The indie games market on Xbox has become a captivating space to spend some time, giving players a chance to browse around the oddities on display. It really has become a place of experimentation, with strange art gallery-styled titles becoming available, seeing them play with form, narrative, and game design. Fatum Betula is another one of these games; one that has entered the fray to play with convention, taking you on a journey that is strange, unique, and unlike anything you’d have played before. Welcome to the unreal.
Fatum Betula is a game that doesn’t tell you what to do; a game where the narrative isn’t straightforward but rather oblique and ethereal. It’s a game that – at least in the initial stages – feels strange and out of sorts, something which is the purpose of the experience. Game designer Bryce Bucher describes his experience of making games as “having basically no interest in heavily leading people towards the hidden stuff“.
You start Fatum Betula in the first person, in a sort of temple area, alone. There aren’t any instructions on what to do next yet you begin to move forward down a corridor that leads to a pool of water with a strange plant going into the pool. Waiting here you are approached by a huge creature with sharp teeth. It doesn’t attack and you can speak to it. It informs you that you need to feed the plant, but not from your blood, giving you three vials to collect plant food. And then you are off into the world.
What happens next is that a strange adventure through weird worlds plays out; worlds that are familiar yet strange. Odd characters emerge and disappear, environments feel uncertain and unsure.
Gameplay works by moving in the first person. The controls are strange to get used to and not as intuitive as I would have liked and whilst there is no jumping, you can occasionally move a little faster than the norm. You interact with items or doorways with the RB button and you can save with the Y button; that alone should give you a sense of how unusual this is. When you get an item to use, you have to go into the menus and then move a cursor to scroll down the inventory and then press on it again for it to be highlighted. It all seems so simple written down, but it feels awkward to use.
Your main task at hand is to fill those vials with plant feed, but how you get this is very hard to explain, especially as I don’t want to spoil the strangeness of it. Let’s just say that the solutions can be very complex and oblique as you end up interacting with strange characters, like a black cat called The Beast, a sort of crow-like magic man and a dope-smoking weirdo who lives at the bottom of a well. It’s like a bad dream at times and there is even a moment when you click on a bed and go into an even more nightmarish version of Fatum Betula – something which I didn’t think was even possible.
However, I have found this game hugely intriguing to play, all as I’ve gone on the hunt for the ten possible endings that are on offer. You will end up searching around this world quite a bit to work out what to do next, but when you find something it does feel like a real discovery; a far cry from the signposting and hand-holding we have gotten used to over the last few years. It’s whether you have the patience for that which will decide whether Fatum Betula lives or dies with you.
The game employs, on purpose it should be said, a PS1-era visual design that is lo-fi at its essence. The world also feels surreal, with tight locations and strange imagery, whilst the visuals work brilliantly and create something arty and very unique. The character design, the game design, and the whole imaginative world are interesting throughout. The same goes for the sound which uses some original tracks that support the uneasy and surreal world perfectly.
Fatum Betula is a game – and an experience – that feels old school yet completely new and unique in the same breath. The lack of guidance is something that will split the gaming community, but it must be agreed that the surreal visual design is fascinating, disturbing, and brilliantly designed. The story, with its different endings, is like an arthouse nightmare from the world of David Lynch. Yes this is a massively niche game, but if you are after something different then pick up a vial and enter the world of Fatum Betula.
Fatum Betula can be grabbed from the Xbox Store