lords of thunder

Traitor Gives Meaning to Shootin’ ‘Em Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The second mission brief in Traitor says “You [the protagonist] don’t really care about the absurd complexities of politics.” With this phrase, developer Jonas Kyratzes sums up the appeal behind most, if not all, great shoot ’em ups — the cathartic simplicity of shooting away without responsibility or consequence, particularly when ammo is limitless (an ammo problem, typical in more “realistic” shooters, stalls catharsis). Kyratzes’ phrase can also apply to how game criticism operates: the innovation of Traitor, released two years ago, has largely been met with critical silence.

Traitor challenges the shoot ’em up tradition without completely overturning it. Through well-written text that I wish was the standard in video game scripts, the game weaves a conflict of interests between the protagonist and the standard shoot ’em up decree. The moral conflict either compels you to stop pressing the fire button or comments on the precious life that you choose to extinguish. This moment of the game is stunning in its originality. The hesitation it can inspire is unlike anything one normally experiences in the excitement of shoot ’em ups.

After this conflict, Traitor returns to the “shoot everything” roots of the shoot ’em up, though modernity is present in the upgrade and reputation systems. Traitor feels like a scrolling Space Invaders with RPG elements. The use of “HP” alone suggests the RPG connection; the exploration confirms it. Even the outstanding soundtrack by Chris Davis seems to have more in common with the majesty of 1990s Final Fantasy themes as opposed to the blood-pumping tracks from vertical shooter classics like Soldier Blade.

The shooting is about as simple as it gets, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the upgrading as far as challenge is concerned. After saving up credits, it’s possible to upgrade enough so that the missions are a breeze. Some later missions may catch you off-guard, but the most frustrating parts of the game are sections where enemies or obstacles block your way and your weapon isn’t upgraded enough to destroy them before the scrolling screen essentially kills you. I also wish the bosses were more challenging — even the final boss was a pushover, as it cannot travel the horizontal length of the screen.

Kyratzes’ storytelling overcomes these gameplay limitations for the most part. Each mission is preceded by concise dialogue (some of which is quite witty) from faceless characters who represent downtrodden and alienated peoples. This dialogue builds political purpose (at the risk of oversimplification: Marxists in space). Even buying upgrades can become more about helping others, in clear contrast to the upgrade screens in Fantasy Zone and Lords of Thunder. The story also goes beyond text. While Traitor’s visuals represent an old-school style, they create a distinct and mysterious galaxy. I often wondered about how a particular enemy design came into existence.

If it were a “AAA” release or heavily marketed indie title, Traitor would give big game critics (who fainted over Luftrausers) something to talk about. Traitor is another rebel unrecognized by the gaming empire, but a historical perspective suggests that it is an important shoot ’em up that can be improved. In its flaws and strengths, Traitor points toward the hope of greater games.