Atmosphere has to be one of the most important and elusive elements of game design. It derives from all other elements, from the art direction to the controls to the writing to the very underlying systems themselves. It wouldn’t be much of a horror game without a sense of desperation brought on by limitations on your resources or capabilities, right? Betrayer is an early example of creating a unique atmosphere and absolutely nailing its execution to great effect, and it’s a shame that it’s been lost to those that didn’t pick up this obscure gem. I can’t say it would necessarily hold your attention the whole way through, however, but the dread of walking across a perfectly well-lit field as the breeze wafts around you is something you won’t find in many other games.
You awaken on a beach of the New World, centuries before cable news and cryptocurrency brought ruin to America. There’s been a shipwreck, and the path inland leads you to a deserted fort built by the settlers. The only others keeping you company are an enigmatic hooded huntress, a merchant who leaves his wares on the honor system, and some bizarrely monstrous conquistador types. You’ll soon find that something supernatural is afoot, with mysteries surrounding the specters haunting the decaying homes and guard posts. Clues and notes are scattered across the wilderness, and with a little legwork (and marksmanship), you might be able to piece together what’s going on here.
Betrayer is conceived as an open-world adventure with strong horror themes, both in the story and the presentation. The monochromatic graphics are unmistakable, and while they do lend an important starkness to the game, color and brightness are options that can be tweaked if the original look is too hard on the eyes. There’s minimal UI and extraneous sound, leaving just you and your scavenged weapons to explore fields and forests for grim leads while bestial creatures hunt for you. The fates of the settlers are universally tragic, and it’s all you can do to lay their spirits to rest as you press further on with the overarching mystery.
It’s a dark and oppressive game in tone, which is a fine contrast to the wide open nature of the areas. Each area is significant in scope, with plenty of notes, items, and chests to find as you explore. In the original release of the game, you had to wander far and wide and use sound cues to locate points of interest, but at some point after launch the developers patched optional markers in for everything on your map. This is a welcome addition to be sure, but also reveals the game for what it is, a collectathon. Once you’ve gotten your bearings in Betrayer, areas will play out very similarly, as you hoover up all the items and then run back and forth between wraiths to wrap up their stories before moving on to the next region. You can extend this experience by turning off map markers and searching the wilds, but all that’s really going to do is send you over more featureless hills and into additional battles.
Combat is a major feature here, and while I respect the concessions made for historical authenticity and the atmosphere of survival horror, they’re still concessions. This being the colonial era, your weapons are bows and flintlock guns. Firearms are solid high-damage options, but only good for one shot before the onerous process of loading and priming another musket ball. Bows certainly fire faster, but have travel time and arcs to your shots, and tend to glance harmlessly off the armor of your foes. On top of this, enemies move quickly and erratically when not attacking, so combat often devolves into you and your target staring across a field at each other as you both take careful aim. This ponderous, deliberate combat works in the early game, but later areas have enemy patrols and scripted events that can dump a dozen or more enemies at you at once, which the limited stealth system of sneaking through high grass and against the sound of the wind is not prepared to aid with.
As interesting and engrossing as the atmosphere in Betrayer is, ultimately it does give way to repetitive gameplay and tedious combat. Each new area will offer some compelling mysteries and occasionally new foes, but also increases the density of enemies you’ll need to slowly work through on your nature hikes. Coupled with how hard this game can be to get started with, due to the slow pace of…everything, it means your efforts may not be so well-rewarded even once you get up to speed. The experience, however, is one that I’ll not soon forget, and it does make me wish the developers went on to refine these ideas and aesthetics further. Even if that’s never destined to happen, I’m glad I have this one in my library so I can revisit its unique offerings.