The New World must have been like a different planet to its earliest settlers. Not a Paradise, though there was never any shortage of idealists who thought that they could turn it into one. North America was simply an endless wilderness, and as the earliest colonists discovered, not a friendly one.
The ex-Monolith veterans at Blackpowder Games have taken this perilous early colonial era as the setting for their supernatural FPS, Betrayer. Its suspense and stylized graphics prove to be a great fit: Betrayer possesses an otherworldly menace that must have been all too real for the first Europeans to settle America. The first thing you see is your ship sailing away, stranding you on a strange shore at the edge of an infinite expanse of wilderness. The sense of abandonment and alienation is profound, and it seems like no surprise, even fitting, that there are real monsters lurking beyond the treeline.
Your character has been sent to investigate the fate of the Roanoke colony, which has been cut off from the mother country due to the war with Spain. No sooner have you started on the trail towards town when it becomes apparent something is wrong.
The messenger for this news is a young girl wearing a brilliant red cloak. Red is the only color that appears in this desaturated landscape, and Betrayer becomes almost a study in hue. There is not just red. There the scarlet splash of fresh blood, and the dull plum of dried blood. The girl practically glows with a bold, primary red when she appears on a hill above you. She shoots an arrow into a post bearing a warning. You must be careful, and the Spanish soldiers have become have become more monsters than men.
This should come as no surprise. After all, have the Spanish ever failed to unlock some kind of terrible curse in a work of horror fiction? No other empire seems to be so damned in popular memory. The Spanish are always portrayed as as the kind of guys who open the Ark of the Covenant, who dig too deep in Moria, and who will rob a tomb for spare change. This is the Black Legend of Spain, a country of malevolent superstition and doomed villains, and much of Betrayer involves putting down its soldiers’ shambolic, possessed forms.
They stalk the landscape with swords and muskets and not a hint of conscious thought. You can spot them in the distance, wearing scarlet uniforms and steaming with black corruption. They wheeze and gag as they draw breath, triggering flashbacks to Thief’s undead.
Whether they’re precipitators of the disaster or its victims is uncertain. The small fort guarding Roanoke is a ghost town populated by frozen, ashen figures. In the limited area available to explore in the Early Access version, Betrayer plays out as something of a detective story. You find clues about what went wrong: the graves of an entire family that perished during battles with the local native tribe. A stash of goods that someone kept to himself while the colony slowly starved. A Spanish camp with a detailed map of the settlement, provided by an English traitor. It raises the question: in a game so full of breaches of faith of camaraderie, who is the Betrayer of the title?
But where things get really weird, even nightmarish, is when you ring the bell inside Fort Henry. It’s a small thing, a ship’s bell, but it rings like a harbinger of the end times, and its reverberations never cease as are plunged into a twilight world of flat grays and thick mists. Demons stalk the landscape and ghosts of the colonists continue fulfilling their duties to a dead community.
The ghosts will talk to you, but they only deepen the mystery. They seem unsure of where they are, and actually seem to think you’re the ghost and they are alive. But they see the monsters around you, and beg for your help in fighting the spectral demons that float above the landscape like Rowling’s Dementors.
These monsters are also reminiscent of the specters you fight at the end of Monolith’s original FEAR, and here we come to some important reservations. FEAR was always desperate to be scary, pulling the creepy girl with bangs straight out of The Ring and tossing her into a fast-paced tactical shooter where your hero can slow down time… and kill ghosts with a hail of 9mm submachine gun fire. For all the jump-scares, the metallic shrieks, the piles of mutilated corpses, FEAR could not sustain its horror tension. You could, after all, just shoot the monsters.
To judge from the early version of Betrayer, that problem may have persisted. It’s not quite as severe, mainly because a muzzle-loading musket is no assault rifle, but it’s an issue. The atmosphere is terrifically tense, but too often, Betrayer just gives up on the stealth and stalking and lets your circle-strafe your way past the next unholy terror.
Then there’s the economy. Namely, there is one. Every time you go back to town, there is a little kiosk with a note from some dude, apparently not dead, who says he’ll be restocking the inventory but you’re on the honor system to pay for any goods you take. Need a quality musket? Leave the coins you take off the dead Spaniards in a little box next to the sign, and then take that gun home with you. I’m not even sure it’s an effective way of managing resources (a scavenger economy would seem much more thematic and would tie into the way players handle encounters), but that pales next to the fact that there is a guy doing business in an abandoned village that’s overrun with possessed Spanish soldiers. This is so, so much weirder than the ghost-killing musket balls and chatty spirits. It’s yet another thing in Betrayer that invites a helpless shrug — “videogames” — before you get on with the show.
None of these really broke my enjoyment, though I did find the demon spirits about as dull and unthreatening as they were in the original FEAR. I was disappointed to reach the end of the Early Access, and enjoyed puzzling out how to unlock the next location and putting together the pieces of the overall story. But Betrayer has such a great, spooky atmosphere that its the contrived and unimaginative elements, like the item shop, really stand out. They detract from the alien, unsettling menace that surrounds you, and make it harder to buy back in to the conceit.
My time with Betrayer left me excited to play more, but also nervous about waits beyond the first area. On the one hand, Betrayer has all the hallmarks of an effective survival horror game, with loads of style complementing a great setting and primitive weaponry that kept me feeling weak and vulnerable.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s not really a survival game at all. Sometimes it’s a game where spooky ghosts race at you with outstretched hands before being shot right in the floating skull with an arrow. Sometimes its’ a game where you run circles around magic Spaniards while somehow loading a musket at a dead run before shooting them dead. Then you loot their corpses and sell the goods at America’s first gun fair.
One of those games I want to keep playing. The other seems like the wrong kind of history repeating itself.