Become the Captain of one of the Most Epic Stories of Survival Ever Told. The Pale Beyond Switch Review.
It was a bold decision for the first-ever game from Irish developer Bellular Studio to tackle and base a game on real-life polar expeditions. It’s not the sort of subject that would initially appeal to a wide audience of gamers. I would also suspect that there are very few reviewers who have studied or know much about Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, which this game so clearly takes a lot of inspiration from.
Not only have I personally read Ernest Shackleton’s book “South”, but I have also read many other books on the subject, from Captain Scott’s failed bid to reach the South Pole to Bear Grylls’s expeditions to the North Pole and many others in-between. I am no expert, but I certainly know more than most about the subject and what hardships these generally entail. One of the questions most people ask themselves after reading Shackleton’s book “South” is, “Could I have done that and made those decisions?”. Well now, all you budding polar explorers can get to scratch that itch with this incredible visual novel, resource management, RPG, adventure game The Pale Beyond.
The Pale Beyond was actually released to critical acclaim on PC back in February 2023, and the Switch version I played for this review comes with the original release difficulty, together with normal and hard mode. I started playing the game on the new “normal” difficulty, which I’ll get back to later in this review.
The Pale Beyond makes it abundantly clear from the beginning that this is a cerebral, thought-provoking game. The opening discussions in the prologue in the recruitment process with the captain of the expedition ship Temperance immediately set this game apart from its contemporaries. Games that make the player make narrative decisions most of the time make it simple to avoid the bad choices. Here though, I was in glorious moral dilemmas within five minutes.
After I managed to get through the prologue sequence and was confirmed as second-in-command, First Mate Robin Shaw, the ship set sail and we were upon the seas heading south. You are actually on a rescue mission to find the Temperance’s sister ship, the Viscount, and only have its last location as a guide.
After a short stop off, it was only a few weeks into the expedition that the Temperance got stuck in the ice. Not only that, but the captain and three of the crew have gone missing, as well as one of the lifeboats. After a tense and very close vote, you are voted in as the new leader and are expected to lead the crew to safety. Note here that I put “leader” and not “captain” as part of the issue some of the crew has with you is that they won’t recognize you as the captain of the ship. A rescue ship is not due for another 35 weeks, so can you make the right decisions to keep the crew alive that long? And to add to all that, there’s the mystery of what has actually happened to Captain Hunt and the missing crew, and who exactly is funding this mission and why.
The Pale Beyond at its heart is a survival, resource management, visual novel RPG. The four main elements in play that you need to keep balanced are fuel to keep warm, food to keep going, decorum of the crew (i.e. morale), that if it dips below zero, then it’s means game over, and the individual loyalties of the specialists in the crew and the crew themselves.
Interactions via text options and orders given will affect each of these aspects in one way or another, directly or not. At the end of each week, you can also decide how much of your reserves can be used, which again, affects the aspects of the crew. In short, the game is a balancing act from start to finish, finding enough resources to keep the crew going in these harsh conditions and making enough of the right decisions to keep the expedition together and alive.
There are a lot of questions during the story that need answering that elevate the interest in the game further. Part of the reason I wanted to complete the game was not only to try to save as many of the crew as possible but also to uncover the mysteries of what exactly was happening. The engagement of this alone propelled me along with avid interest.
What was even more delightful were the fantastic and varied interactions and moments of dialogue between the members of the crew in our conversations. Each character had their own distinct personalities, and spending time getting to know them and seeing what made them tick is crucial to the gameplay.
Where this game becomes special, however, is that in other text-based games where you make decisions, there were a lot of quite clearly stupid responses that inadvertently directed you to the right one the game wanted you to pick. Here, however, each option, generally, made me sit and think because the responses and conversations were more considered in their content, and each option made sense at some level.
The other delectable issue was that one of the game’s systems is loyalty. You only just scraped through the first vote for leadership because just enough of the crew were loyal to you at the time. The decisions you make will alter people’s loyalty up and down, and with you trying to win over as much of the crew as possible, not only do you have to make decisions to save the crew, but you also have to please people so that your authority isn’t challenged. The narrative makes it quite clear that your authority is on shaky ground, and re-voting at some point will be inevitable.
One example of the very first choices you have to make in the game is that a stowaway is found on the ship. The ship’s chief scientist and advocate for the benefactor (and second-in-command to you) says that the stowaway needs to be put off at the next stop and sent home. We haven’t the supplies or space for an extra hand. The crew member who found him says that the boy is the son of one of the crew and this will demoralize them, especially the father.
If the morale of the crew gets too low, the game ends, as the crew will tear themselves apart. So, you as the leader have to make the choice if he stays or not. Either choice is going to upset someone, and not only do you have to do the right thing, but you also have to consider who you would be upsetting and if you want to gain their loyalty.
Many decisions like this are not clear cut, and the choices can and do get much tougher as you go further into the game. I often found that I would sit for minutes pondering over these choices, but it’s here I found my first stumbling block.
As mentioned, I’ve read a lot about what really happened in Antarctic and Polar expeditions, so I started playing the game with a bit of a no-nonsense mindset, you have to be tough and fair for the greater good. I soon found that this was really hurting my experience as only a few of the crew responded well to this sort of leadership. It felt quite disappointing that trying to think like a real explorer was hurting my chances of getting through the game.
For example, back to the stowaway. I played this sequence twice. If this was a real situation, there would have been no way that he should have stayed on the ship. Even the members of the crew in the game say that he’s lucky that I as leader didn’t just throw him overboard. This game is set around the late 1800s to early 1900s, so that kind of treatment would be expected. So, I decided to send the stowaway packing at our next stop. Even though the father of the stowaway knew this was what should have happened, I still lost some of the crew’s decorum and loyalty. Alternatively, in the playthrough where I kept the stowaway, I only lost a little loyalty from the person who suggested he should be sent home.
This, however, also led me to another situation that was really quite fun to experience. Knowing I needed to gain the loyalty of certain crew members, I then would have to agree to decisions I wouldn’t normally make just to get them on my good side. Quite the situation! It was funny because the grumpy person preferred my grumpy answers, the nervous, my scatty answers, and the confident, my flattering responses.
As I progressed, events took over, and managing resources on the ice became tricky mainly because it was quite easy to lose crew members to the cold or scurvy. Losing numbers meant losing a set of hands to complete basic chores that needed to be done to keep the camp ticking over. Even worse, some of the crew were specialists that no other crew member could replace. For example, there are only two engineers, and if both of them die, then there is no one capable of raising the heat of the boiler to cure people of frostbite!
The game is split into weeks, with each week being played out in around 10 to 20-minute segments. The game automatically saves progress at the beginning of each week, and it is simple to go back to a previous week to alter your choices if things “went south” or you didn’t like how something turned out. That being said, in my first playthrough, after restarting a few weeks due to calamitous catastrophes and outcomes I didn’t like, I was losing crew faster than I could look after them. I felt I was always behind the eight ball and didn’t really have a chance to catch up to where I needed to be.
Part of this problem was not everyone appreciated me being a stern leader, the other problem was once a crew member was afflicted with a condition of either cold or malnutrition, if left unchecked, they would then die within two weeks. So many activities needed to keep the camp going would afflict the crew with some issues in this way.
With only a certain amount of resources and medical care available to deal with an unwell crew member whilst also maintaining my supplies, my crew diminished at an alarming rate. This, I’ll be honest, on a nerdy level bugged me the most about the game. One of the most overriding aspects you will discover from the real-world Antarctic or Polar explorers is just how far and for how long people would be able to push themselves to survive despite being malnourished or frostbitten. In some cases, these heroes survived for months, and that is what made their stories inspiring.
Compare that to the fact that these “buttercups” on the Temperance can only go two weeks before death, I felt this stole me of that sense of tension I was looking forward to experiencing. My crew were mainly either alive or dead, with very little in between. I also lost the sense of jubilation for a dying crew when, for example, food was found because there is actually a fair amount to find in the game, you just have to have enough crew with the time to get it, not that it is scarce.
I thought the game could have been balanced better by increasing a crew member’s ability to survive for longer by getting progressively weaker over a longer period of time rather than the two weeks they actually get. Combine that with less food and fuel but a bigger cache of both when they were found that lasts for longer, then this would have made finding them more of an event to be celebrated in the game than they actually were. Can you imagine how jubilant the real Captain Scott would have been when he and his explorers found a food cache they had spent the last three weeks trying to find? The Pale Beyond, unfortunately, missed these moments that I was hoping to experience.
The artwork of the game can only be described as achingly beautiful! Each hand-drawn character combined with the gorgeous settings had me at times literally gaping at the stunning scenery. I particularly enjoyed the detail of the different character designs. This gave each crew member their own visual personality, as well as the ones I had to get to know via dialogue.
Despite being set in a bleak and sparse landscape, the artists still managed to make the backdrops for the game interesting to gaze upon with small visual details here and there. A base camp on the ice flow shouldn’t have been so enticing to visit. I simply drank all the vistas in with joy, especially the “dogloos” (igloos for dogs).
Crucially for a text-heavy visual novel game, the clarity of the text and menus made them easy to read, even in the Switch’s handheld mode. Add to this the fact that the game’s audio was superb. I sometimes, if I felt tired, left the screen on with the ship stuck in ice and to the accompanying sound of the polar wind blowing while I chilled out in my room; it felt so natural and real that I fell asleep! Anyone who knows what ASMR is would understand how relaxing that can be.
There is no voice acting, (more’s the pity) only in-game sound effects like doors closing and footsteps as you go from one location to the next, but the musical score makes up for this. Some simple but melancholy piano music soothes away while you make these decisions in the game, but strings burst into life in some of the more dramatic moments the story has to offer.
I was a long way into my first playthrough before I began to realize I had to be a “people pleaser” rather than a stern leader, by which point I was too far gone in my chances of success.
So, I gave up on my first playthrough to begin a new playthrough on the classic, as per the original release, difficulty. This was a much more enjoyable and forgiving experience, especially as I was going to be the aforementioned people-pleaser leader this time around. You still have to manage your resources and crew in the same way, but the game also gave me a little more leeway in the amount of supplies and issues with the health of the crew I had to deal with.
In my second playthrough on the classic setting, I got to really enjoy that the strengths of the game lie in the story it has to tell, the characters you get to meet, the wonderful dialogue and conversations you will have, the deliciously simple yet challenging resource management mechanics, and most of all, the choices you have to make. When playing this game, you will at times find out more about the kind of person you are rather than what is going on in the game itself.
I’ve deliberately held back from going too far into explaining the situations you will be put in to avoid spoilers, but this is one game that will make you sit and not only think about what you want to do per scene but will linger with you even when you are not playing.
The Pale Beyond will take seven to eleven hours to complete one playthrough and has multiple endings that really add to the replay value. It also felt remarkably well-researched and authentic to the time period, where even someone like myself, who has studied the subject matter a fair bit, can only nitpick at certain aspects. I also didn’t find any bugs, glitches, or crashes, but I did notice a little bit of slowdown in the text revealing itself and wondered if the game engine was struggling a little on the Switch.
The game and the dilemmas it puts you through are most certainly aimed at an older audience that is more experienced with life and worldly to its consequences. In the modern era of hold-your-hand as I guide you through this gaming, I found this different approach by The Pale Beyond incredibly refreshing, and I was more appreciative of the fact that this game even exists.
Bellular Studios has smashed their first game out of the park! What a wonderful first experience from them. The Pale Beyond is a classy game that simply oozes quality, authenticity, and confidence with a casual aplomb. It unashamedly knows what it’s trying to be and easily succeeds in doing so.
There is so much to enjoy here, and with such a solid foundation of mechanics and writing now behind them, is this the start of a series of equally wonderful games based around other fantastic real-world stories? I really hope so because if Bellular Studios and The Pale Beyond aren’t shortlisted for some categories in the end-of-year game awards, then something is wrong with the gaming world.
Developer: Belluar Studios
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, MacOS, Windows
Release date: 24th February 2023 (PC), 6th October 2023 (Nintendo Switch)