Byzantine: The Betrayal

Posted by Zack Howe.
First posted on 23 February 2006. Last updated on 09 August 2009.
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Byzantine: The Betrayal
Still photos of real locales in Istanbul create an authentic feel to the game.
Byzantine: The Betrayal
Scenic looks of the exotic Istanbul are prominently featured in the game.
Byzantine: The Betrayal
The acting by Turkish actors is surprisingly good in the live-action videos.
Byzantine: The Betrayal
Beautiful 3D models are used to recreate exotic locations for exploration.
Byzantine: The Betrayal
The game features many authentic Turkish art and cultural artifacts.

Have you ever wanted to visit an exotic city like Istanbul but do have enough money to make the trip? What if you can visit such a city just by sitting in front of your computer, do you want to do it? If you answer yes to both of these questions, then you are in luck with the adventure game adeptly titled Byzantine: The Betrayal. This is because the game gives you an opportunity to see the city of post-Byzantine Istanbul as if you are there in person, and believe me, you are going to enjoy that trip.

In Byzantine: The Betrayal, you are a freelance American journalist. You receive an e-mail from your old college friend Emre Bahis, who has invited you to come to Istanbul for which he promises to be a story that any investigative journalist can only dream of. Emre has found out about an international antiquity smuggling ring in Istanbul and he needs your help to break it up. Seeing this as a chance of a lifetime opportunity, you immediately pack your bags and head to the ancient Turkish city. Unfortunately, when you get to Emre's apartment in Istanbul, you learn that Emre has gone missing and the Turkish police, led by detective Murat Akalin, is now searching for his whereabouts. After meeting Murat, you begin your search to find your missing friend. However, your pursuit ends when you find his dead body at the Basilica Cistern. To make matters worse, Murat believes you have killed Emre and considers you to be the prime suspect in the case. In order to prove your innocence, you must find the murderer who has killed Emre. Your investigation soon leads you to the Istanbul University, where you meet a woman named Sharife Gelecek. You also come across Nuray Uchan, a friend of Emre who is now willing to help you. You learn that Emre has been working with a device called KLIO, a conceptual computer database that lets you explore places and times of the past in a Virtual Reality simulation. More importantly, you learn that the smugglers are using this technology to steal priceless historical artifacts that have long been forgotten by the Turkish people. With the help of Sharife and Nuray, you must expose and stop the smugglers before Murat arrests you for murder.

Byzantine: The Betrayal is the first game in the Planet Explorer series that is developed by the television media Discovery Channel in the US. It is an adventure game that plays in a first person perspective. The game uses a combination of photorealistic still pictures and live-action videos to fully immerse you in the intricate world and culture of ancient Istanbul. Stunning 16-bit 3D models are created and used as backdrops for many of the game environment. Over 45 minutes of videos have been shot on location in Turkey to make up the live-action sequences and authentic ambient sounds are recorded for added authenticity of the rendered scenes. Together, these elements make for an amazingly immersing experience, such that when you visit different locales throughout the game you truly feel that you are seeing Istanbul in person. There are many historic sites you get to visit in the game, including Aya Sofya, Suleymaniye Mosque, and the Archaeological Museum. My favorite is the Archaeological Museum because it contains a fair amount of historical information about Istanbul. The game features a big cast of Turkish actors in the live-action videos. Most notables are Bulent Aksoy who plays Emre, Ali Gul who plays Murat, Ayca Bingol who plays Sharife, and Bennu Yildirimlar who plays Nuray. Historically, games with Full Motion Videos have been rebuked for featuring untalented actors spurting out poor dialogs and giving off uninspiring performances that only detract from the gameplay. I am glad to see that this game has definitely not continued this trend. With just a few exceptions, the acting in the game is surprisingly good. The majority of the Turkish actors speak very clear English. The game even includes optional captions for the hearing impaired. Except for some minor technical issues, the game is relatively bug free.

Most gamers agree that gameplay is the most important part of an adventure game. I am pleased to say that the gameplay in Byzantine: The Betrayal is indeed excellent. The game plays out like a mystery adventure. Even though you take on the role of a nameless and faceless character, you act very much like a detective in this game. You get clues by interrogating other game characters to gain access to different locations within the game. The character I like best is the curator of the Archaeological Museum since she is most helpful with my investigation. This game has a large educational component. There are various bits of historical information at the tourist sites to which you can listen while conducting your investigation. The 2 narrators who are your guides give out a lot of intriguing facts about Istanbul's old history. If you are someone who has always wanted to know about Istanbul, then I strongly recommend that you listen attentively to all the audios that you can find at each tourist site. There are also books that you can read at these sites to learn more about the old city.

Despite the character interaction and the educational interlude are both entertaining, the real star of the gameplay in Byzantine: The Betrayal is the Virtual Reality simulations through KLIO. In these simulations, you can visit historic sites in what they may have been appeared a long time ago. Within KLIO, you can explore your surroundings, listen to the people who are used to live there in the past, solve puzzles related to those time periods, and find the ancient artifacts that are being stolen by the smugglers in the present. Both the atmosphere and the music in these places are very eerie. The key device that helps you to navigate through the Virtual Reality simulations is HOMER. HOMER is a handheld machine that scans statues from Istanbul's history and automatically puts them into the simulations, so in a way these pictures of the statues become your inventory objects. A large part of the game is therefore locating these statues which HOMER can scan into the simulations, since you are not going to get very far into your investigation otherwise. I love the Virtual Reality simulations, and I really wish that there more simulations to be explored.

The game interface used in Byzantine: The Betrayal is very user-friendly. The interface allows look you to look around left and right in 360° and even up and down. It includes a handful of cursors, all of which are very easy to use, that help to guide you within both the real world environments and the Virtual Reality simulations. For example, the cursors include an eye cursor for eavesdropping on conversations, a hand cursor for manipulating objects, another hand cursor for taking inventory items, and a mouth cursor for talking to suspects. The simplicity of the interface is an element that many gamers can definitely appreciate.

All of the puzzles, both in the real world and in the Virtual Reality simulations, are well integrated into the plotline. All the puzzles make good sense after I have solved them. Some of the puzzles are quite challenging. The hardest puzzle for me is the puzzle where I have to put the astrological stones onto an altar in a certain but exact order starting from left to right. This puzzle appears in the Ephesus simulation and almost has made me given up on this game. When I have finally solved it, I feel greatly satisfied.

Every adventure gamer yearns for a satisfying ending in an adventure game and feels very disappointed of it otherwise. Byzantine: The Betrayal succeeds in this final task admirably. The ending movie sequence is among the most satisfying movie sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. I do not want to spoil it for you. Needless to say, you get to discover who the villain is, exposure the criminal to the police just before your arrest, and watch the capture of the murderer who has killed Emre. I admit that it is a short movie sequence, but I feel a real closure after watching it.

There are simply too many good elements in Byzantine: The Betrayal to be mentioned justly. The first and foremost element is the enormously enjoyable gameplay. The game offers a satisfying experience of playing a detective, conducting an investigation, interrogating the suspects, and getting valuable clues to further the case. It makes me feel that I am a seasoned private investigator. The puzzles are entertaining to solve, and it is a joy to see how smoothly they are integrated into the plot. The game is modestly lengthy and easily averages over a week's worth of gameplay time. The second element is the Virtual Reality simulation. This is a very innovative idea on the part of the game designers to let the player explore Istanbul's history in this manner, since it gives the designers unlimited freedom and imagination. The third element is the user-friendly interface. It is very easy to master and suit well to navigate through this game. The fourth element is its strong production. The acting is surprising good though not great. At the least, I have able been to understand everything all the Turkish Actors have said. The still scenes are totally photorealistic and quite beautiful to look at, if only a little blurry or fuzzy. The ending sequence is fun to watch and concludes the story appropriately.

There are a few technical problems in Byzantine: The Betrayal. The first problem is the poor playback of the live-action video sequences. At times, there is a slight pause during playback that forces the audio to repeat itself endlessly while the video is being played. This really annoys me and pulls me right out of the immersing experience the game otherwise provides. The playback of these live-action videos needs to be much smoother. The second problem is the recurring game crash that occurs while I am trying to solve the main puzzle in the Ephesus simulation. Eventually, I am able to get to finish the puzzle only by repeatedly saving and reloading the game. The third problem is the uneven acting. A few actors are really awful, such as the trinket merchant at the Book Bazaar and the store manager at the Arasta. Fortunately, there are only minor characters and can be easily ignored. The fourth problem is the lack of a full-blown music soundtrack. The music is mostly confined to the Virtual Reality simulations and it is just not enough in the real world locations whereby a small tune may come on but then fades quickly to nothing. Thegame can greatly benefit from a much stronger soundtrack. However, these minor problems are all easily forgivable and none of them overshadows the truly enjoyable gameplay that this title has delivered.

I have never been to Istanbul myself. After playing this game, I feel as if I have visited this fascinating city in person. Byzantine: The Betrayal is among the most enjoyable Full Motion Video adventure games that I have ever played. The few technical glitches can be easily forgiven and do not detract from the immersing experience that this game provides. Sadly, it is unlikely that that a sequel to this title or a second game in the Planet Explorer series is ever going to be made. So, if you are a fan of both mystery and history, then I suggest that you give Byzantine: The Betrayal a try. After all, it may be your only chance to explore the mysterious and beautiful city of Istanbul.

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