A skeleton walking against a red background in a promotional image for Betrayer.
Blackpowder Games

It’s safe to say that Monolith Productions, as a game studio, is one of radical extremes. With critical successes like Condemned, F.E.A.R., and Blood contrasting against duds like Shogo: Mobile Armor DivisionContract J.A.C.K., and. . . well, Blood II: The Chosen, there’s nary a game that ever veers from either extreme in their modest game library. We’re referring to Monolith prior to the release of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, of course, as that seemed to mark a definitive shift in their overall output.

But it’s important to remember that a studio is just that: a studio, an amalgamation of many different talents and skill sets that each work together to make something special. As different talents drift in and out of every project, it’s admittedly difficult to remember who was exactly responsible for what when it comes to a game’s biggest strengths, especially at Monolith. What happens, then, when established talents from an already prominent studio split off to form their own studio, make one game, fall off the face of the Earth, and have said game delisted before mysteriously reappearing completely for free on a completely separate platform?

Well, you get Betrayer, an unconventional first-person horror game with an even more unconventional history that originally hit Steam’s Early Access program in 2013. Let’s talk about why.

The First and Only Game by Blackpowder Games

Betrayer, at its core, is an incredible deviation from Monolith’s output in general. The game was developed by a studio comprised of former Monolith staffers, including those who worked on titles like F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever. Together, they formed Blackpowder Games, which aimed to innovate with “first-person action experiences that are distinctive, compelling, and memorable regardless of scope or platform,” according to Betrayer’s page on GoG. We’ll get to that. For now, let’s just talk about the game itself.

A hub-based non-linear horror-themed period piece set in Virginia circa 1604, you play as a nameless protagonist who washes up on the shore, left to their own devices to survive. As they venture inland, a mysterious woman in a red cloak delivers an ominous warning via a bow and arrow before vanishing into the brush. With Fort Henry coming into view out from the gnarled branches, you begin to hear footsteps. The shining armor of Spanish Conquistadors and the burning bodies of Native Americans have seemingly warped and twisted into something less human and more animalistic. The souls of the dead are restless, and their wandering spirits follow the call of a chiming bell. Clues, writings, and graves abound, and if you’re ever to leave this hellish place, you’ll have to stitch all these bizarre phenomena together into something that makes sense.

Instead of following a linear progression of scares and signposted directions, Betrayer opts for something a bit more unique. The game is split across several large, open areas, with each one mostly fixating itself around a central landmark. Fort Henry, Fort Saint George, and Fort Hope are a handful of examples. Around these landmarks are stretches of nature, broken up by wandering groups of enemies, scattered treasure, and a plethora of artifacts and historical remnants that clue you in on what might’ve really happened here.

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What makes Betrayer stand out, however, is the bell. Upon ringing a specific bell in each hub, the daylight turns to complete darkness with only a single flash of lightning and a chaotic explosion of thunder. Suddenly, the sparse grass is now full of wandering spirits, ravenous skeletons have replaced the living and breathing flesh you’d typically find in the greenery, and a general sense of unease and regret fills the air. The clues and other items you gather during the daytime are linked to these spirits, and upon talking to them, assembling the correct series of clues, and stitching interconnected events together, what you’ll find is a series of stories — stories full of regret, full of sadness, of rage and wrath and powerful emotions tied to the mysterious land you’re currently exploring.

On top of the mystery and intrigue that surrounds its plot and nebulous progression system, the first time you ever transition from day to night in Betrayer is downright terrifying. Immediately, the atmosphere shifts. What was once just a strange adventure with ominous clues is now something much more unsettling and solemn, which only becomes more depressing as you venture further inland.

The other big thing that makes Betrayer stand out — albeit in a way that loses its efficacy over time — is its reliance on sound. Whether you’re listening for the shrill sounds of spirits in the distance, or the distinct animal grunts that accompany the presence of enemies, you’re going to be relying on your ears as much as your eyes. Even the piercing wind, whenever it blows by, allows you to muffle your footsteps when approaching potential foes. Though it won’t be as useful once you acclimate to the game’s surroundings — along with other flaws we’ll get to — Betrayer‘s sound design is still something worth mentioning for how often it’ll come into play.

Combat Is Rough (In a Good Way)

With the land being soaked in blood and misery alike, it’s natural that the few locals you’ll encounter aren’t necessarily welcoming to your presence. You’ll have to arm yourself with whatever period-appropriate weaponry you can find in order to survive. In another break from what you’d typically expect, these vintage munitions live up to their namesakes, faults, and all.

High-powered machine guns? Shotguns? Swords or axes? No, you’re stuck with the basics here: bows, crossbows, slow-reloading flintlock weapons, throwing axes, crude explosives, and a single knife. You can also collect items that provide passive buffs to your stats, a canteen that can be refilled with water to restore your health, and gold, which can be exchanged at stores for ammunition and other essentials.

Despite the primitive weaponry, Betrayer puts in an honest effort to not only make these weapons functional, but to do so in a way that works in tandem with both the horror and uncertainty of the world around you. Let’s break some of them down:

  • The knife is your absolute last resort, as it should be, forcing you to get up close and personal for what amounts to a last-ditch swing. Most enemies can kill you fairly quickly, especially those with black powder weapons, so closing the distance is always a risky proposition.
  • Your bows are fast and silent and are typically the most effective weapon in dealing with smaller threats. That is when your arrows aren’t bouncing off of enemy armor. Crossbows fill a familiar niche but have their own unique drawbacks as a consequence.
  • Black powder flintlock pistols and rifles are incredibly powerful but take an eon to reload and only come with one shot per reload. If you miss, you’re a sitting duck. Ammo is also comparatively sparse for these weapons early on, with arrows being retrievable should you miss.
  • Throwing axes are highly effective and can be retrieved after their use, but they have a short range and follow a harsh throwing arc. Explosives are also excellent at dispatching foes but are incredibly rare to find and even more difficult to purchase.

How does it feel to fight things with these modest tools? Well, it feels good. Similar to another game we’ve covered, Blood West, the limited firepower you have here is treated more like a strength than it is a weakness. It leans into the kind of slow and deliberate actions needed to make these weapons useful by only ever throwing a handful of enemies at you at a time, with each individual foe being much more dangerous as a result.

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Take a typical battle against the Conquistadors: they’ll keep their distance at first, one might rush you for a melee attack, whereas the others will hang back and pepper you with long range attacks. Any Conquistador with a rifle is something to deliberately avoid, as so much as a single shot will plug away upwards of a third of your health. Meanwhile, you’re playing footsies while dodging arrows, all while plinking away at your closest attacker with what few weapons you have. It gets pretty hectic at points, especially if you’re not equipped for the situation.

Betrayer Is Black and White — Literally

Betrayer also stands out with an intriguing choice in its presentation. In its default state, the game is presented entirely in black, white, and red.

It’s a deliberate decision. Daytime is comprised of shining white, and nighttime is soaked in dark blacks, with daytime enemies and the mysterious woman in red breaking these binary colors to highlight their importance. Even some enemies at night will glow red, though they’ll often be comprised of just a single white color — they’re skeletons, after all — which deeply contrasts against the all-encompassing darkness. Of course, you’re free to adjust the color grading as you’d like, giving the daylight sections the verdant greens they deserve.

This binary color set feeds into how Betrayer handles its progression: find spirits, figure out what happened to them, go to the next hub area, and repeat. Each and every spirit has done something in their past life to commit them to the world between here and the afterlife, and it’s up to you to figure out what exactly put them in this situation via discovering clues and notes, stitching them together into a coherent narrative, and bringing the truth to life. Later on, you’ll be able to either set these spirits free or condemn them for their actions on a case-by-case basis. From there, you’ll be granted a reward, which can then be given to the woman in red for one of several reasons. Pick the right ones, and you may even get a surprise.

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And. . . that’s it. Once you complete the first few areas, you’ve seen just about everything Betrayer has to offer. It’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s just that there are seven of these areas, about a dozen enemy types to fight in total, and a whole lot of walking back and forth across black-and-white plains in between.

You’ll quickly come to realize that the most efficient way to play when entering a new area is to just find the nearest shop and resupply, scour the entire map during the daytime to find all clues and graves, and then ring the bell. By then, you’ll have amassed everything that needs to be acquired to solve each spirit’s predicament, and it becomes a matter of running back and forth between everyone to run through the necessary dialog to progress. There’s certainly an appeal to that, to an extent, but you can’t help but wonder if this concept worked better on paper than it did in execution. The game doesn’t even really throw a wrench into this progression system until you reach the very end, with the woman in red playing a key role in the final mystery to solve. We won’t spoil anything specific, but again, it involves a lot of running back and forth.

What Happened to Blackpowder Games?

Betrayer wasn’t amazing, all things considered, but not all debuts from burgeoning studios are. It brought enough unique ideas to the table to warrant a full playthrough, and while it may not have justified its length with those ideas, it’s definitely something that’s worth at least partially experiencing in one form or another. It would be a promising sign of what else Blackpowder Games could bring to the table.

Except Blackpowder Games seemingly doesn’t exist anymore.

Admittedly, finding out what happened to Blackpowder Games is incredibly difficult. The company had only a minor presence online, very little presence outside of content related to Betrayer, and even their own website only exists via the Wayback Machine. The current Blackpowder Games website is currently listed as a security risk.

The only potential information we can glean is that, at some point or another, a man by the name of John Ruth came to own the Blackpowder Games website via an official announcement released in August 2022 after being officially delisted from Steam a little less than a year prior. Per the announcement, Blackpowder had seemingly shifted all priorities from game development to, inexplicably, blogging, as it emphasizes their capability to “share our expertise in this industry” and inform others on “how to launch, market, and develop a successful game.” Neither thing seemingly came to pass.

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Across a plethora of discussion forums across the game’s page on Steam and GoG, a handful of theories have been provided: it could’ve been that the studio was just a temporary side project to keep busy until something bigger came along; it could’ve been that the studio simply didn’t find enough success to justify existing; it could’ve also been that, at the end of the day, the studio still exists in an incredibly disconnected state, ready to revitalize itself whenever the time comes. Whatever the case may be, Blackpowder Games vanished just as quickly as it arrived, with not so much as a celebratory goodbye.

It’s rare to see a studio just drop off the face of the Earth like this, let alone one comprised of some pretty fantastic legacy talent. Then again, a lot can change in only ten years. Whereas indie studios now are competing with just about everything in terms of attention-grabbing content, demanding a prominent presence on social media as a necessity, the same environment just didn’t exist ten years ago. It’s a shame that we may never really find out what happened, but at the very least, their first (and only) game is still available to play via official means.

Betrayer is currently free to own on GoG.

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