The Pale Beyond review: a gripping survival game full of drama and despair
Tales from the ice
You know it’s a great turn in The Pale Beyond when only five of your crew are freezing, two have frostbite, and one has scurvy. After all the struggles and dangers I’ve been through trying to keep my ship’s crew alive in the bone-biting cold of the arctic tundra, that’s definitely a success in my book.
It’s easy to describe Bellular Studio’s survival sim as just ‘Frostpunk on a ship’, but in some ways that’s pretty accurate: you’re the leader of a group trying to survive in a harsh frozen wasteland. But it’s also a comparison that falls short in plenty of other ways. Sure, the engine of this survival sim might run the same as Frostpunk’s, but it’s buried deep in a handcrafted hull. With an overarching story that deals with the drama and despair of survival, together with a cast of underdog characters whose personalities and flaws fuel your determination to keep them alive, The Pale Beyond is much more human than its steampunk counterpart.
Your journey begins with an interview. You are a sailor named Robin Shaw who has been drafted as First Mate into the crew of The Temperance, a ship on a mission to sail into the depths of The Pale Passage in search of its missing sister ship, The Viscount. The first couple of weeks are smooth sailing, but one morning you wake up to find that the ship is stuck in a sheet of thick ice. Not only that, but the captain is missing and you're hundreds of miles from civilisation. As The Temperance's new captain, you need to balance your resources, keep the crew’s morale up, and find a way to survive until you are rescued, which should take around 35 weeks. Cool, cool, cool, no problem at all.
It’s a mission that feels doomed from the start. The fate of this ship was sealed as soon as it left the dock. What quickly started as a research and rescue mission is now one of survival, and all because some mysterious benefactor had enough cash to pay some desperate sailors to chase a myth. It’s a gripping set-up, and is only made more chilling with the opening text when you boot up the game: “This game contains mature themes inspired by the real historical experiences of polar explorers.” It really gets you in the right mindset for a poignant story about human endurance - but also misery, so much misery.
Right lads, we’ve got to survive for over half a year in this arctic death trap, so let's get into the gubbins of how we’re going to do that. Like with your standard survival sim, careful resource management is the only way you’re going to see land again. In The Pale Beyond, this is represented in two categories: food for rations and fuel for the generator. At the start of your expedition, you’ll have plenty of both, but when your ship gets stuck you need to start hustling for supplies. Each turn is an in-game week, and during this time you’ll be assigning crew members different jobs; at the end of your turn you get to see the results of those decisions in a long scary list. Who’s succumbed to frostbite because you sent them out to hunt when they were already freezing cold? Who’s now malnourished because you wanted to cut down on rations to save food? Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.
In this way, The Pale Beyond has the usual flotsam and jetsam of management games, but the thing that really underpins it is the story and characters. This isn’t a story generator like RimWorld or This War Of Mine - there’s a string of story events that you follow throughout the game, complete with a cast of characters you get to know over time. The best comparison would be Stoic’s Viking RPG The Banner Saga. So, yeah, there are characters who you'll grow to love who could then potentially die, and it’ll be all your fault.
Forming relationships with your crew is incredibly important. When the captain went missing, there was a vote for who would take his place, and you won by only a single ballot, so that’s the worrying position to be in. Each member of the core crew (around eight of the total 20) has a scale showing their loyalty to you, and their underlings will following wherever their boss lies. Having conversations with them and picking the right dialogue options, as well as doing them favours and agreeing with their requests, will slowly build up points to get them onside. Piss them off, though, and they'll lose loyalty.
Imagine Hammond, the ship’s lead engineer has three other engineers working under him who will all follow his lead - which is good, because currently his loyalty lies with you. But you end up killing one of his team in an artic outing, and then stop him from burning books as fuel for the generator. Low and behold, his loyalty drops. This all ties in with general crew morale too, represented by a meter in the bottom left of the screen. If you make a decision that someone doesn’t appreciate, like confiscating a box of choccy biscuits someone had stowed away, they might not only lose loyalty but become demoralised too, which decreases the crew’s overall morale rating. Just like with food and fuel, if that reaches zero it’s game over.
This relationship system has a lot of weight attached to it because - and please don’t tell the other captains about this - it informs your more... difficult decisions regarding the crew. If I can only send a single person to the doctor but have two people with frostbite, sorry, but it’s not going to be the guy who, by association, is loyal to the old captain who up and did a runner. It’s terrible, but it’s true! You have to think tactically about who to prioritise, and, outside of their jobs, crew loyalty can be the deal breaker. In other survival sims, I just assigned nameless workers to whatever horrible job needs doing, but in The Pale Beyond I had to weigh up my options differently. I had to look directly into the eyes of a character’s portrait as I toldl them to go hunt for penguins even though they’re totally going to get frostbite and die.
As you play further into the game, all the characters, even the ones that hate your guts, grow on you. Grimley, one of two brothers on board, couldn’t stand the sight of me at first, and even made up rude songs that the crew would sing, all about how I was a terrible captain with a frozen arse. But I still wound up liking him. I like that he loves playing his accordian, and how he worries about his brother; heck, I even like his unwavering loyalty to the other captain even after weeks of him not returning. The Kennel Master, Cordell, is completely closed off and prefers the company of her dogs to people, but after slowly getting to know her it turns out she’s massively into theatre, and now I love her even more. There are loads of little stories, like one crew member teaching another how to read, Harold Turner who goes by ‘Leftie’ because of his missing eye, and a father and son duo who I refused to let either of them die, because they’re family. It’s emotional blackmail, I tell you! Decisions are hard not because you’re losing workers, they’re hard because you’re losing characters who you've made connections with.
Playing politics with your crew is one tense aspect of the story, but there are also certain story beats that can potentially throw your journey into disarray. They’re gloriously dramatic, but also total game-enders if you’re not prepared. The Pale Beyond is not an easy game, and though I wouldn’t say it was Frostpunk-levels of gruelling, I decided multiple times to abandon my run and restart. Thankfully there's an auto-save system, but it also doesn't save for weeks at a time sometimes, which is frustrating for save scumming. But hey, since the story remains the same on restarts, you can fly through the story and dialogue to get to make careful changes where you like. You can get a ‘perfect run’ this way, because you know all the story events and important decisions to prepare for. My total playtime has been around 15 hours, but my best attempt start to finish has taken me around five.
I would love to leave the review here, but unfortunately, The Pale Beyond has some serious bug issues that riddled my build. Resource numbers would constantly change, some often turning invisible, a blank space in my inventory where they should have been. In a game where a single can of rations can mean life or death, having these hiccups pop up was always frustrating, especially when I was on a particularly great run. Hopefully, these are issues that can be fixed with a quick patch, but they're annoying nonetheless. I almost wept when my number of coal bags kept dipping from nine to six.
With those bugs squashed, The Pale Beyond would be a stonking survival game. I love the attention to detail in the story and characters, which makes you want to hang in there not for the sake of beating the campaign, but because you genuinely want to spend more time with the crew - and find out the bigger mystery behind the missing ship. Next time I'm going to try and save every single person, and not just barely make it through with half my crew dead and the other half frostbitten and starving. I think it's going to take me a while, though.