Betrayer is pretty unique in terms of gaming experience. In fact, I'm not entirely sure it can even be categorised as a 'game' per se... I shall try to explain.
You begin shipwrecked on a beach in 1604; all you know is that you sailed from England to join a colony in the Americas. You are met with an eerie, black-and-white landscape, devoid of colour and, apparently, life. You make your way up the beach, and from there you must begin to explore your environment in order to work out where you are, and what has happened here. Things are clearly wrong in this unsettling place. Your only ally is a mysterious woman in red who doesn't know her own name. Your enemies vary from Spanish Conquistadors with demonic red eyes to bow-wielding natives who utter unearthly howls as they stalk you through forests and grasslands; you barely see them coming before they are upon you, attacking and darting away before you can return fire. When you find and ring the fort's bell, the world around you shifts; just when you thought the daylight was scary enough, the night-world is ever more terrifying with skeletons and ghosts to be found all around you, shrieking in the darkness.
So, scene set, let's start with the basics. The monochromatic graphics are brave and striking; the rendering is gorgeous and you soon get used to looking at this greyscale world, as items of interest are vividly marked in red. But don't be fooled, this doesn't make anything easy to see coming, as realistic wind effects keep the trees and grasses shifting, fooling the eye into seeing movement where there is none, or covering the stealthy approach of a foe. The wind is both your enemy and your ally; you freeze when it blows, for fear that you've seen or heard something moving, or you can dash through the gusts, knowing the sound and movement of the wind will disguise the noise of your approach.
As if this didn't make things tense enough, sound is extremely important. There is no background music and no vocal acting; all you will hear is the wind, and the sounds around you - some enemies can be detected by the clanking of their armour, distincive howls, or gutteral roars. Early on you gain the ability to listen, using your HUD to follow sounds to be led to clues, locations and lost souls in need of rescue. Ring a bell to enter into the night-world and the sounds are amplified; the dull clanging of the bell, the screaming of wraiths, and having to use your listening ability to pinpoint the next clue... Seriously, play this game at night, alone, with the lights off and no other background noise, and you will discover a whole new level of immersion in this terrifying world. It will probably give you nightmares. And PTSD. Especially if there's a sudden noise in the house while you're immersed... honestly, last night, my cat sneezed while I was creeping up on a heavily-garrisoned fort area, and I had three kinds of heart attack all at once.
One of the hardest concepts to grasp in this game is that for pretty much all of the time you will not have a single clue what you are supposed to be doing - or even if you are supposed to be doing anything. Think about it - most games you play will have clear cut objectives, quests and story lines to follow. Betrayer doesn't give you any of that, and to be honest, why should it? It's realism at its finest - in real life, a stranger doesn't approach you in the street and tell you that the answer to all you seek is in the next town, here's a map, speak to so-and-so and report back to me so I can tell you what to do next... Betrayer expects you to behave as you might if you really did wash up on a beach in 1604. Figure it out for yourself! Take a walk - look around - collect clues - piece it together - find scraps of paper - talk to the friendly folk - kill the ones that try to kill you - trial and error; you'll get there in the end. Hopefully...
...Which is why this game gets mixed reviews, it seems. Betrayer will frustrate you as often as it rewards you, because when you're missing a clue and you don't know where to look, then it's hours of map-trawling to try to work out what you've overlooked. There is no handholding here; once you get used to that and start to work things out for yourself you can really start to enjoy it, but this game probably loses a lot of players early on who don't like that style of play. However, the rewards for perseverance are exceptional; intense, involving play; clever use of stealth and strategy; incredible characters and a deeply shocking storyline that keeps you guessing until the end.
So when I said at the beginning that it can't be characterised as a "game", it is because of the incredible amount of realism involved, despite the supernatural themes. It is a media form in its own right; a cross between a game, a movie and a real-life action adventure where you have to work everything out for yourself. Betrayer will not even ask you the questions, let alone tell you the answers - you will literally have to suss everything out for yourself. The beautiful thing is that you will be vey pleased with yourself when you do!
One of my favourite elements of this game was in not knowing where the true evil was; in the deeds of the settlers you learn about, or in the shadowy realm of ghosts and monsters. The irredeemable acts that people do to each other in their own selfish interests and the ways in which those deeds come back to haunt them are intriguing, horrifying and tragic all in one go.
Betrayer is, essentially, a simple game that can be incredibly difficult at the same time. For example, the combat is apparently straightforward in a point-and-shoot manner, but the nature of the weapons and the environment makes tactics important. Stealth is essential in many cases and reload times for muskets, pistols and crossbows have to be taken into account. You can only carry a realistic amount of ammunition so being able to recover spent arrows from fallen enemies is a nice touch and saves your precious resources. You quickly learn the best weapons to use against each enemy, and there is a grim satisfaction to be had in being able to "stealth kill" an enemy silently from a distance using your trusty longbow (my personal favourite weapon in the game) or by sneaking up and throwing a tomahawk at them.
In fact, it is hard to pick fault with Betrayer. Any frustration at not knowing what to do is negated by the fact that it is simply part of the point of the game; you just have to keep searching until you find something that takes you forwards. If you don't like the greyscale graphics, you can adjust the settings of the game so that it is in full colour; personally, I enjoyed the atmospherics much more without any additional colours. If you don't like the eerie silence of the game, you can ruin it with your own background music or something.
My only real nitpick is that it would have been nice to have some voice acting - if the Lady in Red and other "characters" could talk directly rather than using text boxes, then it would have made the game feel even more realistic. The text boxes were, for me, a jarring interruption to an otherwise flawless experience; even the HUD has been carefully considered to be as unobtrusive as possible, and can be turned off for ultra-realistic feel.
Otherwise, I thoroughly recommend this game. This is definitely one for those with patience and tenancity who are looking for a real challenge. It is not something to be played through quickly or for light relief. If you invest some real time in working through Betrayer and give it - and yourself - a chance, then you will not be disappointed.