Allow me to be very honest. I primarily wanted to give this game a whirl solely due to my loyalty to Bellular. I’ve been following him on YouTube for years (mainly his World of Warcraft content, but I have steadily branched out to other topics he covers). From all the content I’ve consumed, one thing became very apparent to me: these guys know how to make a great game (or they just talk a big game). So, it stood to reason that The Pale Beyond would be phenomenal, and suffice it to say, my expectations were high.
I was not disappointed.
Going in, I was aware of the survival/strategy angle, but by no means was I prepared for the narrative. It is exquisitely paced and heart-wrenching at times (depending on your decisions), but the effortless dialogue and rich characters steal the show here.
Thus, as a Creative Writer myself, I kept a scrutinizing eye upon said narrative for the many hours I put into this indie game. That, of course, isn’t to say I didn’t pay just as much attention to everything else this wonderful experience had to offer (gameplay, music, art), so without any more introduction, let’s get started with the The Pale Beyond review.
Key Info Up Front
A Masterful Narrative
I’ll not mince words: I think the narrative is the strongest part of this game. This is, by no means, any way of saying everything else was lackluster. No. Nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, actually, as the fact that I’m praising the narrative as much as I am in comparison to the rest The Pale Beyond has to offer (as will be discussed later), is an argument in itself for its greatness.
I did my best to avoid large spoilers in the following sections, and I can confidently say I accomplished that. I truly believe the narrative is a gem, and I would hate to ruin it for any prospective players.
The narrative is mostly driven by your decisions (more on that next), and I think the consequences were handled near perfectly. The character development was phenomenal, and each specialist felt unique, making it very easy to remember all the main characters (Hammond is my favorite). That said, the rest of the crew was slightly less memorable, but that is to be expected from any story, as you can only focus on the development of so many characters.
Even so, the many different “listen in” options gave you the option (they are not mandatory!) to learn more about the regular crew members who don’t have much time in the spotlight. Through this, even the smallest, least influential characters were afforded the time to showcase their… colorful personalities.
All in all, the conversations felt natural, and never did a single character do something out of character at any point in any of my play-throughs. There was a healthy balance of humor and heartbreak, making for an entertaining, high-stake story.
Job well done.
Player choice drives the entire game forward and is typically approached by games in one of three ways:
- You are given a predetermined persona for the character you play. You don’t have much say (if any) in their emotional growth, just with the general story progression, usually.
- You are given a blank persona to develop all by yourself with your decision-making. Thus, you (or the persona you wish to inhabit for the sake of the game) are effectively the main character.
- An amalgamation of both one and two. This is, more often than not, a failure in making player choice meaningful, as you keep flip-flopping back and forth between your own values and those of the main character.
The Pale Beyond opts for option two, and it does so masterfully. To avoid spoilers, I’ll not speak of specifics, but the gist of it is this: You can be as much of a kiss-up as you want, as rude as you want, or you can place yourself somewhere in between the two. The world is your oyster, as there is ample opportunity to choose your own path, and no decision is wrong, depending on your ultimate goal.
But make no mistake, whether you are proud or regretful of your decisions, or if you find yourself trying to justify a choice after experiencing its consequences, those feelings are testaments to how darn good of a job the game did with its player choice.
And I would know. I felt it all, and it was great and horrible at the same time.
The Art of Kissing-up in the Loyalty System
Through the loyalty system, you can gain rapport with the specialists of your crew. You will mostly do so through optional and mandatory conversations with individual crew members, but sometimes certain actions can cause you to gain (or lose) loyalty. This system adds a whole new dimension to your player choice, as it gives you more to consider and offers you the ability to be a snake (no, not literally).
In other words, while you’ll often make a choice based on your own morals/beliefs, sometimes you can take a step back and consider making a choice that you might feel is the wrong one, but make it anyway to gain some loyalty points with a particular crew member because you want their support (for reasons I shan’t disclose here).
However, it’s worth bringing up a small issue (if I’d even call it an issue). There were cases where I stopped myself from making a decision that I wanted to make and instead forced myself to make a different decision just to increase rapport with a specific crew member.
While these occurrences pushed me into taking dialogue options I didn’t originally want to take, I don’t think they were that big of a deal, especially because this is something you do in real life for a variety of reasons. So, even though I noted this, I don’t believe it impacts the gameplay negatively. After all, once you play through it once, you can just as easily go right back and play through it again, making as many different decisions as you wish to make.
To be clear, the inconsistencies don’t necessarily lie with the narrative itself, but rather, they are born of the player choice aspect. Though, I suppose, it is one and the same with a narrative dictated by player choice, so let’s get right into it.
There are two types of inconsistencies (though very few in total as I’ve seen). First is when a decision you make is disregarded. For example, the most noticeable one I came across was where one event led to another, and Kasha’s camera was lost/destroyed (I’ll not speak of the circumstances to avoid unnecessary spoilers). This occurred due to a specific decision I made, which was “command Kasha to drop the camera,” which she promptly did, forfeiting the camera forever. Then, in the same week, Kasha and Kurt had a conversation about how Kasha’s camera still worked, and she said, “It would have been a shame to lose it this far in.”
***A few days after I did this play-through, there was an update to the game. So, when I played through it again (making the same decision), this error did not occur. Even so, I find it pertinent to mention because there were some other inconsistencies of the like (nothing impacting the story too heavily, I don’t think), but big kudos to the devs for making the corrections.***
The second type of inconsistency I noticed would only arise if certain (non-specialist) crew members perished. For example, in one of my play-throughs, Runt’s dad (the one-armed man) died before we holed up for the winter, and during the winter, one of the requests I took from Runt himself was that he wanted to be moved to another tent because he wanted his personal space from his father (shown in the image above).
If the dad didn’t die in the earlier weeks, I’d take no issue with this, but since he did, I found it odd that I had to take the request at all. After all, since his dad died, he had the tent to himself, so why ask to be moved in the first place? In my next play-throughs, I didn’t kill him off again (woohoo), so I am unsure if this was fixed or not in the aforementioned update (or any update after that).
There were a few other inconsistencies of the like I came across, but to not spoil the story, I will omit their specific mentions. Just know that the inconsistencies do exist, however few in number.
My Two Cents on the Inconsistencies
As someone who wrote an interactive short story in grad school for my Master’s Project, I am fully aware of how difficult and tedious it can be to keep track of all the moving parts, even with my limited experience. This is especially true when the player has as much power as they do in The Pale Beyond.
We are given countless decisions to make, and the ability to (strategically or accidentally) kill off certain crewmembers, and all of our choices actively shape the course of the narrative, making every one of our play-throughs different in some capacity. In my opinion, the fact that there were as few inconsistencies throughout the game as there were is a feat in itself, and I am incredibly impressed by it.
When it comes to the gameplay, there isn’t all that much to say, frankly. It’s very standard stuff for a survival, resource-management type game, and I have no complaints. In a nutshell, you’re managing fuel, food, decorum, your crew, some dogs, and loyalty levels with specialists.
It’s not overly complex, which works to its benefit, as it makes it relatively easy to get into the game and understand how it works, even for players new to the genre. As such, it’s not super overwhelming when you begin, but it still presents a challenge, especially in the first play-through as you’re getting used to everything. At the same time, it’s not overly simple, making it feel rewarding when you manage all your resources correctly.
Replaying the Same Story in Different Ways
As with any narrative-driven game, replayability is a difficult aspect to tackle. The Pale Beyond’s player choice creates quite a few different paths for you to take the story, but regardless, there is bound to be a hefty amount of overlap from one play-through to the next. Consequently, you may find yourself skipping through swaths of dialogue with various characters because you don’t feel like reading the same thing again.
While this is justifiable, it also creates another problem: what if a particular portion of dialogue that you spam-click past is different than it was on a previous play-through? Well, you would never know because you skipped through it, but I can also understand why you’d want to skip through it in the first place. Quite the conundrum.
On this point, I found it very nice that the aforementioned “listen in” options are optional, meaning you can skip those without any negative consequence. However, the conversations with the various specialists of your crew are usually needed if you want to progress your loyalty bars with them, and more importantly, to progress the story itself. Thus, if you skip through these, it can be a great detriment to your play-through because you’ll be missing out on loyalty points with a given specialist altogether.
The alternative is to spam-click through these dialogues, but you’ll still need to pick the right response to ensure you gain your loyalty points with them, meaning you’ll have to remember it from previous play-throughs.
Or you can just say “screw it” and deliberately ensure certain specialists aren’t loyal to you.
With all this in mind, I think the game has very good replayability when it comes to gameplay. For example, say you lost 6 crew members in your first play-through because you didn’t manage your fuel and food well enough. Well, then go ahead and run it back to try and manage your resources better to ensure the survival of more crewmates, and keep at it until you achieve whatever goal you wish.
I also think going back and making different decisions to see different narrative paths is a great reason to replay the game multiple times, however, the more times you do this, the more overlap you’ll see, making you want to skip more dialogue each time.
However, the great part about the replayability of this game is that you don’t have to start from the beginning every time; instead, you can pick a pivotal point in the overall decision-tree to start up from again.
Music, Sound Design, and Art
Although the setting was mostly just a bunch of ice and water (kidding, but also, not entirely), the world-building was great. The artwork and vistas were breathtaking at many points, but the art, in general, is stylized, and it is definitely not for everyone (I thought it was wonderful). The sound design was incredibly immersive and complemented the narrative in the best way possible, even despite the relatively static nature of the characters themselves.
But the music.
Oh, the music.
Between the somber, single-piano-note melodies to the sea shanties, the music truly put in a lot of work. My only recommendation would be to add more of it, as there were some times when no music played, and I was left with only the environmental sounds.
Not bad in itself, but considering how amazing the music was, more couldn’t hurt.
The game, for the most part, ran quite smoothly, so my complaints are few and far between. However, there still were a couple of notable bugs that cropped up occasionally that, although they didn’t necessarily break my immersion, I think are worth pointing out nonetheless.
- The stray grammatical error/typo (as shown in the text of the above image). Not the end of the world, and you likely won’t even notice most, if any of them.
- Your Captain’s Journal would occasionally bug out and not progress to the next entry option, forcing you to restart from your latest saved week. Not the biggest deal, but it can be annoying if that restart forces you to redo what you did the week prior.
- Putting Resource Cards into the Hoosh Pot and/or Furnace could sometimes glitch and disappear, preventing you from putting more than one of a specific Resource Card into said Hoosh Pot and/or Furnace. For example, if you have 13 Emperor Penguin cards and you wanted to put 5 into the Hoosh Pot, sometimes after you stuck one in, the rest of your Emperor Penguin cards would disappear from sight and you couldn’t add more (those Resource Cards would still be in your inventory, you just wouldn’t be able to utilize them in quantities greater than one). This is, at most, a minor inconvenience, as I was usually able to solve it by simply escaping from either the Hoosh Pot or Furnace screen and returning to it.
Pros and Cons
- Exquisite narrative.
- Impactful player choice.
- Gameplay (including the UI) is easy to learn.
- You don’t always have to start from the beginning to experience an alternate narrative path.
- The music will make you cry.
- The dogs.
- Replayability can become cumbersome and repetitive.
- The art style may not be to your taste, especially if you’re more accustomed to hyper-realistic graphics.
- Scarlet Hollow
- Swordbreaker The Game
- Herald: An Interactive Period Drama – Book I & II
Question: Is There Any Voice Acting?
Answer: There is no voice acting, at least in its pre-launch state. I don’t think this takes away from the game at all though, and would still highly recommend it.
Question: Are There Different Difficulty Levels if you Want to Focus on the Story?
Answer: Nope. There is only one difficulty level, so if you find yourself struggling, just know it gets easier with repetition and consequential familiarity with the systems.
Question: Is the Game Easy?
Answer: If you have experience with resource-management games, then The Pale Beyond won’t be the greatest challenge for you. I think this game acts more like an intro to the survival genre, making it perfect for players new to said genre.
Verdict: Though it’s a niche game, it’s 100% worth a buy.
All in all, this was a very solid game. As I said in the “Key Info Up Front section,” this game is not for everyone, but if you are someone who enjoys a good story and having your own choices directly influence the narrative’s progression, this will blow your mind. The writing is exquisite; frankly, you don’t even need to be a fan of survival/resource-management-type games.
The creative writing carries The Pale Beyond that hard, but even so, if you’re a fan of the former, this is still a game to take for a spin. The only way I’d tell you to avoid this game is if you don’t like reading and/or you don’t care for a game’s story (for example, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t read any quest text and/or skips through cutscenes and cinematics; all you really want is the gameplay).
I have a little over 36 hours played in The Pale Beyond, and in that time, I’m still short a few achievements and I haven’t unlocked all of the endings. Granted, I didn’t skip through much of the dialogue (though I’m a fast reader), but still, this shows how much time you can sink into this game, despite certain reused narrative beats.
It is also important to note that there were a few updates to the game during my time playing. While there were noticeable bug fixes, other bugs sometimes arose that I didn’t come across on pre-update play-throughs. Regardless, with the amount I played, I still find myself wanting to go back and experience what other possibilities lie ahead.
And let me say, I can’t wait to jump back in.