Those looking for another classic RPG to get stuck into will not find what they’re after in The Pale City. The game’s deceiving visuals will have fans of Baldur’s Gate wondering what they’re doing within the first ten minutes of this dark, unforgiving tale.
Driven By Characters
The Pale City is a character-driven RPG from author Kyle Muntz. The writer of books such as Green Lights and Sunshine in the Valley has turned his storytelling prowess to games, and it works well. While his debut game may not be as interactive as you might hope, there’s enough going on to keep most patient gamers interested.
The game puts players into the shoes of Vasek, a legendary mercenary who has been hired to find the final, most powerful artifact of a long dead sorcerer. Vasek must journey through various locations in the game’s unforgiving world to reach goals that seem to punish him even more. If nothing else, story is one thing that the game does very well.
While the controls and user interface are initially distracting, getting past that awkwardness allows you to enter a truly awful yet engrossing universe. Muntz has crafted a dire world, filled with people who are all too aware of their pitiful existence. Each day there could be your last, and you’d welcome the sweet release of death.
The importance of NPCs
No NPC is unimportant in The Pale City. From the man obsessed with killing horses to those lying naked on the ground begging for death, each character can add context to a part of the world. In this way, the game differentiates itself from most other RPGs.
There are cutscenes, but they’re short and only show interaction between two or three characters. The world-building comes from chatting with NPCs, as does progression.
If you were hoping for a map with a great big blinking objective marker, this isn’t the game for you. Progression is your reward for exploring each semi-open world, discovering the links to other areas, and getting up in everyone’s face to see what they’re doing.
Many NPCs are boring, and won’t add anything to your time with the game. The ones that matter are the ones that really make a difference. These characters add context to the world and Vasek through his past. Some are one-time interactions that never occur again if you miss them, so pay attention.
I’ve never played an RPG where talking to the world’s characters was this important, but it feels fresh and new. Yes, it was a hassle to try to find the right NPC to advance the story and get the next mission, but I also found myself uncovering new secrets every time I walked around spamming the interaction button at the back of an NPC’s heads.
A Truly Awful Place
Most of the time, characters will offer you a small piece of the puzzle that is The Pale City’s world. A group of cultists slowly reveal how people aren’t born traditionally. Instead they’re born in a cave deep below the ground known as The Womb. Children need to escape the horrors of the caves beneath the upper world. But even those who do risk being eaten by said cult for their life force.
Exploring houses has always been its own reward in games, but in The Pale City it has consequences for both players and NPCs. A few of the times I entered a stranger’s house, I was presented with a dialogue box that showed their distress. I then had the option to leave, which you would in any other game, or simply kill the NPC.
There are consequences for killing certain people, but with some it’s a part of the world-building. No one is going to step in when a mercenary walks into your home and slashes your throat. All that might happen is that someone throws your body in an alley and pretends to be you to avoid living on the streets.
As the story progresses, you encounter more and more of these moments. Some of them may seem trivial, while others are defining moments that you recognise. In one of these you come out on top, winning a battle against someone who betrayed you. But that victory soon turns sour as a number of twists and turns show how hard you’ve just made their existence, and your life.
Not Your Usual RPG
Combat may seem familiar in The Pale City. The user interface is fairly self-explanatory, with character selection, attacks, and enemies, but it’s not that easy. Even the weakest of opponents will kill you quickly if you don’t think about what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s better to weaken one opponent and kill another, avoiding the largest enemy until last.
I constantly felt like my expectations were being subverted with this game. There are a lot of enemies to fight, should you explore the right locations, but I never felt powerful enough to breeze through a battle.
Protagonists in RPGs usually go through a transition. They begin as weak and ignorant, growing to be worldly and strong by the end of the game. In The Pale City, Vasek is already worldly and strong, but you don’t know why. As the story progresses you uncover his past, and begin to realize why he’s never phased by killing a man in his own home upon first seeing him.
In one way the story made me feel uneasy. I don’t enjoy playing evil characters, but evil isn’t the same in this world. Vasek is more of a neutral character, he just lives in a world so putrid that even indifference comes across as horrifying and sadistic.
Certain bosses are optional in The Pale City. There are areas where the game warns you of the powerful foes ahead, and you can ignore them altogether. In this way, it’s easy to avoid the RPG trap of being too under-leveled for a fight, but at the same time, it’s hard for some people to pass up a fight, even if they can’t win it.
There are only so many times you can bang your head against a brick wall.
Jarring At Times
For the most part, The Pale City is an incredibly interesting RPG with old-school visuals that you can’t quite stop thinking about. However, the game isn’t as polished as it could be. Some areas had long loading times that made it look as though the game had crashed entirely. Waiting for a minute or so revealed that the game was fine, but it’s easy to mistake those long loads as a bug or glitch.
As I mentioned earlier, the user interface isn’t that easy to get to grips with. It takes a while, but once you understand the basics, everything else falls into place. I will say that the controls are far from normal though, and could be a larger issue for RPG fans.
Finally, there’s a small issue with walking around the world and talking to NPCs in certain cases. Most of the world is easy to maneuver, but there are select areas where objects block your progress when they didn’t before.
Often this is because there’s a trigger for the area that adds some story context to it, but you don’t immediately walk into it, meaning that you can explore the area entirely and trigger the world-building on your way out.
The Pale City is an engrossing game that’s dripping in story for anyone who wants to explore it. This is not a traditional RPG, and to be honest, it’s not really a traditional anything, but that’s what makes it so intriguing.
If you’re looking for a game that subtly burrows itself into your mind like a good book, then this is for you. If however, you’re after an RPG that harks back to the days of Baldur’s Gate, keep on looking.