Fatum Betula (Switch) review
"Bleak Ending Simulator 2021"
Fatum Betula (Latin for “Fate Birch”) is sometimes marketed as a short horror game. In actuality, the title exudes few scary qualities, yet it manages to communicate nightmarish implications. You see, this one doesn't frighten you outright with monstrous entities, horrific predicaments, or panic-inducing jolts, but instead puts you in charge of something even more terrifying: shaping humanity, and by extension, the world. The early outs see you entering a temple where a sacred birch tree rests. A hideous being bestows unto you the duty of feeding the birch, which will form the very foundation of Planet Earth's existence. No pressure...
The creature gives you three vials with which to obtain some fluids to nourish the plant, though you can only give it one drink at a time. The other two vials come handy, though, as some of the liquids used to end the game can also serve as event items that allow you to access different endings.
In a first-person perspective utilizing a graphical style similar to the first PlayStation or Nintendo 64, you venture outward into a surreal landscape. The campaign gives you little direction, sending you off to make discoveries and connections to see if you can locate an ideal solution to offer the tree. Some of these items are easy to locate and allow you to clear the campaign in mere minutes. For instance, an anthropomorphic cat waits not far from the temple, telling you he's hungry. A short voyage from his location takes you to a lake where you can find a knife, of all things. While screwing around, you might try to hit the cat with the blade, only to discover it does indeed kill him. The beast keels over, allowing you to secure some of his blood in a vessel. You return to the temple and pour it into the birch's trough, and watch in horror as an ending plays out...
I won't entirely spoil it for you, but you shape the world in the worst way, leading to a constant societal spree of hardship and heartache, you monster. What else would you expect to accomplish by feeding the tree blood acquired through violence? Also, this is yet another example of a game basically punishing you for taking the easiest route to finish it.
Fatum requires you to explore more deeply and experiment if you want the best outcomes. You meet NPCs who tell you what they want, all while locating interesting items that serve a purpose in acquiring goods for those beggars. For instance, an immortal skeleton wants to die. A little scouring reveals the existence of a poison fish that can kill anything, even immortals. However, you don't possess the means to go fishing, so further observation becomes absolutely necessary...
Over time, you gather numerous drinks to offer the birch, all of which take you through brief concluding cutscenes. The game gives you a breakdown of what you've done, then more or less chides you for your actions. More than anything, this is where Fatum's fear-based content lies. Your actions do not occur in a vacuum, and your accomplishments have catastrophic consequences that affect quite literally everyone. You throw the world into war, suffering, or exploitation, only occasional reaching a conclusion with implications that are more than monstrous. Hell, even when you think you've given the birch an answer that sounds like it would solve all of humanity's problems, you only end up dooming it to a horrific existence. In another case, you strengthen the tree, believing you would therefore bolster its wisdom. Instead, you doom the human race to infinite servitude.
There is one ending that more or less offers satisfaction, but reaching that finale requires a lot of thought and some arbitrary actions. Honestly, you either best hope for good luck while playing or have a guide handy. For one thing, you must access a beach area that doesn't have a clear path leading to it. The only way to locate is it to accidentally end up on a part of the environment that doesn't appear traversable, then walk through a bush and collide with a certain wall. Unless you read a walkthrough, you would have no way of knowing that part of the map leads anywhere. After that, you've got to hope that you encounter a moon that only randomly spawns behind a church. Once you've gotten there, you're home free... If the game provides any clues pertaining to a moon that only sometimes appears, then I missed them.
You might be wondering where the main draw to this title lies. Besides offering numerous inventory puzzles that require experimentation and careful searching for the occasional note, the campaign revolves around surreal material that you can't help but love. Here, you fall down a well and speak to a mushroom smoking a pipe who says he's been hit with a curse that prevents him from opening wooden doors. Nearby, you can voyage into the depths of the ocean, pollute it with some oil, and pass by a wall of seaweed that initially prevented you from advancing. That barrier protected an abyss that drops you into... a suburb? It's also rather comical that every house in the 'burbs takes you to exactly the same layout with exactly the same characters.
Nothing in this adventure makes much sense and sometimes feels like a dream. Each new location you uncover comes with different sorts of content, too. You find eeriness in the dark house holding the immortal skeleton or in a bright dream world inhabited by a ghost. You see comedy in not only a couple of the story's endings, but also in the suburban hellscape. In particular, you follow a long path until you enter the home of an agoraphobic, terminally online nerd living in a bunker, subsisting on cheap tomato soup.
Fatum is more than just weird; it's odd, creative, and wonderfully off-beat, even if some of its fates lead you to existential nightmares. This is the kind of minimalist, oddball adventure that walking simulators should be, rather than titles featuring old men prattling to someone who isn't there like they're reading long, boring letters. If games like this are the legacy of Dear Esther, then I can say at very least that I don't regret that dull title's inception. Truly, it was the humble beginnings of what would give us quirky, yet unnerving pieces like Fatum Betula.
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (November 04, 2023)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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