The Pale Beyond is a narrative driven survival management game developed by Bellular Games and published by Fellow Traveller. It releases on PC on February 24, 2023, and is one of the most engaging and emotionally driven survival games I have played. I was quite surprised by how much it sucked me into the story. I had only planned to record an initial 30 minutes of gameplay as I started this review and before I knew it, I was three hours into the game and absolutely focused on keeping the crew alive in the dire situation they were in.
We play as Robin Shaw, a first mate hired by Captain Hunt to go on an expedition searching for a missing ship, the Viscount, that went down 5 years ago. Long thought lost, there is evidence that a crewperson survived and enough to warrant a rescue and recovery quest. Our ship, the Temperance sets sail on this quest to travel to The Pale Passage with a motley crew of engineers, scouts, sled dogs and a whole bunch of interesting characters. Straight away in our discussions with Shaw and then Templeton down at the docks that there are branching narrative paths we can take throughout the game. There is no voice acting but the music and sound effects work really well to capture the essence of every scene and sequence.
Aside from conversations, most of the game is played in an isometric view with hand-drawn art inspired by Victorian etchings and paintings of the time. As we board the Temperance, we slowly meet crew members. I loved how we got to know each crew member individually over time which includes not being able to see their crew portrait in the manifest until we physically meet them. It was a nice touch and made you seek out those missing in the list. We start with 23 crewmembers total including the Captain, Templeton and ourselves. That leaves 20 souls that we can utilise during our journey.
This number can change for various reasons but is broken down into groups that can perform particular tasks well, such as engineers who can work in the boiler room to ensure we have fuel to stay warm and scouts to look ahead for hazards from the crow’s nest. Our voyage starts off relatively smooth sailing and we have 100 fuel and 100 food to keep our crew warm and fed. After the first week, we have used half the fuel and half the food already, so it becomes apparent that we need a source of both those things.
Food can be found in the pantry and later by leading hunting expeditions, and fuel starts as coal in the boiler room and from other sources later in the game. You yourself can collect those manually, but it’s more efficient to assign crew to do this as you have more important things to do. Each week you will have some tasks to complete on the various decks and rooms of the ship, and icons will highlight over crewmembers who you can interact with. This gives you a chance to get to know each crew member individually and gain or lose loyalty with them. After an incident occurs where we find ourselves thrust into the position of Captain in charge of the welfare of the crew, and there are a number of crewmembers who were fiercely loyal to Captain Hunt.
Getting them to do things for you requires delicate conversations, but also acceptance that they will do what’s best for their safety, not necessarily what you want them to do. As I approached the end of each week, I nervously took stock of how much food and fuel I had left, managing to keep enough to last the week but you can use a slider to reduce the food and fuel allocations which affects crew morale/decorum. If you push the crew, they may flat our refuse the order or they will complete tasks, but we’ll suffer a loss of loyalty and overall crew decorum. If you run out of food, the crew can become malnourished which can turn into scurvy, and they could die. If you run out of fuel, the crew will freeze, get frostbite and die. It’s a pretty grim outlook.
You must work with the crew, assigning them to tasks to help collect food and fuel, but leave enough to cover emergencies. Ultimately if the crew’s decorum drops to zero, the game is over. In this instance, you will be shown some story branches in the week leading up to your demise and be able to start over making different decisions. Depending on how far through that week you were, you may need to repeat certain events and crew tasks which can be cumbersome, but I prefer this to having to start the whole game over from scratch. As you move from surviving on the ship to surviving on the ice, the risks you must take in order to keep the crew alive become far more emotionally driven as you know you can’t keep everyone happy, but damnit you will do your best!
Overall, The Pale Beyond is an immersive survival experience with great music, sounds and visuals and one of the better survival games I have played recently. It is intense at times with tough decisions to make for what you think is best for the crew, while at others it is beautiful as you connect with each crewmember and work to keep the whole crew alive. There are branching storylines that will prompt another playthrough though it’s one I will take a break from and return later.
This review utilised a key provided by Fellow Traveller and The Pale Beyond will launch on February 24, 2023 on Steam.