“Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme. Come lift up your voices in chorus with mine. Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain. For we may or might never all leave here again.” The crew’s song echoes across the ice flow. The words won’t fill their bellies nor warm their frostbitten fingers, but one must take small comforts where one can. Soon, they will once again turn to you for guidance. You didn’t ask to be their captain, but so help you god, you will lead them out of the Pale Beyond.
You are Robin Shaw, First Mate of Captain Hunt’s expedition to find the wreck of the Viscount at the south pole. After an interview, telling Hunt your background, experience, and thoughts on leadership, you’ve got the job. For the first month or so of the voyage, before the vessel hits ice, you get to know the crew. Some like you, some don’t. But when Hunt goes missing after the ship is trapped in the ice, all eyes are on you to lead the crew and survive this frozen wasteland until rescue arrives.
The Pale Beyond is a narrative survival game. As acting captain, you need to manage the crew’s food, heat, morale, and loyalty week to week so no one dies. Rescue will arrive in about 30 weeks, and there will be many twists and turns as the pale tries to kill you all. If you don’t have enough food to go around, characters will become malnourished, eventually progressing to scurvy and then death. If the furnace’s temperature is too low people will become frozen, develop frostbite and then – you guessed it – die of it. The general game flow goes like this: you start the week taking requests, assign crew members to their tasks, call everyone to dinner, then advance to the next week. You need to manage all your resources wisely, because sending groups out hunting or scavenging on the ice can only get you so much. If morale gets too low, however, then it’s your head on the chopping block.
Surviving is just as important as trust here. As acting captain, each week you’ll take requests and assign tasks to the crew. You’ll mostly be receiving requests from the specialists of the team.These characters are more fleshed out than the rest of the crew, like the head engineer, particularly influential sailors, the kennel master, and more. We’ll talk more about the characters themselves later, but for now all you need to know is that completing their requests, anything from setting aside some food for a holiday feast to locking the camp down early for the winter, will increase that character’s loyalty. Without spoiling anything, if a character is loyal to you they will side with you in certain story events, as will anyone loyal to them in turn. You can’t bow to every whim obviously, as some will even conflict, but a good captain understands when to spend and when to save.
There are a variety of things you can assign crew members to do for the week, though some tasks require someone trained in something like scouting or engineering. For example, let’s say you want to assign four sailors to hunt penguins that week. You’ll first need to scout out a location on the map by sending out a scout and three sled dogs. They’ll come back quickly, but you won’t be able to use the scout nor the dogs for the rest of the week. After discovering a place with penguins, you’ll then need to choose how many you want to send hunting, from one to four, and the group will need four more sled dogs. Once the week ends, they’ll come back with food/fuel but also probably be freezing, so the next week you’ll probably want that group to stay in the medical tent and warm up. Practically everything affects your crew’s status in ways you can usually predict so planning weeks in advance so no one is left to freeze to death is a must.
Scouting and hunting are the most common activities to assign, but there are also a few more you have access to depending on the situation. If some people are sick, you can assign them to rest in the infirmary for the week. They won’t contribute any resources and become unavailable for other tasks, but they won’t die. Probably. You can get around that unavailability by using a medical cure, created by assigning all three scientists to do so for a week. If a character’s morale gets particularly low, you can send them to interview with the journalist who’s documenting the voyage and their mood will perk up. Lastly, aside from some special requests, you can send your two engineers to crank up the heat, which will randomly cure some crew members of freezing.
As you continue to survive on the ice, the overall story will continue no matter what, with big events happening at set times throughout the game. These are things like needing to move camp because the ice is breaking up or enclosing the camp in canvas to survive the winter. These events will alter your available resources in some way, like not being able to hunt during winter. While I did somehow get through the game without anyone dying, it wasn’t easy. The Pale Beyond is brutal; just when I thought the situation couldn’t get worse something would completely flip the situation on its head again. There’s a story event later on that is absolutely heartbreaking entirely due to your decisions, but it really earns that moment.
It’s a lot of fun in a survival game to just barely skirt by, and that is a balance The Pale Beyond perfectly walks. You are constantly managing what little resources you have along with the well being of your crew, making sure you never run out of food and fuel while also strategically assigning tasks and rest periods. It’s a lot of stressful fun. Especially once you factor in earning the loyalty of all the specialists and getting to know them.
The characters are somewhat loosely defined, but I still grew to really like every single character in the game. In particular, I really liked Lady Cordell, the Kennel Master with a mysterious past, Kasha Bellford, the excitable journalist, and Kurt Darling, your Navigator and movie star. Special mention should also be paid to Richard Templeton, who essentially serves as your second in command and the representative of your anonymous benefactor. Despite us constantly butting heads, I appreciated his cool head and pragmatic yet cold outlook. The only person I couldn’t get to be loyal to me was Grimley Stoke, a gruff sailor and carpenter who plays the accordion. I really wanted to get to know him, but he decided he wanted nothing to do with me early on.
What The Pale Beyond does best is atmosphere and mood. Visuals focus almost entirely on pure white and a cold, desaturated blue. Character portraits likewise use desaturated colors with sketchy linework, which shows the fragility of your crew despite how they may act. The soundscape too is very sparse, with music only ever used sparingly and mostly diegetically. I’m trying to convey that feeling with the (slightly changed) Irish folk song in the opening paragraph, because I don’t want to spoil the songs that are here and I think it fits the vibe pretty well. The majority of what you hear will be the wind blowing through camp, the clanking of bowls and utensils at dinner, and the shuffling of cloth when people enter your tent. The audio here serves to really immerse you in the situation, and demonstrates a mastery of the craft.
The game does have a few unfortunate flaws, however. There are two main endings, both of which are nice in and of themselves, but there’s no epilogue or anything afterwards to tell you what happened to all of the characters who survived. I wouldn’t want something too grandiose or involved, just a sentence or two for at least the major players and your character. It feels like something should be there too, because many of the characters talk about what they’ll do once they get home and you have a few choices as well.
As a smaller budget indie game, I’m not going to hold this next problem against them too much, but The Pale Beyond lacks noticeable polish in some areas. There are quite a few typos, moments where code sneaks into dialogue bubbles, and controller support has a habit of breaking frequently. The game is verified on Steam Deck, but I don’t believe it should be in this state. It looks and runs great on the platform, but the default controls just don’t work half the time. You may need to tweak it for emergency mouse support. Even so, The Pale Beyond is a fantastic experience, joining a burgeoning genre of narrative survival games like the equally excellent I Was a Teenage Exocolonist and Citizen Sleeper.
David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.
The Pale Beyond
The Pale Beyond is a masterclass in tone and atmosphere informing gameplay. As Captain Robin Shaw, you’ll need to make tough decisions constantly, but this stressful journey is well worth seeing through to the end.