The harsh cold of winter still grips the land here. As I write this, it’s -38 degrees Celsius—an apt climate for playing The Pale Beyond from developer Bellular Studios.
The tale of the ship Temperance on a mission to find its long-missing sister ship, the Viscount, at the South Pole. Five years have passed since the Viscount disappeared on its journey to find the true magnetic South. You are enlisted as First Mate Robin Shaw aboard the Temperance on its expedition to reclaim whatever remains of the Viscount.
In the Pale Beyond, All of Your Choices Matter
In The Pale Beyond, your choices matter. Everything you choose will impact the outcome of your expedition and your relationship with the crew. The choices begin immediately before you even meet Captain Hunt. You are drawn to a ticking metronome as you wait in his office. Options appear to gauge your thoughts on the incessant contraption. Does it bother you? Are you indifferent to its sound? If you try and stop it, you break off the needle. I broke off the needle and shoved it in my pocket; I didn’t confess my crime.
While this particular choice didn’t seem to affect anything, other choices made at this meeting will. Are you Sea Born, a Land Lubber, or a mix of the two? What is your experience at sea? What is your profession? All these things influence how crew members view you and how you perceive certain aspects of the expedition. I chose the path of a Muttwash, who was a merchant trader. This meant I gained some insight into certain things like supplies and can afford you different dialogues and decisions to make.
Shortly after the Temperance reaches the ice floes and runs aground, Captain Hunt and three crew members disappear. The Captaincy technically falls to you as the first mate, but you must pass a crew vote first. Expect it to be close, you have yet to earn the loyalty of many of the crew, and some will abstain. Once you take on the Captain’s mantle, including the hat, the real story begins. What has happened to Captain Hunt and the missing crew? Who are the mysterious benefactors behind the expedition? What are the true motives of the uptight Templeton, a Worm Tongue figure whose allegiances are unclear?
The Game Does a Great Job of Making You Invested in Its Characters
Consider your actions and words well before committing to a course of action. However, sit on the fence and risk a demoralized and disloyal crew. Your aim is to gather and manage supplies while trapped aboard the ship in the ice. It would be best if you also learned about your crew, attempted to uncover more about Captain Hunt and the expedition, and kept everyone in good health. Time passes in weeks, with each active play section representing the entire week. Make sure you visit everyone available to visit during these active times. You must keep up, improve crew loyalty, and address any important story points that could arise in dialogues.
Actions such as hunting, scouting, research, and many other tasks aboard will require an allocation of crew members. There are also weekly crew requests to consider. From the Captain’s quarters, you can accept or deny crew requests, allowing you to impact crew members’ loyalty, morale, and assignments. It’s a delicate balancing act, you can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and it falls on your shoulders to make the final decisions.
Presented in the style of a visual novel, The Pale Beyond doesn’t actually feature any movement other than interacting with maps, crew members, and the occasional curious penguin. However, with the sweeping soundtrack, excellent ambient sound, and engaging story and characters, it’s easy to forget this fact. I became extremely invested in keeping everyone alive and attempting to ride the line between being a formidable Captain and a jovial friend to the crew. Essentially, I tried to be me but slightly more personable. Templeton didn’t appreciate my efforts to keep the crew buoyed by acquiescing to some of their requests, but I decided he was a shady corporate shill early on, so his feelings be damned.
The game employs a branching save system, meaning when you mess up and freeze/starve/drown everyone, which you surely will, you can return to certain points and try again. Some chapters will remain locked and unable to revisit, but certain essential chapters will hopefully be available to change the fate of you and your crew. There are a lot of different branches that your adventure could take, ensuring a lot of replayability. Fans of Dan Simmons’ book The Terror and the television show that followed will surely love the world of The Pale Beyond. That is what initially drew me to it. Although, as of yet, I haven’t encountered a giant ice monster hell-bent on eating us all.
I cannot emphasize enough how beautiful the soundtrack is. One moment it’s soaring and hopeful, and then mournful and isolating. In games like this, the musical aspects of the soundtrack can sometimes become overbearing and mismatched, detracting from realism. In the case of The Pale Beyond, it only offers to enhance the experience. Upon the game’s release, I will be grabbing the soundtrack DLC. A deluxe bundle is up for grabs, offering the soundtrack and a digital art book.
Overall, The Pale Beyond is a game to get lost in. It may be a short experience, especially if you kill everyone early on, which you absolutely can do, and I definitely did, but it is engrossing. The characters are well-written, and the plot has high stakes and multiple outcomes. Even though it involves no actual actions, it always feels as though you are in motion, desperately attempting to face the challenges of the ice head-on. In truth, I only wish there was more. The weeks can seem short sometimes, and I wished for more to do so I could stay in the world longer.