The Pale Beyond Review – Finding Cold Comfort

The Pale Beyond Review

I love a sad cold boy. I was heartened to learn that the very niche subgenre of ‘guys go crazy as they are trapped in the snow’ has a devoted following. Fortunately, Bellular Studios is full of people who share my interest, and they’ve made a game about it. The Pale Beyond is a celebration of every trope, cliché, and archetype that’s ever frozen to death out on the ice.

The Shining Sea

From its description, you may come in thinking that The Pale Beyond is some sort of strategy game. There is strategy to consider, but it could be better described as a visual novel. Five or ten years ago, that would have meant words accompanied by a few pictures. But there has been a recent run of visual novels that incorporate crunchier mechanics. Going as far back as Long Live the Queen, you can see this style develop in games like Dream Daddy, Dead in Vinland, Citizen Sleeper, Pentiment, and I Was a Teenage Exocolonist.

At the outset of The Pale Beyond, you are Robin Shaw, a down-on-their-luck sailor recruited by the mysterious Captain Hunt to find a ship that vanished in Antarctica half a decade ago. The lost sister ship mystery is right out of The Terror and the Antarctic setting includes incidents inspired by the Shackleton Expedition. As you might imagine, things don’t precisely go as planned.

Call of the Wild

The story is a good one, but I think it’s safe to say that Captain Hunt leaves the picture pretty early on, leaving you as the de facto captain. Right away, The Pale Beyond teases at its mechanics. You have an in-game day to go around introducing yourself to the 25 or so sailors and specialists that make up your crew. Then the game takes you to a special screen to track which members of the crew support your captaincy. The first vote is pretty easy to beat, but it is not the last.

Once you’ve cemented your authority you will make critical decisions regarding food, shelter, and travel. Your crew has engineers to keep the boiler hot, scientists collecting valuable data, scouts who look for food and fuel, and a sizable crew of able seamen to take care of ancillary tasks. Your decisions can lead to injury, sickness, frostbite, scurvy, or malnutrition. There will come a time when you need to choose which crew member goes hungry. There will probably even be a time you need to decide who lives and who dies. Such is a captain’s life.

In the Long Dark

I completed the story in about 10 hours. It was a compelling enough tale that I plan to go in for another playthrough. The most fascinating mechanic is the permadeath. Just about any character can die and the story will proceed. I lost both my engineers very early on and had to do some pretty creative things to keep momentum going. Later, I put all my scientists together and the ensuing catastrophe killed all three of them in one giant tragedy. In their grief, their companions started to doubt my leadership, and I had to get crafty to keep the crew together.

The Pale Beyond would be nothing without its writing. I grew to like the cast of characters, and they’ve stuck with me. Some twists and turns will happen the same way every time, but they make so much narrative sense that I don’t mind these linear sections. It helps that the art style captures the pulpy, somber tone of the story. The music is also a highlight. I was treated to two shanties in my playthrough. One made me laugh, one made my jaw drop. The Pale Beyond knows when to go all out.

Emperor Penguin

If I have any qualms about The Pale Beyond, it is only in comparison to other games. Teenage Exocolonist offers a similar amount of choice and replayability, but that game has some excellent quality-of-life features that make your second playthrough tick along more quickly, reminding you of which choices you made in the past, and letting you skip conversations you have already read. The Pale Beyond is asking for the replay, but without those features, I would prefer to wait until the story is less fresh in my mind.

If you’re a frostbite-loving freak like me, The Pale Beyond is the game for you. It makes me optimistic about the future of this niche genre. The amount of research and care is apparent as you play. The opaque gameplay systems draw you into the narrative, but leave you in suspense. If you’ve made it this far in the review, I have to assume one of those things is appealing to you. Play The Pale Beyond; it might just be the best novel you read this year.

***PC code provided by the publisher***

The Good

  • Excellent writing
  • Niche research!
  • Nice to look at
  • Bumpin’ sea shanties!

The Bad

  • Missing some quality of life features
  • Even more choices would’ve been nice