Traitor presents itself initially as simply a better looking version of the top-down vertical space shooters we’ve all played a hundred times. But very quickly it reveals itself to be something deeper and more expansive than the average arcade shooter. Designer Jonas Kyratzes has improved on the formula in a number of ways, adding different mission types, a solid upgrade system and AI companions. But where this game really shines is in the narrative. Kyratzes has crafted an involving story of rebellion and uprising and set it in a world that is both alien and familiar. If Traitor really had been “merely” a vertical space shooter, it would have been a damned good one, but what Kyratzes has done with the genre here makes this a far better game than I could have imagined.
When the game starts, you are a hopeful recruit, trying to prove yourself as a pilot for the Augustan Hegemony, a powerful empire in the vein of Star Wars or Firefly. Once you’re in, you are told that some pirates are threatening areas of the Aventinus Complex (the little corner of the Universe where the game takes place), and you are sent on a mission to stop them. While out there, your commanders order you to do something that seems morally reprehensible. Whether you do or not affects some parts of the game, but one way or the other you find yourself a deserter from the empire, exploring the surrounding systems.
Once in exile, you begin to learn how the empire’s actions have been affecting people on the outside. Death and famine are everywhere. Whether through neglect or purposeful aggression, the Hegemony is choking the life from the people. At first, to make some money, you take a couple of jobs clearing out abandoned Hegemony minefields that are causing casualties, or simply using a scanner to survey mining areas that will help an economically depressed people get back on their feet. But as your reputation as someone who helps people the empire has abandoned grows, you are pulled more and more towards the resistance, the People’s Council, and you begin down the road of becoming a freedom fighter, hoping to save the people from oppressive rule.
It is a simple story, but it’s told with sincerity and conviction, and it works. There are tons of little touches that make it come to life as well. There are different deities worshiped in the various systems, and seeing little glimpses of these civilizations is interesting. The dialog is well done, too. It’s fun to watch as everyone wants you to help them, but no one wants to come right out and say it, since talking too openly about rebellion is a sure way to get a lot of people killed. This was a really solid, impressive narrative that kept me engaged from beginning to end.
As I said before, even the standard scrolling shooting was done really well. Traitor is not a “bullet hell” game, that peculiar arcade genre that requires superhuman reflexes to dodge the millions of projectiles on screen. Rather, the pace is slowed down and the difficulty tweaked so that normal humans can play the game without much trouble. It’s still challenging in spots, but you pick it up quickly, and eventually your upgrades make things a breeze. You have to shoot enemies and asteroids, but much of your time is spent avoiding these things, and just trying to make it to the end of the level intact. With credits you earn from missions, you can buy all kinds of upgrades for your ship, from extra health and armor to faster and more powerful weapons. It’s standard stuff, but that oh-so-important feeling of progression and becoming more powerful is really strong in this game.
The game is really large and expansive for a browser title (over an hour, dozens of missions), so I will surely miss important points (I’ve already forgotten to mention the beautiful wire-frame visuals and the AI helpers), but the bottom line is this: Traitor is superb. It’s touching, engaging and remarkably cohesive. Even if you’re not a fan of vertical shooters (I wasn’t), I fully recommend giving it a play and letting it win you over. You can play it for free in your browser here, and visit the developer’s site here.