The Pale Beyond review

Release Date
24th February 2023
Bellular Studios
Fellow Traveller
PC (tested)

As I approach the outskirts of Belfast, bleary-eyed from an early morning flight, I spot two enormous arms reaching out across the City. The cab driver clocks me mid-tourist-gawp, offering up the names ‘Samson and Goliath’, before returning his gaze to the road. After a short while, we stop outside a lively pub. I pay my fare and we part ways before making a beeline toward the biblical giants. Of course, these aren’t literally giants but two canary yellow cranes; a relic of the City’s heyday as one of the shipbuilding capitals of the World. In fact, on this site, over a hundred years ago, the Titanic was built.

Sadly, we all know how the rest of the story goes, with or without Kate and Leo. It’s fitting, then, that Belfast-based Bellular Studios’ maiden game, The Pale Beyond, draws on that rich maritime history, resulting in an adventure every bit as awesome and perilous as the unsinkable ship herself.

The Pale Beyond

The Pale Beyond review

Sitting patiently in the Captain’s office, you thumb at the corners of a worn flyer . It’s a job advert for a ship’s crew: the pay is good; the chance of returning, not so much. Eventually, Captain Hunt arrives, greeting you with a string of questions about your work history and background. Through a series of dialogue options, you can tell him that you’re Landborn – City folk who usually fill the high-ranking Officer roles – or Saltborn – those born at sea; sailors; usually of the lower classes. Later in the game, your background determines the kind of knowledge and skills you possess, as well as your ability to form relationships with different social groups.

After landing the job as Hunt’s first mate, you set sail aboard the Temperance in search of her sister ship, The Viscount, which went missing five years ago in the deep polar South. But it isn’t long before you hear whisperings among the crew of the ship’s mysterious benefactor and an alleged ulterior motive behind the expedition. It’s hard to know who trust at first. Captain Hunt seems like a flaky lush, and the Temperance’s Chief Scientific Officer, Templeton, is as shady as he is pompous. Alas, your suspicions are confirmed one night when the Captain and a handful of sailors seemingly disappear from the ship, leaving you in command of his sceptical crew. It’s a set-up brimming with drama and intrigue, and one that’ll have its hooks in you faster than Captain Hook in a hook-a-duck contest.

The Pale Beyond

I am the captain now

Your first job as Captain is to take the crew’s requests in your cabin. On my first week, the surly engineer, Hammond, asks me to allocate all hands to the coal bunker to weather a particularly cold spell. At the same time, Junior, the ship’s cook, persuades me to double the rations for the day to celebrate a religious festival. Being the people pleaser that I am, it’s hard to say no, at first. But as conditions aboard the Temperance worsen, I realise this might’ve been a mistake. As the weeks go on, a lack of food sends the Helmsman down with scurvy, and a dwindling coal supply puts the navigator in the med bay with frostbite.

To try and right my wrongs, I send out a party onto the ice to hunt for food and fuel. But with two of my crew out of action with sickness, the bounty is meagre. The next week, I resolve to be more of a hard-ass; declining requests for bread and warmth like a Tory MP at the despatch box. But unlike the British electorate, the crew do not take kindly to this. The ship’s decorum (read morale) plummets rapidly, hovering dangerously near zero, at which point, Templeton assures me, there will be a munity. At each turn, The Pale Beyond raises the stakes with increasingly difficult moral questions that have me pulling my hair out with guilt. And I mean that as a compliment – I genuinely care about these people.

The Pale Beyond

Heavy is the head

As the pressures of leadership grow, so too does the number of systems and resources you’ll need to manage. For example, as the newly appointed Captain, you have an uphill struggle in convincing the former Captain’s loyal crew that you’re right for the job. Luckily, you can build up Loyalty points with individual characters through the dialogue choices you make. Equally, rub them up the wrong way and those points will soon plummet.

But It’s not as straightforward as simply flattering everyone.. In fact, a lot of the crew will see right through you. Instead, you have to use your knowledge of the individual and their relationship to the former Captain in order to win them round. Thankfully, The Pale Beyond is incredibly well-written, so hanging out with the crew is a delight. Each person, even the stuck up Templeton, are three-dimensional characters that you’ll want to spend the entirety of your journey having a good old chin-wag with.

And it’s largely through dialogue that The Pale Beyond builds its world; dangling tantalising little morsels of lore without any heavy exposition. It’s a world that feels familiar to ours, yet strange at the same time. There’s a moment, for example, when you first take hold of the helm and the camera zooms out until the ship is a tiny speck on the open sea. Toward the horizon, veins of light glow atop the waves as if they’re lava seeping through the Earth’s crust. Perhaps it’s because the word is in the title, but I can’t help but be reminded of The Pale in Disco Elysium: an almost impenetrable, ethereal phenomenon that enshrouds the world’s islands and continents like a great ocean.

The Pale Beyond

Beyond the pale

Zoom back in from the open sea and the hand-drawn artwork is just as exquisite. In particular, the character profiles that fill your screen during conversation are remarkably beautiful and bleak; the visible pencil marks weathering their skin like the salty sea spray and battering winds. To paint The Pale Beyond as a thoroughly bleak affair, though, would be downright untrue. It’s in the little moments – below deck as the ship’s timbers creak between the bellowing of an accordion and the bubbling of the cook’s hoosh pot – where you truly feel a part of the crew.

Occasionally, these moments can wear a bit thin, if, like me, your whole expedition perishes and you’re forced to restart from an earlier branch (save file) on the story tree. Having to repeat the same sections of dialogue takes some of the magic out of the game’s excellent writing, although the challenge of learning from your mistakes to manage your resources better is enough to forgive a few minor gripes.

The story tree serves another purpose, too. Once you’ve reached ‘the end’, you can resume the game from a previous branch and play out your decisions differently to open up a new path and different endings. I unlocked a handful of endings in my playthrough; each one culminating in an unexpected (if a little ambiguous) twist. But at the risk of sounding like an internet meme, the real journey is about the friends you make along the way.

Final thoughts

The Pale Beyond is a profound journey of adventure and acceptance. The diverse cast of characters begin the expedition in obvious cliques; each of them siloed by geographic, educational and class barriers. In time, though, these barriers thaw in the face of adversity; bonding one to another through their collective trauma.

In games such as Frostpunk, it’s easier to cut rations in half or force children to work through the night because they’re just homogenous sprites following a pre-determined path on the exploded view. But The Pale Beyond makes tough moral decisions that much tougher by allowing us to care for these people, making it all the more heart-breaking when things go wrong.

The Pale Beyond review
Beautiful, haunting artwork
Survival mechanics are simple to learn, hard to master
Expertly crafted story and characters
You can pet the dogs
Replaying chapters can be a little repetitive