2023 just got its first narrative banger.
The Pale Beyond sends you into the unknown (and asks what you’ll give up to get through it)
The Pale Beyond does justice to its biggest inspirations, channelling dread and uncertainty in all the right ways. The management mechanics may be a little shallow for some, but the narrative is gripping enough that you'll likely find yourself ready to see your journey through to the bitter end.
The Pale Beyond review
If your appetite for nautical horror mysteries has been whet by works like The Terror and you're after a second serving, you’ve got more than a few options on the menu. Movies like The Lighthouse and games like the Return of the Obra Djinn and Dread Hunger do a great job of tapping into the specific vibe of AMC’s 2018 series. The isolation, anxiety, antiquity and uncertainty of desperate individuals in dire circumstances.
The Pale Beyond goes that one step further. It feels like the first such follow-up to weave together all the things that work about its biggest inspiration together into a tapestry that feels every bit just as compelling rather than just evocative.
Described in less flowery language, The Pale Beyond is a visual novel with resource management elements and a premise that draws you in from the first scene.
You're cast as the first mate on an expedition aboard The Temperance. Bound for the South Pole in search of another ship that went missing some years earlier, The Pale Beyond begins with your initial job offer but wastes little time when it comes to letting the plot thicken.
It isn't long before your circumstances change and you’re elevated to a more senior decision-making role. From there, you’re charged with managing the ship’s resources and earning the loyalty of its crew as it enters the uncharted territories ahead.
While the game’s lavishly drawn aesthetic and thematic inspirations are obvious, there’s a lot about The Pale Beyond that feels like it's been drawn from Stoic's The Banner Saga trilogy. This game might not have any of the turn-based combat and RPG trappings, but it's definitely got a similar temperament and pace to it.
Every day aboard The Temperance brings with it new challenges, threats and choices. What do you do when a stowaway is discovered? How do you keep the morale of your crew high when times get tough?
Making these sorts of decisions and deciding how many bodies to throw at what problems are only half the equation. You’ll also be responsible for rationing the amount of food and fuel you consume each day.
Neglect the needs of your crew and they might mutiny against you or grow ill with frostbite or scurvy. Fail to help them in time and they’ll die. Every member of your crew has a face, a story and the potential to help you solve unexpected problems, so it pays to stay on top of things and keep everything ship-shaped.
The crew and resource management elements of The Pale Beyond are serviceable enough to keep things interesting, but those who prefer the depth of a more dedicated strategy title like Frostpunk may find them lacking. Thankfully, the visuals and soundtrack help pick up some of the slack here.
Neither is all that exceptional on its own, but they work well together to complement both the gameplay and prose here. The Pale Beyond doesn't sound particularly memorable, but it hits all the right notes and puts you in the mood for the subject matter to hit you at exactly the right angle.
Unfortunately, the presentation and interface here are a little buggy from time to time. More than once, I missed a critical line of dialogue because the crew interface unexpectedly opened and I was unable to close it without advancing the story. For a game that feels so inspired by modern visual novels as this one, it’s downright bizarre there isn’t a rolling dialogue box buried somewhere in the interface.
Still, these are small complaints in the grand scheme of things. Everything that works here doesn’t outstay its welcome and it's rare to find a visual novel with this specific texture and tone.
All told, I managed to hit credits on The Pale Beyond after around eight hours of playtime. That sum was broken out into three sessions, and I could easily envision milking a few more hours out of the game if I wanted to see how the consequences of certain choices played out.
The Pale Beyond relies on a bespoke save system that branches as you go. You'll get a checkpoint at the beginning of your current day and during specific key decisions, allowing you to rewind and experiment with different decisions if things go awry.
This unique approach to game state management brings with it a few pros, as well as cons. Because it only checkpoints at very specific moments or decisions, it sometimes meant I had to replay sections until I had optimised my resource management to the point where that side of the game became something of a solved problem.
At times, it feels a little too easy to rewind and recover from your mistakes and losses. Meanwhile, the cascade of failures that comes with losing even a single crew member at an inopportune moment feels all but insurmountable. That tension might suit the setting and story just fine, but it makes for a game where the management side of things becomes significantly less engaging as the story goes on.
Is The Pale Beyond worth buying?
For fans of The Terror, The Pale Beyond is as close as you're gonna get to a true sequel. It’s the first great narrative game of 2023, blending together the terrific and terrifying vibes of its settings, the tight storytelling of a good visual novel and the resource management of a survival game. It’s streamlined enough that there’s little between you and the game’s strengths, but not so streamlined that the mechanics become an outright bore.
It’s not the longest journey, but The Pale Beyond is one well worth taking.