially with so little explanation of its mechanics. There is no hand-holding, yet the game is designed in such a way that it teaches you will discover how to play it as you play.
And your ears, of all things, will guide you. Nothing is more pervasive or central to the game than sound. Whether it’s the eerie, inhuman sounds of the Spanish soldiers, the terrible crack of a distant musket being fired in your direction, or the telltale hum of a nearby object of note, the sound design in Betrayer is spectacular. There’s even a dedicated Listen key that will guide you through the world — but I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
I’m trying not to say too much. There are games that are simply about exploration and discovery, and Betrayer is one of them. In particular, how its story unfolds and the tales of the lost colonists weave in and out of each other… is wonderful. I can say that there are hints of the adventure and roleplaying genres, but to say much more would spoil something beautiful and unique.
And that’s why Betrayer is such a hard sell. Twenty dollars is a big investment for a game you don’t know much about — but if you know too much, it the whole experience loses its edge. You have no idea what Betrayer really is until you’re a few hours in.
But if you have the twenty dollars to spare, and you’re looking for something different, please give it a shot. Betrayer isn’t perfect, and it certainly wears its indie status on its sleeve. It’s been accused of being unfinished, and I admit there are ways in which it feels that way. There’s no voice acting, though I’d argue that makes the script shine even brighter. The equipment system may not be as robust as I’d like, and the objectives rather repetitive, and the world a bit empty. But the world is slathered with atmosphere, the combat and stealth are surprisingly satisfying, and the story is…
Well, for all its cold stylistic choices and shooter drapings, Betrayer is a remarkably human story. A brilliantly-written, poignant one. It’s a story of loss, tragedy, and betrayal… and if you give it the chance, it will leave you angry, disgusted, and heartbroken.
And besides… how many games out there let you hunt ghostified conquistadors with a musket and tomahawk?
You can grab Betrayer from the Steam store, or over at Blackpowder Games‘ website. Careful, though — the version from the website still requires Steam. Hopefully we’ll see a DRM-free release sometime in the future.