The Pale Beyond review: compelling but messy arctic management-sim RPG

The Pale Beyond review: compelling but messy arctic management-sim RPG

On my maiden voyage to the middle of frozen nowhere, I’ve made a new best friend: the hoosh pot. It’s survival cooking — hoosh is a sort of Antarctic explorer’s gruel made with whatever’s lying around, from penguins to dead sled dogs, and under dire circumstances, the unsavory products of “the custom of the sea.” As someone with a morbid fascination with weird historical food, it’s easy for me to obsess over the hoosh, but as a stalwart upholder of civilization, I refuse to succumb to cannibalism.

I’m not doing an intense gastronomical LARP — I’m playing The Pale Beyonda survival-driven adventure that takes a page from tales of late-19th-century polar explorers, and perhaps more recently, the first season of AMC’s historical thriller The Terror (which was, in turn, based on an actual lost expedition). At first blush, it’s a straightforward survival simulator where I expect the worst to happen, because there’s nothing positive that can come from forcibly inserting a bunch of soft, vulnerable mammals into an icebound hellscape that simply does not wish to host them. But really, what are humans without hubris?

The story begins by meeting Captain Hunt, an enigmatic old salt who hires my faceless character, Robin Shaw, as first mate aboard the Temperance. The job is to find the Temperance’s missing sister ship, the Viscount. It’s clear that Hunt is keeping secrets, and once we’re aboard, it becomes even clearer that the captain — while loved and respected by the crew — is totally checked out. Templeton, an uptight biologist who fittingly resembles a steely-eyed draugr, seems to be the only one invested in finding the twin ship. When Hunt goes missing, Shaw must take up the captain’s mantle, at least temporarily, to see things through.

The crew in The Pale Beyond huddles around an ice fishing hole at the center of its camp

Image: Bellular Studios/Fellow Traveler

Time passes in weekly increments, in which Shaw is responsible for maintaining food, fuel, and, arguably, the ship’s most important resource: decorum, or morale. Exploring the ship yields resource cards along with items that can improve facilities or affect decorum. Shaw can assign crew to shovel coal, scientists to make medicine, and so on. The main duty is “taking requests” as the captain, which may involve settling disputes or taking sides and inevitably causing problems. If a specialist—the only person in the crew who can perform a specific job—gets too sick, it can spell death for the mission. This maritime HR system forms the draconian backbone of The Pale Beyond‘s resource management, and affects each person’s loyalty to Shaw. If you want to survive, the overall goal is to achieve the closest thing to harmony as possible among 22-odd humans who are clumsy and irritating and awkward, or just plain rude.

The claustrophobic polar setting is a quick and effective way to push Shaw uncomfortably into each character’s tiny radius of personal space. As further misery unfolds, the very concept of privacy feels as distant as warm, dry land. There’s a grim sense of inevitability as Shaw leads the crew closer to the Viscount’s last known position—an endeavor hampered by constant failure and tough decisions. But despite its branching paths on a locked tree system, The Pale Beyond remains an overwhelmingly linear experience — one undermined by a distinct lack of polish and small UX choices that snowball into genuine frustration after repeated mission deaths and failures.

For instance, the “locked” save/load tree system means that if you die (ie, you run out of decorum and the expedition ends), there are only a handful of points on the tree you can return to before reliving a parade of tedious UI notifications and prompts for 20-plus individual characters until you die again. Mid-game, I became inured to the soft little chimes alerting me to each individual crew member’s frostbite or demoralization — several times, I impatiently sat through an unskippable sequence of death notifications, one by one. No matter how personally invested I was in the well-being of my anxious doctor or a particularly abrasive engineer, there was a point where each gentle little ping became a crampon to the head. It didn’t help that the game is absolutely drowning in typos, which is incredibly distracting for a dialogue-heavy, text-focused genre that lives and dies by the power of prose.

An overhead view of the camp in The Pale Beyond, with a menu denoting each specialist's skills overlaid

Image: Bellular Studios/Fellow Traveler

You can move around the ship and talk to whomever you like, and you will only push the story forward after clicking on specific yellow-bordered icons. But at some points in the narrative, if you don’t choose to “take requests” to begin the week, it breaks the game, and you have to start from the last save point.

At Week 17, for instance, I died several times, which in itself is no big deal — I die a lot in games! Aim The Pale Beyond kept sending me back to the beginning of the week, with 0-5 decorum, which meant no chance of changing my fate. Each time, this meant reliving another Groundhog Day (or rather, week) of failing, sitting through the aforementioned laundry list of individual maladies and deaths, and then scrolling down the save tree to start again at Week 4. As a result, every restart — and there were many — felt more like death by a thousand cuts. This shouldn’t be the case in a game that wants you to branch out and experiment with new captaining decisions to unlock new outcomes; at times I tried a more forceful, dominating version of Shaw, which had mixed results among the crew.

Eventually, I crawled back to Week 1, and after choosing largely the same options, was surprised to find that I had somehow created a new branch in the narrative tree. I still have no idea what I did differently. But I succumbed to the most basic completion strategy, simply to avoid further headache: I pushed Shaw to endear themselves to the crew as much as possible, with the exception of Templeton, whose Night King-meets-British Navy officer vibes were distinctly rancid. This was extremely helpful in one ending, and in another, I squandered an inviting opportunity to turn Shaw into a self-serving liar. I had, after all, led most of my crew to survival through unthinkable circumstances, and I wasn’t about to let all that hard-won moral righteousness go to waste.

A screen with several dialogue choices pops up as Captain Shaw speaks to a crew member below deck in The Pale Beyond

Image: Bellular Studios/Fellow Traveler

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the big reveal at the end, at which point the game attempts to break the fourth wall at the last second. It simply didn’t click with me. Thus far, the game had taken a fairly understated approach to the main story beats, bolstering the game’s immersive mystery, which, coupled with constant challenges within and without the Temperance camp, built up an effective sense of paranoid momentum; up until the moment when Shaw enters the captain’s cabin on the Viscount, I genuinely didn’t know what to expect.

To its credit, the game avoids some of the most tokenistic and fetishistic tendencies of settler polar expedition/frontier fiction that ignore strong cultural Native taboos in favor of sensational horror; a fairly recent instance was Devolver’s “immersive sim” RPG Weird Westwhich did a tremendous job at showcasing Anishinaabe language, but also perplexingly thing to include a huge cultural taboo despite working with a sensitivity consultant.

A woman pets one of her dogs out on the ice in The Pale Beyond

Image: Bellular Studios/Fellow Traveler

The Terror writers tried to avoid this by creating their own myth based on Inuit culture — essentially, an exercise in renaming and repackaging the unspeakable into a comfortable form of plausible deniability. In theory, this feels like a workable compromise, but in practice, the road to artistic freedom is more often than not paved with things that simply aren’t meant for cheap entertainment. There is one potential path down the same road in The Pale Beyond, but I ignored tugging that thread in favor of concentrating on my crew’s survival. The game seems to follow The Terror‘s lead in creating its own mythology from the perspective of tired, starving, superstitious sailors who believe they’re seeing things out in the ice.

The Pale Beyond, for all its flaws and frustrations, still manages to retain a desolate sort of charm, rough edges and all. It isn’t afraid to put Shaw in horrendously painful situations where there’s no good outcome — there’s one exceptionally bleak scenario where you can practically feel the game gleefully milking what’s left of your serotonin. Coming off the ice and making land after nearly 40 weeks of hell really feels like moving between two worlds; the background art and environments are positively unearthly when shrouded in ominous fog and hazy light. The ocean scenes with icebergs awash in pinks and oranges are truly gorgeous, as are the dark, roiling storms. If only the internal logic of the overall plot was a little more cohesive, and a little less patched together, I feel like I would actually return to the Temperance and give it another whirl. As it stands, I’m still choosing the ending where I get to head home and eat a civilized meal.

The Pale Beyond will be released on Feb. 24 on Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Fellow Traveler. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *