You find yourself in a church. Behind you there is a door, and ahead of you there is a set of stairs. The door does not open, locked by some unseen force. So you walk up the stairs, entering a chamber where a small walkway juts out into pools of water. Above you, swathed in gentle light, a young birch tree hovers, its roots reaching into the water. Ahead of you, an abyss, vast, endless, and nothing.
That is until a thing, both terrifying and friendly makes itself known. It tells you of the tree, and that what it is fed will determine the fate of this world. It then gives you three vials, and bids you to find sustenance for this tree, and the future. You turn away, but give a cursory glance behind you. The thing is gone, or maybe it was never there at all. The door is unlocked, and your quest begins.
This makes up the beginning few minutes of Fatum Betula, the most recent game by solo developer Bryce Bucher. Utilizing a lo-fi style reminiscent of experimental Playstation games, the game seeks to tackle themes of existence, fate, consequence, and identity in a small but ambitious package that tries to find meaning through its surreal imagery.
Reviewing Our Existence
Fatum Betula is a fairly simple game to control. Outside of your movement, you have the ability to sprint, interact with items, use a basic menu interface, and use items you have equipped. While this seems like a bare bones checklist of necessities the game’s charm comes in how you interact with these mechanics, and the world you inhabit.
There are numerous puzzles throughout the game. Some seem pretty simple, others even offer possible solutions, but where the real charm of the game comes from is in its ability to let the player run amok. As feeding the tree is your primary goal, much of the game is spent finding different things to feed it. Once you feed the tree, you get one of the game’s numerous endings depending on what was fed to it.
Though the game does have a save feature, loops of the game are pretty swift. In my time with it I got all the endings and easter eggs in just over four hours, but it always felt like time well spent.
One sticking point however, is the pace of the walk speed. The game’s overall pace is slow, but given how much of the game is spent traversing its levels, by the third or fourth loop even the sprint seems sluggish. While not game breaking as things go, it causes friction in a way that seems unneeded for the game’s otherwise effective gameplay.
Familiarizing the Unfamiliar
Lo-fi Playstation 1 style games are a niche that has been steadily gaining popularity over the past few years. With collections like the Haunted PS1 demo disk, developers like Puppet Combo, 98DEMAKE, and others have used the aesthetics of the original playstation, and in some cases the limitations of its hardware to recreate an era of gaming as well as use it to explore strange and oftentimes unfamiliar concepts.
So when playing Fatum Betula, there is a sense of familiarity to it. The subtle jitter of textures, their chunky, pixelated details, the simplicity of animations, all of it speaks to an earlier era of 3-D games where things were a bit simpler in their execution. Though not every game in the genre does this, Fatum Betula commits to the aesthetic to a rather beautiful effect.
Colors are rich, and though the various zones in the game’s open world are small and self contained, there is a picturesque quality to them that brims with personality. Characters are charming in their simplicity and there is a hand made quality to everything that gives a sense of personality to the whole experience.
In a nightmarish alternate to one of the zones however, these graphics are used to startling effect. Mirrored textures with a fracturing, shifting effect creates a genuine sense of disorientation and discomfort, forcing the player to contend with a garish appearance that masks otherwise obvious details to provide a kind of scenic obstacle to their progression. For those with epilepsy or are sensitive to such visual stimuli there is an option to turn it off for a more stable appearance that still conveys the disorienting effect.
The one place where it falters, is in the hiding of a zone where a good portion of content is tucked away. For most people playing, they may not be able to find the zone as from a few places, it looks like it isn’t meant to be traversed at all. While this isn’t a huge mark against it, it was a point of frustration it could have been better conveyed to the player to possibly poke around that area more.
Still, for its simplicity, the game has a distinct charm that makes the experience worth the repeat play.
On paper, the story for Fatum Betula is rather bare bones. Outside of your primary goal, there isn’t much else. Characters are charming, but have little going on, and the short loops mean that no story goes on too long.
But that’s not the point of the game. Many of the endings, and much of the hidden content is much more focused on introspection and having a conversation about the world, and the nature of existence.
Many of the endings explore existentialism, and a person’s place within the world, and while some fall victim to navel gazing, there is a clear sense of earnestness to everything. Bucher manages to inject a sense of wonder into everything, even the game’s darker, more ominous moments.
That is something to remember. Despite the game’s charm, and oftentimes dreamlike atmosphere, there is a dark undercurrent that rings throughout. Moments of ominous dread are current throughout, with some paths leading you to situations that are jarring and perception warping and others having you commit terrible acts to continue forward.
That isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom though. Several of the game’s ending’s and more of its hidden moments contain a devilish sense of humor that much like the rest of the game carries a sense of bizarre earnestness.
All of it seems to be in an effort for Bryce Bucher to try and create something that resonates with players, and in some senses feels like he is trying to figure out his own place in the world there within the game.
A Song for the End
Complimenting the visual aesthetics is a small, but infectious series of tracks composed by Simone Peltier as well as some excellent atmospheric soundscaping. Many of the tracks weave seamlessly with the atmospheric noises throughout the world, and serve to further enhance the ominous atmosphere.
One of the tracks features a gentle piano reverie will occasionally stumble into discordance, or have a counter melody interrupting its otherwise soothing tone. Moments like these never fully let the player relax, constantly forcing them to stay alert and looking around their surroundings for potential secrets.
This element plays wonderfully into the game, and serves to further enhance the tone, especially in the game’s quieter moments where only the crunch of your footsteps breaks the silence.
The Birch of Fate
Despite being an overall short experience, Fatum Betula is a game that sticks with you long after playing. It’s an earnest attempt at a developer to muse on their existence, while encouraging the player to tinker with their own within the game’s framework. I’ve come back to it several times to replay sections just to sit around in the world and enjoy the sights and sounds once more. That is something I cannot often say about games I have thoroughly completed to 100%.
Though parts of it could have used a bit more polish developer Bryce Bucher puts forth an honest experience that clearly is coming from the heart. One gets the sense that the developer might be trying to express themselves through the game’s presentation, and in many ways it seems like a success. What the game lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in its charm and atmosphere
If you’re looking for an introspective, though at times rough around the edges game to play over the month, I cannot recommend Fatum Betula highly enough.