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Arctic management sim The Pale Beyond is as messy as it is thrilling


On my first trip to the middle of frozen nowhere, I made a new best friend: the hoosh pot. It’s survival cooking — hoo is a kind of porridge of Antarctic explorers, made with everything lying around, from penguins to dead sled dogs, and under appalling conditions, the unsavory products of ‘the custom of the sea’. As someone with a morbid fascination with weird historical food, I can easily become obsessed with the hoosh, but as a staunch upholder of civilization, I refuse to succumb to cannibalism.

I don’t do intense gastronomic LARP — I play The pale pasta survival adventure that takes a page out of the tales of late 19th century polar explorers, and perhaps more recently, the first season of AMC’s historical thriller The terror (Which in turn based on an actual lost expedition). On the surface, it’s a straightforward survival simulator that I expect the worst to happen, because nothing positive can come from forcibly inserting a bunch of suave, vulnerable mammals into an icy hellscape that just won’t house them. But really, what are people without hubris?

The story begins with an encounter with Captain Hunt, an enigmatic old salt who hires my faceless character, Robin Shaw, as first mate aboard the Temperance. The task is to find the Temperance’s missing sister ship, the Viscount. It’s clear that Hunt is keeping secrets, and once we’re aboard, it becomes even clearer that the captain – though loved and respected by the crew – is completely checked out. Templeton, an uptight biologist fittingly resembling a steel-eyed draugr, appears to be the only one invested in finding the twin ship. When Hunt goes missing, Shaw must take on the captain’s mantle, at least temporarily, to see things through.

Image: Bellular Studios/fellow traveller

Time passes in weekly increments, with Shaw responsible for maintaining food, fuel, and, arguably, the ship’s most important resource: decorum or morale. Exploring the ship yields resource cards, along with items that can improve facilities or affect decorum. Shaw can assign crew to shovel coal, scientists to make medicine, and so on. The main job is to “take requests” as captain, which can mean settling disputes or taking sides, which inevitably causes problems. If a specialist – the only person on the crew who can perform a specific task – becomes too ill, it could spell death for the mission. This maritime HR system forms the draconian backbone of The pale past‘s resource management, and affects each person’s loyalty to Shaw. If you want to survive, the overall goal is to get as close to harmony as possible between 22-odd people who are clumsy and obnoxious and clumsy, or just plain rude.

The claustrophobic polar setting is a quick and effective way to force Shaw uncomfortably into each character’s miniscule radius of personal space. As the misery unfolds, the concept of privacy feels as distant as warm, dry land. There’s a grim sense of inevitability as Shaw leads the crew closer to the Viscount’s last known position – an undertaking hampered by constant failures and difficult decisions. But despite its branching paths in a closed tree system, The pale past remains an overwhelmingly linear experience – one undermined by a distinct lack of polish and petty UX choices that snowball into genuine frustration after repeated deaths and mission failures.

For example, the “locked” save/load tree structure means that if you die (i.e. you run out of decorum and the expedition ends), there are only a handful of points in the tree you can return to before you get a parade of annoying UI messages. and prompts for over 20 individual characters until you die again. Halfway through the game I got used to the gentle little chimes alerting me to the freezing or demoralization of each individual crew member – several times I sat impatiently going through a series of death notifications one by one. No matter how personally invested I was in the well-being of my concerned doctor or a particularly abrasive engineer, there was a point where every gentle little bit ping became a crampon on the head. It didn’t help that the game is absolutely drowning in typos, which is incredibly distracting for a text-focused, dialogue-heavy genre that lives and dies by the power of prose.

An overhead view of the camp at The Pale Beyond, with a menu indicating each specialist's skills

Image: Bellular Studios/fellow traveller

You can move around the ship and talk to whoever you want, and you will only advance the story after clicking specific yellow-framed icons. But at some points in the story, if you don’t choose to “take requests” to start the week, the game breaks and you must start from the last save point.

For example, in week 17 I died several times, which in itself is not a bad thing – I die a lot in games! But The pale past kept sending me back to the start of the week, with 0-5 decorum meaning no chance of changing my fate. Each time, this meant reliving another Groundhog day (or more accurately, a week) of failure, going through the aforementioned laundry list of individual illnesses and deaths, then scrolling down the save tree to start again in Week 4. As a result, each reboot – and there were many – felt more like death by a thousand cuts. This shouldn’t be the case in a game that wants you to branch out and experiment with new captaincy decisions to unlock new outcomes; sometimes I tried a more forceful, more dominant version of Shaw, which produced mixed results with the crew.

Finally, I crawled back to Week 1 and after choosing mostly the same options, I was surprised to discover that I had somehow created a new branch in the narrative tree. I still have no idea what I did differently. But I succumbed to the most basic completion strategy, simply to avoid further headaches: I forced Shaw to endear himself to the crew as much as possible, with the exception of Templeton, whose Night King-meets-British naval officer vibes were distinctly rancid. This was extremely helpful on one end, and on the other I squandered an inviting opportunity to make Shaw a selfish liar. After all, I had led most of my crew to their lives through unthinkable circumstances, and I had no intention of losing all that hard-won moral justice.

A screen appears with several dialogue choices as Captain Shaw speaks to a crew member below deck in The Pale Beyond

Image: Bellular Studios/fellow traveller

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the big reveal at the end, after which the game tries to break the fourth wall at the last minute. It just didn’t click with me. Up to this point, the game had taken a fairly understated approach to the main story beats, enhancing the game’s engrossing mystery, which, coupled with constant challenges within and outside the Temperance camp, creates an effective sense of paranoid built momentum; until Shaw enters the captain’s cabin on the Viscount, I really didn’t know what to expect.

To its credit, the game eschews some of the most symbolic and fetishistic tendencies of polar expedition/frontier fiction from settlers who ignore strong indigenous cultural taboos in favor of sensational horror; a fairly recent example was Devolver’s “immersive sim” RPG Strange Westwho did a great job of bringing the Anishinaabe language to the fore, but also bafflingly chose to include a huge cultural taboo despite working with a sensitivity consultant.

A woman pets one of her dogs on the ice at The Pale Beyond

Image: Bellular Studios/fellow traveller

The terror writers tried to avoid this by creating their own myth based on Inuit culture – essentially an exercise in renaming and repackaging the unspeakable into a comfortable form of plausible deniability. In theory this feels like a workable compromise, but in practice the road to artistic freedom is more often than not paved with things that are simply not meant for cheap entertainment. There is one potential path along the same road in The pale past, but I ignored that thread tugging and focused on my crew’s survival. The game seems to follow The terror‘s lead in creating his own mythology from the perspective of tired, starving, superstitious sailors who think they see things in the ice.

The pale past, for all its flaws and frustrations, still manages to maintain a desolate kind of charm, rough edges and all. It’s not afraid to put Shaw in horribly embarrassing situations where there’s no good outcome – there’s an exceptionally bleak scenario where you can practically feel the game gleefully milking what’s left of your serotonin. Coming off the ice and coming ashore after nearly 40 weeks of hell really feels like moving between two worlds; the background art and environments are absolutely unearthly when shrouded in ominous fog and hazy lighting. The ocean scenes with icebergs awash in pinks and oranges are truly beautiful, as are the dark, swirling storms. If the internal logic of the overall plot was just a little more cohesive, and a little less blended together, I feel like I’d actually return to the Temperance and give it another go. As it stands, I’m still choosing the ending where I go home and eat a civilized meal.

The pale past will be released on Mac and Windows PC on February 24. The game was reviewed on PC using a Fellow Traveler pre-release download code. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.

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