The Pale Beyond Review
Publisher Fellow Traveller has earned a cracking reputation for releasing narrative games that focus on the story without compromising on gameplay. One of their most recent titles, Citizen Sleeper, was my 2022 game of the year for this very website, so I was very interested in seeing if their first offering of 2023, The Pale Beyond, could keep their winning streak going.
The Pale Beyond is a tribute to 19th and early 20th-century sailors who took on the dangerous task of exploring the treacherous icy waters of the North and South Poles. These seafaring adventurers braved freezing temperatures, unpredictable weather, and even the occasional seal attack to chart new territory and expand our understanding of the world.
While the names of famous sea captains like Earnest Shackleton and Scott of the Antarctic may be synonymous with polar exploration, the identities of the vast majority of people on these expeditions – the crew – have sadly been lost to history. The Pale Beyond seeks to tell the stories of these brave adventurers and shows just how challenging and dangerous their work was.
The setup of the game is pretty simple. You are First Mate on The Temperance, a ship bound for the Antarctic tasked with looking for The Viscount, her sister ship that went missing five years earlier.
While things start smoothly enough, after a few weeks at sea, the weather takes a severe turn for the worse, and the ship becomes frozen in the ice. Things get even more complicated when the captain, for unknown reasons, steals a lifeboat in the middle of the night with a couple of crewmates and disappears.
As first mate, you are given the unenviable position of taking over an icebound ship in the middle of Antarctica without enough food or fuel to last the Winter. The goal is to keep you and your crew alive for 38 weeks until a rescue ship can arrive to save you.
Each game phase lasts one week, and as captain, you must keep the crew supplied with food and heat and assign them tasks for the week ahead. In addition, you listen to crew members' specific requests and respond accordingly. It might sound simple enough, but you must also deal with numerous randomly occurring problems. Sometimes you get lucky and something good happens, but usually each week is spent dealing with another unforeseen disaster trying its hardest to kill you all.
You can choose what type of captain you want to be through your dialogue choices. You can try to be everyone's best friend, keep your distance, or just be a total arse to everyone to get things done. A word of warning, however, trying to be nice to everyone all the time doesn't necessarily guarantee a positive outcome... you are captain, after all.
At its heart, this is a resource management game. Every reaction you make causes a reaction somewhere else. Handing out extra rations will increase morale but puts you at the mercy of next week's hunt being a success. On the other hand, cutting back on food decreases morale and puts crew members at risk of becoming malnourished, but it might be the only way to keep everyone alive for another week.
Things are even further complicated because you must consider the crew's health. You have a sick bay that can heal sick crew members, but having too many convalescing means fewer people to carry out essential work. But if you put ill crew members to work, you risk their condition worsening and potentially succumbing to their illness.
The whole thing is a delicate balancing act that will keep the cogs in your head turning as you try to stop everything from falling apart around you. In fact, the devs have done a great job of creating an unnerving game experience with an impending sense of doom that things will all go wrong at any minute. I spent most of the time playing the game with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was inevitable we would all die.
But in fact, this is the outstanding achievement of the game. As a player, you genuinely care about the fate of the crew you are responsible for. As the game progresses, you get to know the people you are stranded with and slowly learn more about their past. The writers have obviously spent a lot of time developing every single one of the 20-plus crew members. Each has their own story, loyalties, aspirations, and even friends on board. Crew members can die, and the loss of each one hits you right in the feels, particularly as you need to attend their funeral, complete with speeches from their fellow crewmates.
Another significant aspect of the game is the permanent nature of your decisions. Once your actions for the week have been set, they are locked in, and there is no going back. This works well to give players the feeling of a captain making decisive yet tough decisions but occasionally can be too strict for its own good; in some situations, it feels illogical that a captain couldn't reassign people to different jobs as different factors come into play.
For example, a crew member might request a certain amount of crew to work on something that would raise morale. Unfortunately, if you've already assigned everyone, there is no way to reassign them to the potentially more beneficial task. Sometimes it feels like the devs have achieved the opposite in attempting to make the game as realistic as possible.
To counteract the permanent nature of your decisions, the game has multiple branches and will allow you to go back and start from pivotal points in the story at any time if you want to try again and see if you can do things differently. In addition, at the end of the game, the entire decision tree opens up, and you can go back to any single point in the story on your next playthrough. This gives the game more replay value; it's great to go back and see if you can do things better without playing the entire thing from the start.
Overall this is an excellent and challenging experience for anyone who values storylines and emotional connections in their games as much as they do gameplay. The game was not easy; on my first playthrough, I lasted a measly nine weeks until my crew's morale dropped to zero. At that point, they presumably either ate me or threw me into the Southern Ocean. But despite the difficulty, I immediately returned to the last savepoint and tried again. I knew I could do better and was determined to keep my crew alive longer next time. I highly recommend everyone straps on their sea legs and give The Pale Beyond a go. You won't regret it.
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