Survival games are often about things going south, but rarely as literally as in The Pale Beyond. Published by Fellow Traveller, The Pale Beyond is a debut game from developer Bellular Studios focused on the management of a mysterious Antarctic expedition. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for matters to spiral out of control, leaving players with a cavalcade of difficult choices to make if they want to see the mission through.
The Pale Beyond opens by thrusting players into the shoes of Robin Shaw, a candidate to be the first mate aboard the Antarctic-bound Temperance. A mysterious benefactor has tasked the crew with finding out what happened to the Viscount, a sister ship that led an earlier expedition to find the absolute magnetic South. An introductory interview sets up the game’s choice-based framework and nudges players to start thinking about how they will characterize their Shaw. As a resource management experience with a heavy narrative component, choices in The Pale Beyond are as much about interpersonal relationships as surviving.
The characters that Shaw meets aboard the Temperance are a crucial part of flavoring The Pale Beyond‘s gameplay. Each day brings regular tasks and resource allotment with it, but it also introduces new conversations through which Shaw can raise or lower his favor with members of the crew. These are believable and generally engaging characters, with more memorable ones taking on unique traits to stand out without veering into the realm of the cartoonish. When the ship’s captain disappears on the ice, currying favor with different individuals and loose factions becomes crucial to maintaining a hold on the expedition.
The tough choices in the harsh winter of The Pale Beyond and the charming hand-drawn artwork call The Banner Saga to mind, although this game is ultimately its own beast. Here, the threat of complete failure is much more present, with food and warmth in extremely limited supply and a meter for Decorum that will trigger a Game Over with the loss of morale. This last feature is optional, but the game has a safety net regardless, unlocking certain weeks as save points that players can restart from in the event of failure. Long-running consequences of a particularly poor decision could necessitate heavy back-tracking, but there’s always a way forward.
No one stretch of The Pale Beyond wears out its welcome, as the brutal reality of the Antarctic forces the party to keep moving and adapting if they ever hope to find the Viscount. Shifting expectations may frustrate survival game players who prefer clear data to help with resource stockpiling, but this approach emulates the uncertainty of an expedition gone wrong. The synchronicity between expectations for the player and the simulation of reality briefly slips when winter sets in and weeks begin to skip. Any changes that unexpectedly thrust higher demands upon Shaw, however, make sense within the progression of the story.
Where The Pale Beyond struggles is principally in the final level of polish. The game’s generally strong writing is currently littered with typos and occasionally runs into minor bugs, mostly appearing in the form of UI glitches. Some can be mildly confusing, like activities that don’t make use of dogs showing that they’ll require them, or resource icons temporarily disappearing in the process of filling up the furnace or stew pot. No game-breaking bugs appeared in the course of a playthrough, but the obvious need for another pass of edits and fixes is the low point in an otherwise strong story and array of systems.
For a weaker game, dealing with even minor issues might be a deal-breaker, but The Pale Beyond offers more than enough to overcome these quirks. The difficulty is well-honed, forcing players to stay on their toes without verging on frustrating, and the unanswered questions that arise in the story remain engaging until the final revelations. Although the interpersonal component isn’t dialed up to draw out tears, solid character writing makes tough choices and failures fall heavy. The Pale Beyond‘s expedition might encounter a few rough seas, but players willing to brave them can find a journey that is abundantly worthwhile.
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The Pale Beyond releases 24 January 2023 for PC. Screen Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.
Source: Fellow Traveller/Youtube