A world where children aren’t born but crawl up from the deep, dark depths. A city whose surface is made up of millennia of dead matter. A realm where fire can be conjured from air and water can be transformed into life. A reality where God exists but cannot answer any of our prayers. A vast underworld where indescribable monstrosities lurk. If you think these are descriptions of a new Clive Barker novella, you’d be wrong. These are just snippets from The Pale City, a story-driven RPG that launched in Steam on the 20th of March and on which I’ve been sitting for the past few weeks. So, here’s my review of The Pale City
The Pale City is an indie title made in RPG Maker VX Ace by mostly a single guy, novelist Kyle Muntz. And let me tell you, Kyle’s game wears its inspirations on its sleeves. Heavily influenced by Black Isle‘s seminal classic Planescape: Torment, The Pale City too succeeds in transforming the player to a world that is harsher than the rest. A world where dogs, not only eats other dogs but their newborn pups as well.
A word of warning
Before we delve deep into the game, let’s get some things out of the way. The Pale City is aimed towards players who are into text-heavy games. Dialogues and analogues both serve to bring the titular city to life, as well as drive the story forward. Even though the amount of text in the game is not nearly as much as Torment or Disco Elysium, you’ll be spending most of your time staring at copious amounts of words.
Then there is the matter of visuals. If you’re a fan of Jeff Vogel‘s RPGs or similar RPG Maker games, then you’ll have no trouble enjoying The Pale City. However, if you’re new to the scene, then better ready yourself for an internal resolution of 640X480, low-quality assets and crude animations. For the game’s credit, there is a surprising amount of variety in NPC sprites and environments. The basic visual presentation didn’t detract me from the experience but your mileage may vary.
The Story of The Pale City
The Pale City tells the story of Vasek, a morally ambiguous mercenary in a morally dubious world. In the world of literature, the most interesting characters are the ones with flaws and thus, the developer has given Vasek more than his share. Vasek is a detached, cold individual whose sole mantra is to survive by all means necessary. He’s a nihilist with some serious philosophical dilemmas playing out inside his brain box. He has a troubled past, the will to survive, questionable ethics yet a touch of humanity somewhere deep down. All the makings for an interesting character are present in Vasek. At surface level, he’s an unlikable jerk but a couple of hours into the game, I started to understand his beliefs and stuck by him.
Canis Canem Edit
The storyline of the game is as much a story of the unnamed world as it is Vasek’s. From the get-go, you’re presented to a grim, cynical, depressing world that tries to break your will with each step of the way. It makes Sigil look like a Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, the most friendly faction in the city is the guys who feast on babies crawling out from the underworld to extend their life. But cannibalism is the least of your worries. The city is inhabited by the poor, the downtrodden and ruthless horse murderers who won’t think twice to stab you in the back.
It’s all not just to gross you out. The game also deals with contemporary themes such as over-population, Deism, the duality of man, humanism and the growing lack of empathy. These themes are cleverly hidden in a setting of juxtaposed realism and fantasy, much like in Arcanum. At least, I seem to think so, thanks to my struggling days as a research scholar of literature. In short, depending on your views, the narrative of The Pale City could be a highly depressive experience or contemplation of our modern society.
A Book That Can Be Played
It’s easy to say to ascertain that the strongest part of The Pale City is its writing. This is to be expected since the developer is a novelist first and foremost. It’s in the writing where the Planescape influences come into play. Much like Planescape, much of the text is highly descriptive with a verbose charm to them. It’s also astonishing how naturally The Pale City delivers exposition to the player. You’d think that for such a lore-intensive game, the game would bombard you with codex entries. But The Pale City gradually familiarises the player with the setting through NPC dialogues and Vasek’s own monologues. I’d have loved the addition of an in-game journal but the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.
That isn’t to say that it’s without fault. At times, the writer seems to push the nature of the text into the edgy territory. As a result, the whole thing comes across more nihilist than Old Man Logan. These are the types of things that make my 14-year-old angsty self happy. There are also a few typos along the way. But the majority of the writing is of high quality and has a professional touch to it.
What’s Not Good in The Pale City
Unfortunately, the core gameplay of The Pale City pales in comparison (no pun intended) to the strong writing. For its combat, The Pale City looks up to JRPGs for inspiration. The combat is your traditional turn-based affair. From the looks of things, you have quite a few options at your disposal. There are different stances with bonuses, a decent set of moves, buffs, debuffs and the ability to use items. You can also generate TP by parrying enemy attacks, which in turn lets you unleash powerful moves which can turn the tide of battle.
The game doesn’t skip any opportunities to tell you how challenging the combat is or how strategic you have to be to win. Yet I found it to be very monotonous and not very challenging. It’s easy to cheese through the majority of the combat encounters using the same strategy over and over again. You just have to spam parry/guard till you get enough TP to activate your strongest attack. This will work for almost all encounters with ease aside from a handful of health sponge bosses who serve as the game’s beef gates. Make sure you save the most powerful spells for these guys. It’s also baffling why the game doesn’t show the HP of your enemy. Talk about not nailing down the basics.
The Lack of Choices
The other major complaint I have is with the general gameplay loop and the lack of choices. Contrary to its RPG tag, The Pale City tells a linear story even though the player is free to explore the multi-zone world at will. Possibly the most important aspect of an RPG for me, are the choices that are available to make, both in the story and gameplay. But The Pale City is a heavily scripted experience that railroads you down specific paths. Understandable, since the developer works in a medium where the readers are nothing more than witnesses. Due to this, The Pale City is a one-time-affair with hardly any room for replayability. At the same time, it’s unfair to critique something for what you want it to be, not for what it is. So that’s something to keep in mind.
It’s hard to judge a game like The Pale City by placing it on the scale same scale as other bigger games. To properly enjoy the game, the player must be familiar with the caveats of RPG Maker games. Most of the game’s drawbacks can be attributed to budgetary constraints or the platform in general. Fortunately, The Pale City is priced very reasonably at $7.99/₹ 299. At that price, you’re getting approximately 10 hours of quality writing with a decent story backed by a unique setting and good world-building. For people wanting to spend these lockdown days playing something thoughtful, The Pale City is a decent choice as long as they don’t mind the generic combat. For others on the fence, keep the game in your wishlist and wait for a sale.