Exploring uncharted territories has been one of mankind’s greatest ambitions throughout history. And one of the most recent and dangerous expeditions was exploring the south pole. The uninhabitable environment and harsh conditions of the icy continent have been the subject of many works of fiction and documentaries, and there are many more stories to be told in the setting.
The Pale Beyond, developed by Bellular Studios and published by Fellow Traveller, tells the story of one such expedition gone wrong. With brilliant survival and resource management mechanics, we experience the hard decisions and their consequences unfold before us and try our best to outlast the deadly cold.
The Pale Beyond begins as we, Robin Shaw, have an interview for the position of first mate on board the ship, Temperance. We meet Captain Hunt, the leader of the expedition to the south pole, in search of another vessel, the Viscount, that was lost to the ice years ago. While the crew of viscount was supposed dead, recently a survivor has been discovered, and a mysterious benefactor is funding this rescue party, along with a team of scientists and scouts to help Temperance on its way.
The interview is where we are introduced to the dialogue system, a mechanic that we make most of our decisions through. At this early stage, we get to choose our background and decide who we were before this expedition. Our experiences will affect our relationship with the crew and help us recall additional information about various subjects that come up during the game. The choices that we make in dialogue, even early on, will have a lasting effect throughout our journey.
We get the job as the first mate of the ship and begin our journey. We start to meet the crew, have to deal with a stowaway, and pick up the rest of the scouting team and the kennel master on the way. The Pale Beyond doesn’t really begin until we reach our destination, but we get more instances of decision-making on the way. Captain Hunt trusts in our judgment regarding multiple issues and based on our choices we can have a few different compositions for our crew.
But we finally reach the ice, and this is where The Pale Beyond truly begins. The Temperance becomes stuck in ice early on, and Captain Hunt quickly succumbs to drinking in the face of danger. During the first week, Captain Hunt and a few crew members go missing, and there is a vote held by the crew, and we are appointed as the acting captain of the ship. We barely get enough votes as most of the crew are still loyal to Captain Hunt, and we have to try and raise other members’ loyalties through interactions with them.
There are a variety of different characters on the ship. From seasoned sailors to scientists, a journalist, and the scouting team led by a famous actor. Each character has beautiful artwork and a deep personality that we get to discover over time. Based on our choices in dialogue, we will raise or lower their loyalty to our command. We are trying to get the crew to survive until a rescue ship arrives, and high morale will play an essential role in our success.
This is where the main gameplay loop of The Pale Beyond comes into play. We have limited supplies of food, fuel, and crew members, and we have to manage these supplies properly to prolong our survival. If we use up our supplies too early, we might not survive long enough to see rescue, and if we are too cautious with rationing, we might lose some of the crew to hunger or cold. We need to find a balance between the two, and assign each crew member appropriate tasks to provide us with more food, and fuel or explore our surroundings.
The UI and UX are where we start to see small flaws in The Pale Beyond. For a game focused on resource management, managing the supplies feels a bit too complicated. We don’t have a clear amount of food or fuel to use at the end of each week. We have to manually get the supplies from the cargo or assign crew members to do so, and then use the item cards that we get to feed the furnace or prepare meals for the crew. It’s not a broken system, it just feels like there are a few too many steps to accomplish simple tasks.
Exploration in The Pale Beyond is minimalistic but necessary. We have to search our surroundings for alternative sources of food and fuel. We can hunt the local wildlife, or send our scientists to gather more information about the area. We eventually have to evacuate the ship as water starts flooding in, and getting a headstart on exploration means we have a higher chance of surviving on the ice.
There are various events that propose challenges we have to overcome. The temperance is slowly being crushed by ice, and while it provides some form of shelter for the crew, we eventually have to camp out on the ice. The decision to leave the ship behind is not popular with the crew who have worked on the ship for years, but if we give in to their desires and wait too long, we run the risk of going down with the ship when it cannot hold out any longer.
This is where I discovered the best part of The Pale Beyond. It is a survival game at its core, and like most survival games our choices can have severe consequences. But the game has a branching save system, where if we fail we can go back a few weeks and try again, without losing much progress or having to start from scratch. This is a challenging design process in survival games. In some, the player only gets one chance, and death means they have to start again. Other games provide unlimited saves and loads, making survival basically trivial.
The Pale Beyond walks a fine line between being forgiving and challenging. You can’t try every solution available in a matter of seconds and see what has the best outcome, so the tension of survival is ever-present. And when you finally make the choices that lead to your death, you don’t lose all your progress. You can go back to one of the previous save points available and try again. This, combined with the art style, the writing, and the amazing music and sound design, creates a relaxing experience while providing enough challenge to keep the players engaged.
I experienced this the first time when I lost all of my scouting crew after a dozen or so weeks. Without the scouting crew, I wasn’t able to search the area for more food and fuel, and I knew I couldn’t survive like this. I decided to go back to the week that I abandoned the ship, and decided to stay for an extra week. But that idea was doomed as well, as the ship was swallowed by the ice with everyone on board. So I tried again, and finally got a decent foothold on the ice with all the crew alive and well. While I had to try multiple times, it didn’t feel too punishing or time-consuming to throw me off the game.
Most know the studio behind The Pale Beyond, Bellular Studios, through their Youtube channel and their gaming content. While there’s this idea that gamers can design great games, it’s rare to see a work of passion such as this be so well polished. The Pale Beyond is the first game developed by this group of gamers, and while it has its flaws, it’s a relaxing yet engaging work of art and an impressive achievement for a new studio.
Nima played The Pale Beyond on Steam with a review code provided by the publisher.