After a quick install, I plunged myself into Byzantine: The Betrayal's opening movie. Indeed, most of the game was filmed in full-motion video, on location in Istanbul. The story began with my old college friend, Emre Bahis, imploring me via letter and accented voiceover to hop a plane there from the USA for first dibs on a story of potential Pulitzer proportions. As a rebellious, sarcastic, freelance journalist-type character (which of course bore no resemblance to the real-life, fish-loving, unassuming journalist me), I took the bait. It wasn't fish bait, either.
That first destination of Emre's apartment may have been somewhere no gal had gone before (as evidenced by the discombobulated masculine decor), but plenty of men were familiar with it. They were bilingual Turkish policemen, as it happened. Their head detective began questioning me with a native accent so strong you could cut it with a sword. My cross-shaped mouse cursor had become a lips icon, and at each pause, multiple answers appeared at the bottom of the screen that I could click on in response. None of the conversation paths seemed to help. The detective didn't like the fact that I showed up to meet Emre after all these years just as he was under suspicion for involvement in an international crime ring. He didn't like the fact that my friend had eluded capture yet had managed to communicate freely with me. He didn't like the fact that four previous visas had been cancelled on my rebellious, sarcastic passport. What a nitpicker! He then planted a spy outside Emre's apartment, called off his troops, and left. I shrugged (in an unassuming way, of course) then started nosing around.
My cursor changed to a hand icon as it landed on a photo lying on Emre's desk; I clicked on the Polaroid snapshot of Emre and a mysterious female. The hand icon then looked like it was holding a ball; in response, I picked up the photo. The picture was immediately whisked into the always-visible inventory bar at the bottom of the screen. I dragged the photo to the magnifying glass at the bottom left to examine it more closely. I should have known by the very fact that a gal was in the picture that it wasn't snapped in the apartment, but hey, it never hurt to double check!
I waved the cursor around on screen and clicked, following the forward arrow to move around. A magnifying glass indicated closer inspection of certain items was warranted, the backward arrow pulled me out of closeups, and amidst all of this I began to find veiled clues as to Emre's whereabouts scattered around the place. A triangular shell puzzle gave one hint. A colorful, shape-coded locked box revealed another clue once I decoded it. I decided to save the game, just to test out the "save anywhere" feature. (Call it journalistic paranoia, but I have never trusted the timing of any game's auto save.)
Then it happened. The phone rang. It was Emre! Before I could respond, nay, before I could barely breathe another breath, I was ... dead! I had been killed by UFOs: Unidentified Furious Oppressors. During my second attempt through that area, waving the mouse cursor a tad more hysterically I admit, I noticed several things. First, I noticed that not only could I go forward or back out of closeups, but I could slide the view up toward the ceiling and down toward my cement shoes. Second, I noticed that I could also view the room in 360-degree rotational fashion by moving the cursor to the left or right edge of the screen. Third, I noticed that the one thing I had forgotten to take on my trip to Istanbul was a huge bottle of Dramamine. Whew, that whip-around-the-room interface must have been part of a gaming engine called "Verti-Go." I even tried slowing down my mouse in the Windows 98 control panel, to no avail.
Naturally, as I was dizzily scrambling to dig up even so much as a sharp-looking pen out of Emre's desk, I was bumped off again (so to speak) to the load/save game screen. It was then I noticed that this screen had an automatic note-taking area, which I suddenly felt inclined to peruse. I subsequently added a mental note to self: A built-in hint section was also available if a weapon could not be found ... I needn't have worried, for a journalist scared for her life could eventually puzzle through even the most deadly of problems sans violence, and Emre left more puzzles in his apartment than the entire Toys-R-Us chain sold that whole year.
At any rate, once the final section of the explorable area was exited (in the calm fashion of a mentally stable writer, of course) via a special long arrow, I was deposited to the map screen. New areas like bars, underground catacombs, stores, and churches opened up via the continual triggering of story events, and then they could be clicked on from the map and visited. These new locales were introduced through short cutscenes, then I was left to freely explore them. What was up with the alleged "conspiracy ring" thing with Emre, anyway? I wasn't sure, but apparently neither were the police, who could be found in the most unlikely places!
My trusty eyeball icon would alert me if I could casually sneak up to people and eavesdrop on their conversations. Otherwise, I meandered into merchants' markets, and marveled at marble and mosaic mosques and museums. Many more puzzles (I'm out of "m" words; sorry!) awaited me as well. Some involved playing brain-bending ancient Turkish board games or using high-tech equipment. Others required creative inventory manipulation, mechanical repairs, or even finding a hidden message arranged with domino-like gambling pieces!
There was also much cryptic conversation and enlightening information to be had. Centuries of rich Turkish history and culture were offered via voiceovers and close-ups of gorgeous artwork, graceful statues, poetic stained glass, intricately carved woodwork, and ornate metal accouterments. (Of course, I only listened and absorbed the beauty for the sake of any future questioning from my friend Christine.)
Everybody I met, from museum curators and business owners to Emre's college mates and his own family members, seemed to know or have heard of Emre but yet not know where he had vanished to. Each person also seemed to have something to hide, one way or another! Multigenerational conspiracy and intrigue, futuristic computer equipment, international thefts, professional competitors, greed and double crosses - where would it all end? I was told to seek out "Klio" for help in finding Emre. Could that be the mysterious female in the photo?
Being the inquisitive type, I clicked and dragged certain of my many acquired inventory items onto the locals as I conversed with them. Sometimes I got help, and sometimes I got hell. (Remember that save-anywhere feature? Use it!) I also developed the bad habit of snooping around the hotels, offices and back rooms of Istanbul without formal invitations to do so. Perhaps if Byzantine: The Betrayal had offered a cat as a lead character, I would have had enough lives to make it through this game in one shot, but, alas, no such luck.
Visually, this game offered some computer-rendered virtual locations featuring additional intrigue and interesting puzzles that supported the story woven throughout the filmed locales. These virtual scenes had the same type of cursor movement but did not have the beauty of the filmed parts of the game. They were, however, decent-looking considering Byzantine: The Betrayal's original 1997 release date.
The music was strongly ethnic, reflecting Turkish-sounding stringed and percussion instruments. It added much ambiance to Byzantine and underscored the building tension and busy tempo of life in Istanbul. Sound effects also increased the feeling of reality within the game; bells on shop doors jingled, crowds murmured and swelled, water dripped and echoed in underground caverns, and pots and pans clanged in the restaurants. Voice acting was generally very good, albeit thick with Turkish accents that were sometimes difficult to understand.
Wending my way through both the virtual areas and the lavish filmed portions of the game never proved disorienting, except for a somewhat nasty timed hallway maze at game's end. I did wind up with a couple of unused inventory items, but I hesitated to label them red herrings as I questioned whether I just missed fully completing a scene or two in the game. This may possibly have been because I had half of Istanbul gunning for me by the end, but perhaps your trip through the game will be somewhat different all around. There were multiple conversational options, which occasionally prompted different responses from interviewees, and maybe different final choices at those times could have redirected my path through the game.
Outside of the dizzying swirl of the 360-degree panning and the occasional quick jerks up or down, there was not a lot for me to complain about in this fabulous game. There were a few stealthy scenes where I couldn't figure out what to do quickly enough the first time through and was subsequently killed. A quick game reload usually had me back on track, though. Those untimely demises truly supported the exciting tale and were avoidable without violence in all cases, once the proper actions were carried out. I did not need super reflexes to complete those sequences, but merely good focus and calm rationality.
I absolutely loved the many layers of Byzantine's thrilling tale; they slowly swelled to a final climax, explaining a lot and wrapping up the loose ends in a very satisfying way. The many puzzles were all very organic to the plot while still being varied and original, as well as appropriately challenging for a seasoned adventure gamer. Its educational aspects were mostly optional via museum tours and the like, but I felt compelled to soak up every last bit of this engrossing game.
In case you couldn't tell, Byzantine: The Betrayal quickly planted itself among my top-10 favorite computer games of all time - a star among stars.
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