Review for Belief & Betrayal
Let's get one thing clear right from the start: based solely on its own merits, Belief & Betrayal is a poor game. The bigger problem is that the latest adventure from Artematica owes so much to other influences, and yet suffers enormously from the very comparisons it inspires. It’s a fairly transparent attempt to crib from better tales of religious conspiracy; The Da Vinci Code and Broken Sword being the most obvious. Secret sects, ritual murders, conspiracies, ancient mechanisms, and of course the Knights Templar all make guest appearances. Unfortunately, the game plays out like the developers knew just enough about Dan Brown's bestseller and Revolution's classic series to understand their popular appeal, but not enough about how to emulate either successfully.
Our protagonist in this story is Jonathan Danter, a character meant to be so good they named the game after him, at least according to its in-game moniker “Jonathan Danter – Belief & Betrayal”. Unfortunately, Danter is about as lovable as a parking meter. I think he’s meant to be a kind of wise-cracking ladies man, but he simply grates right from the start, with his whiny voice and idiotic, poorly translated expressions frustrating the player, if not the other characters. To illustrate, you will hear the nonsense line “Sorry, I forgot my Swiss pocket knife at home” dozens of times, as it’s one of a tiny handful of stock responses he has for failed inventory combinations, delivered in a nasal drawl that only half-conveys sarcasm. And, unlike every other line of dialogue in the game, the “wrong combination” responses are, for some reason, unskippable.
Danter's story begins when he's informed his uncle has recently been murdered, which is a double shock as Jonathan thought he had died years previously. Instead, he was actually working undercover for the Vatican Secret Service, and so Danter is whisked away from his day job as a journalist to London to help the police with investigations. The opening is wall-to-wall exposition, the characters delivering terrible lines with poor voicework, especially the stilted phone conversation, which piles on the cringe-worthy plot details (“I’ll do this important interview with creepy cardinal Gregorio, and I’ll come back with a great story and the right pictures showing all his activities, whether they’re secret or not!!”) and squirmy character details (“And while you’re in Miami try not wasting time looking at girls in miniskirts and sexy tops!”)
Of course, we expect a rather heightened approach to reality with a conspiracy tale, but Belief & Betrayal stands out by being remarkably uneconomical; never have so many words been employed yet leave so many things unexplained or simply nonsensical. Whilst less annoying characters are later introduced, and the plot pacing slowed from its breakneck beginnings, it’s not enough to save the writing from being sub-Enid Blyton, with characters far too readily accepting every ludicrous set-up, and often doing really stupid, unconvincing things. Danter seems less like a hardened journalist than a little boy doing what he’s told with minimal questions asked. Right from the start, he accepts his summons to London without suspicion, absurdly concluding that the policeman can’t be an impostor because only a professional actor could sound so convincing.
Once in London, Danter finds himself in the center of an age-old conspiracy. It seems his uncle was murdered by powerful renegades within the Church, intent on finding a relic that will help unlock meaning of life, transcribed by Jesus as an act of love after Judas betrayed him. Naturally, Danter takes up his uncle’s mantle, helped by his new friends Kat and Damien, a female librarian and a computer geek, part of the Vatican network that knew his uncle. Between the three of them, time is spent in a variety of European locations, including Venice, Rome, and France, but you’ll still find yourself confined to a few small areas with a lot of re-tracing old ground. Damien and Kat are both playable characters and are far less grating than Jonathan. Damien is the most pleasant character of the three, but unfortunately you spend mere minutes controlling him. In fact, the multiple-player character idea is never really exploited, as the game keeps them separated and their different abilities under-utilized. You can switch between the characters, but there is no strategic point to this, although it does let you solve their sub-sections in the order you prefer.
Despite having three different characters to control, you'll spend a fair amount of time controlling none of them as you watch the frequent cutscenes in Belief & Betrayal. Dialogue trees are used for interacting with other characters, but only a few topics are ever presented, so the conversations feel largely non-interactive. This could be fine in a game with a better plot, but listening to these oddly voiced, barely lip-synched characters pour out still more exposition quickly starts to feel more like a punishment than a reward. This isn't helped by the poor translation from Italian – since when did “Cat’s whiskers!” become a common expression of dismay? – but I’m pretty sure the clumsy plot presentantion would have buried itself anyway. There is a nice post-ending twist; but by then it's too late and not nearly enough to save the story.
But the real low point of Belief & Betrayal is the “game” bit. At some point in development, I am convinced that a list of common adventure game pitfalls to avoid somehow this became confused with the design document. Firstly, Belief & Betrayal could be accurately re-titled "Pixel Hunt: The Game." A good chunk of the puzzles, such as they exist, consist of finding hotspots located on almost black areas of the screen. At least there is a key to highlight hotspots, but that only makes you wonder why they seemed so determined to hide everything in the first place. When you aren’t looking for obscured objects, there are hotspots that you can further examine in close-up screens, yet they often require examining twice successively without any indication there's reason to do so, or are only allowed after other actions have been completed, employing the kind of tortuous game logic that only serves to lengthen the experience. Meanwhile, goals are often left unclear, even with an in-game diary which tracks your next task. At one point, the player character literally instructs you to hang around in an airport, which is your only "clue" that some exploring is in order, completely unrelated to the events at hand.
Yet when the game isn’t being obscure, it’s insultingly easy. All the “ancient mechanism” puzzles involve placing something in a hole or entering a simple combination. Puzzles which require inventory combinations are often daft, which doesn’t fit the “sinister” tone of the game. In one example, Danter decides to smash a nearby streetlight to avoid drawing attention to himself. There are some marginally more interesting puzzles, but they're overused. Remember distracting people in Broken Sword so you could get somewhere or pinch something? Well, it happens here, on numerous occasions, with everyone from policemen to cleaning ladies to building restorers. In one instance, you need to move an object to create a distraction from another object hidden behind it. You do not know anything about the second item until you move the first, of course, so clicking on everything soon becomes the strategy of choice. One potentially interesting aspect of the game is the notebook to which “thoughts” are added at predetermined points. These can be combined with other hotspots just like inventory items, but once again the addition feels underwhelming, with very little thought of your own required. Belief & Betrayal ends up being a chore to play, despite its brief length of 6-8 rather drawn-out hours.
You might think the interface would be a redeeming feature, but even the point-and-click controls are equally dreadful. Despite being tried and true, the developers still made the game feel stunningly clunky, with a response “lag” each time you click on something, and stilted character movement. Mercifully, right-clicking will allow you to instantly travel between locations; something you’ll want to do a lot. The thought system is sloppily handled as well, as combinations can often be performed only in a particular order. It's also a nuisance when sending e-mails between the different playable characters. You'll do this a lot, which is actually a nice device, since the three don’t otherwise interact much. However, to send a message you need to combine a thought in your notebook with your PDA device. All well and good, but there are two icons (one in the inventory, and one at the top left of the screen) representing the PDA, and only the inventory one works.
It doesn’t help that the game is buggy, as it seems to run slowly despite the low system specs and often simply hangs on the frequent video cutscenes. This is a shame, as the cinematics are one the few aspects which can otherwise be praised without qualification, and they’re generously distributed throughout and well made. There’s also a pleasant film-style musical score, again very much in the Broken Sword mould, with sweeping strings and orchestral sounds mixing with atmospheric aspects. Unfortunately, it swiftly becomes so repetitive I actually turned the sound off. Visually, the pre-rendered backgrounds are often pretty good, deliberately sidestepping a photorealistic look in favour of a detailed, semi-realistic style with a slight painterly look. We’ve seen this idea done better in other games, but nevertheless the artwork is one of Belief & Betrayal's stronger elements.
It's such a shame that the technically proficient work evident here is so overwhelmed by the negatives. The game has its moments and a few interesting ideas, but the experience as a whole is so irritating, with its constantly grating voices, bad writing and dull gameplay, that you barely register the positive. Even if you really, really like historical mystery stories, it's a stretch to consider this worth your thirty pieces of silver.