The Pale Beyond Review
An initially intriguing survival tale that succumbs to the elements
Putting players into survival-focused scenarios has been a staple of many genres, but in recent decades the unexpected narrative-fused hybrid has emerged. Having players manage not only the essentials and day-to-day operations in extreme situations, but also the mental and emotional state of their subjects, tapped into a new area of experiences that audiences found alluring. With the subgenre now being well-established, new entries have a list of leaders that they can aspire to and borrow from, with the latest release The Pale Beyond trying to live up to high expectations. However, despite a solid art style and narrative, the ice beneath it gives way in the end.
The narrative is initially quite intriguing. Players assume the role of Robin Shaw, who has come to apply for a job on a ship called the Temperance. Following an interview with its captain, Hunt, you learn that it's about to embark on a dangerous mission to the Antarctic. While the job posting didn't share many details, Hunt tells you a group of mystery benefactors are sponsoring this voyage to find the sister ship The Viscount, which had gone missing years ago after it set sail through The Pale Passage in search of something. Its crew and cargo was presumed dead, until recent developments. After a series of questions that establish your background and personality, you are hired on as the First Mate and set sail.
However, it's not long before the journey grinds to a halt as you finally reach the cold waters and eventually, the ship gets stuck in the ice. Following a turbulent series of events, the captain and a few of the crew go missing, and suddenly it falls to you to become captain (to the disapproval of some), and try to lead the remaining survivors. You'll have to overcome a series of challenging situations, such as the stranded ship falling apart and sinking, losing your shelter, hunting for food and materials supplies to keep the furnace going, and dealing with illness. On top of that, making decisions that affect morale and relationships between you and the crew will also be key to outlasting the harsh weather. The hope is that rescue is coming, but you must hold out a certain number of weeks with as many people as possible.
The Pale Beyond does a good job with its characters and writing. You'll meet and interact with almost all of the crew members, of which there are over 15, though some have more involvement with the main storyline than others. Although everyone gets an introduction, you'll not speak to many of them again until much later, if it all. The main cast consists of a smaller group, each with their own sometimes brash and loud personalities. Your conversations and decisions that impact these key crewmembers will affect the trust meter with them, and story outcomes. There's a famous but mostly retired explorer who is very friendly towards you, a mysterious scientist who claims to represent the benefactors of the mission, and a naïve photographer who seems unprepared for what the journey may bring. The writing is solid across the board – making the characters and their actions believable and relatable. As there is no voice acting, the text has to do the heavy lifting, and it mostly succeeds.
The mystery of what happened to the previous ship, and captain Hunt, are strong enough to drive the narrative, as are the many decisions that you will have to make as the newly appointed person in charge. The numerous dialog and action changes you have to make are intriguing, however the game has a decidedly rigid approach to its outcomes. There are some far-reaching consequences of your earlier choices, but when making those you often have little way of knowing what they will lead to. The game also has a very strong leaning towards what the "right" choices are, removing a lot of player freedom and narrative ambiguity – rarely are you faced between tough choices that both seem appealing if your goal is to stay alive with as many others as possible. Despite the apparent grim subject matter, the game definitely lacks the atmosphere or dark tone that other games of this nature often adopt, which makes the narrative feel a bit too light hearted given the situation.
The game follows a weekly structure, where you hold conversations, make decisions, and lay out tasks for the crew at the start of the week, and then advance time to the next week and face the consequences. The game's interface is essentially a series of static 2D screens, where you can click around to move between different parts of the ship – and later on, zoom and pan around your camp on the ice. You can click on icons that trigger conversations or interactions, as well as some optional ones such as eavesdropping on random chats amongst the crew. When speaking to others, their portraits appear in full view. The game's painterly art style is quite good, and should remind players of The Banner Saga series. Some of the screens are fairly atmospheric, and character designs are nicely detailed up close. While there is no voiceover, the occasional background music and some special audio effects are of decent quality as well.
Just as the story becomes more rigid and exposes its choices and consequences, so does the gameplay. As a survival game, The Pale Beyond will have you looking after the crew by a way of managing three key aspects – heat, food, and morale. Morale level changes with your decisions and story actions, and it can also increase or decrease based on how much food and heat you have saved up going into the week. You have to make decisions on how many rations to provide (more, less, or just what is needed) and how hot to burn the furnace to keep everyone warm. Should the morale rating reach zero, for more than a week, the game ends. That's really the main rating that you have to worry about – as, a bit unrealistically, you could have no food left, but putting crew into the medical tent resolves their issues and everyone carries on. Of course, medical space is extremely limited, so again problems just snowball eventually.
In order to gather new food and materials, you will assign tasks to the crew at the start of each week. Your group consists of explorers, scientists, engineers, and all-round sailors that can adapt to any task. If you start losing crew to deaths, preventable and otherwise, you obviously may not have enough people to do what needs to be done. Jobs include unique manual labor tasks that change over the course of the story, hunting trips, and exploration expeditions on dog sleds. The dogs actually become the key limiting factor, and are probably worth more than the humans, as you are limited by how many dog sleds you can send out rather than how many crew members you have to crew them.
The Pale Beyond is definitely a survival game where choices and problems begin to snowball, and you may have to revert to a save that was hours old in order to have any chance of reaching the conclusion. It's also a no-holds-barred challenging game, and it seems nearly impossible to reach the ending with all crew members as there are simply not enough resources to go around, despite extremely careful crew management. You are often undercut by the amount of dogs you have, a number that cannot increase and is set by the story. As you get deeper into the survival timeline, you begin pretty much getting by on scraps, and it just feels like a matter of time before game-over. Everyone getting frostbite, diseases, or becoming mentally demoralized just becomes an annoyance and with spaces in the sick bay limited, you can do nothing to help them. The title is in need of serious difficulty balance tweaking, or at least difficulty options, as the survival gameplay completely undermines the story and you are entirely focused on keeping the morale rating up, not actually being invested in the narrative and making the choices you want to make.
When you do reach the ending (the actual story ending, not the many other fatal game-over screens along the way), you will be met with a fairly rushed and a bit unsatisfying conclusion. After spending the hours with these characters and the careful introductions to each crew member, there are no corresponding detailed send-offs. You also realize that the research expeditions that you can send scientists onto is rather pointless, and not worth having to deal with them getting frostbite afterwards – as these trips offer nothing to your survival hopes. Elsewhere, across the entire journey you will have to deal with a variety of bugs – some visual, some technical. For instance, there are cases where the dialogue text is actually cut-off by the edges of the screen, or the choices you click on register in error to another selection. While the UI is simplistic, it has a drag-and-drop element when assigning crew members to tasks, and this often breaks and requires you to back out of the screen and try again. You also occasionally have to use your personal inventory to again drag and drop items, and this never works consistently.
The Pale Beyond is an initially very intriguing narrative survival game, but the deeper into its cold weeks you go, the more cracks begin to appear. The story and characters are well written, but the ending is lacklustre, and it all comes undone anyway with the frustrating difficulty. You are constantly thrown curveballs that you could not foresee, and the only way to succeed seems to be on future replays so you can make the "right" choices that the game expects, which of course is directly at odds with its narrative-driven ambition. It has a great art style, but it lacks the sense of dread or heart-wringing choices that similar games such as This War of Mine or Frostpunk. It also lacks the more careful balancing and difficulty options, and probably needed another round of polish on its user interface. As it stands, if you really enjoy survival games and are willing to replay multiple times to get it right, The Pale Beyond is a decent offering, but everyone else would be better off waiting for a number of patches.