Play It This Weekend on Steam: Betrayer, a Visually Stunning FPS That's Immersive Even in Black and White
It felt like Blackpowder Games' eye-catching first-person shooter Betrayer appeared out of nowhere earlier this month, when its early-access beta went up on Steam. The developers behind it have previously worked on titles like FEAR, No One Lives Forever, and Gotham City Impostors, so the game isn't without a pedigree either.
Even though it practically emerged from the mists, Betrayer's stark visual style has turned a lot of heads (mine included). When you come across it in a lineup like Steam's new releases it's nearly impossible not to stop and take a closer look -- it's utterly gorgeous. You could practically print out a screenshot and hang it on your wall without anyone suspecting your new conversation piece game from an independent first-person shooter. At the same time, that first OMG impression sets the bar quite high, and not all games could live up to that. What good is a gorgeous game if it falls flat everywhere else?
It's still too early to say if Betrayer will manage to pull it off, but here's why playing the early access version of the game has given me high hopes:
Betrayer is frightening, but in spite of what the red-on-black visuals might lead you to believe, it's not a horror game. The game puts players in the role of a man shipwrecked under mysterious circumstances during America's colonial period, and it's true that there are ghosts, abandoned settlements, contorted human figures made of ash, graves that tell unpleasant stories, a mysterious young bow-wielding woman cloaked in red, and clues you must use to piece it all together. All these things are absolutely unsettling, but not frightening. Frightening, in Betrayer, is something else entirely.
Sometimes it's a very familiar kind of video game fear; approaching a shambling foe with tongues of red smoke trailing behind him in the breeze, firing three arrows off in rapid succession, breathing a sigh of relief before quickly realizing that he had two allies just over the crest of the hill, one now barrelling towards you, the other smugly firing his own arrows from a distance.
And then sometimes it's a fear of your own invention; creeping into the middle of a field, surrounded by dry grass rustling in the wind, holding your breath at glints of light and shadow that fool you into thinking they're something more than they are. I never felt truly safe while playing, and the unmistakable aesthetic style really lends itself well to these moments.
Betrayer is also unforgiving. In terms of exploration and story, Betrayer doesn't hold your hand and lead you from Point A to Point B. It encourages you to venture out on your own... But to be very cautious when you do. Enemies generally take 2-4 hits to kill... And so do you. Unless you are near a healing point (of which there are few) you likely can't afford to be hit more than once. And don't even thing about using melee attacks; if you can't drop your foe from a healthy distance you're in serious trouble. Using the environment cleverly can also give you a huge advantage, or make a bad situation even worse if you don't think things through well enough. It's a challenge, but a fairly satisfying one, and killing more than one enemy in an encounter can feel like a huge triumph.
Combat aside, it should be said that Betrayer is quite pretty. There are moments of striking realism when those plants and shadows are moving around you, when everything is quiet but for an insect humming somewhere in the distance or a crow circling overhead. Sometimes it's hard not to just sit there and soak it in.
Of course it's still early, and Betrayer still has its rough patches. The HUD feels a bit plain and unpolished, for one, and the lack of a visual indicator when you're crouched (and if you're like me, you will spend a great deal of time crouched) means that I found myself uncrouching and re-crouching fairly often when I forgot what state I was in. Perhaps the pettiest complaint I have is that the sound of an enemy deflecting one of your arrows is almost exactly the same sound you'd expect to hear when someone gets hit over the head with a frying pan in an old cartoon. Maybe it's accurate to the sound of an arrow bouncing off of plate armor (shockingly that's not something I have a lot of firsthand experience with), but that sound always makes me laugh, even in the middle of an otherwise desperate situation. That said, sound design is one of those things that often improves between early access and final release, and it seems like Blackpowder already have plans to do away with the comical clang.
Since Betrayer is still in alpha, its still under active development. Things can and will change, beyond simple bug fixes. In the game's current state only the tutorial and first area of the game are accessible, but as Blackpowder updates more content will be unlocked. Their most recent update included a set of contrast adjusting sliders that allow players to tweak the game's appearance easily. My favorite setting so far definitely scales things back from the default position (which makes it a bit easier to understand the environment), but not to the point that it's too far removed from vanilla. Since the texturing was likely done with the original high-contrast look in mind, I find that a lot of the brighter and more neutral settings don't do those assets any favors.
All in all I can definitely see this game turning into something special. It's different, and takes just enough risks that it has a good chance of distinguishing itself in a genre that probably doesn't see as much innovation as it should. If your curiosity has been piqued, you can pick up early access to Betrayer for yourself on Steam.
(Betrayer was played using a review code provided by the developer on request.)
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.