"The Pale City is a truly ugly game in the worst possible ways."
Who remembers the 2007 RPG Lost Odyssey? If you do, chances are that the aspect you remember most about that game are the "PowerPoint" cutscenes penned by novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu. Those were the most compelling written parts of the game and made us all wonder why more novelists aren't brought on board to contribute to RPG storylines. It is with this in mind that I went into The Pale City, an RPG fully penned by surrealist fantasy novelist Kyle Muntz. Sadly, despite its efforts, The Pale City failed to entice me.
If you're looking for a cool, rogue-ish anti-hero, protagonist, then Vasek isn't it. Vasek is a cruel, heartless, rotten skunk of a human being with no redeeming qualities and less personality than a dirty dishcloth. He's a misanthropic mercenary who used to be a paid assassin for a cult that murders and eats children. No one wants to even be within 50 feet of Vasek because he's so abhorrent and he, in return, hates everything about them. Anyway, the game starts with Vasek in the middle of a job recovering pieces of an ancient golem for a shady client, which triggers a bunch of poorly sequenced and jarringly transitioned events that places Vasek ever deeper into the belly of the beast.
The propaganda surrounding The Pale City promised deep characterization, but how can there be any meaningful characterization when Vasek is a total loner whose gruff interactions with everyone are terse and antagonistic? No one joins his party for more than a couple of seconds so there are virtually no opportunities for interpersonal interactions in the first place. How am I supposed to connect to anything or anyone in The Pale City when my in-game avatar is utterly repugnant? I did not care one iota for Vasek, his world, or any of the people in it; and because I didn't care, I had zero motivation to do, well, anything in this game.
The Pale City features extensive writing and it's clear that a lot of effort was put into that. Whenever Vasek interacts with a person or environmental object, lengthy descriptions relay his thoughts and reactions. However, these descriptions are written in a third-person, omniscient narrator perspective rather than as Vasek's internal dialogue, taking away any personality he could have. This led to me feeling disconnected from what should theoretically be an immersive experience.
I also found that the prose often said a lot without saying anything at all. The lifeless dialogue read like expository info-dumps rather than actual conversation, and I found myself fast-forwarding my way through most of it. I could see the writing being more appropriate for a novel, but the prose failed to grip me, regardless of that realization. "Show, don't tell" is often an effective storytelling credo in most any form of media, especially in visual and interactive media such as video games.
When a game is as text heavy as this one, readability should be better than this. The stylized font was small and the letters sometimes looked blurry against the busy background of the text boxes. I experienced occasional eye strain reading the text and would have preferred a larger, cleaner typeface in simply colored text boxes for better readability. But that's not the only misstep with the game's interface. Another misstep is that there is no quest log for players to keep track of their required and optional objectives. These days, a quest log is a convenience I expect in my RPGs. Other RPG Maker games have one, why not The Pale City? And don't get me started on the control scheme. There is only one button/key mapping scheme for keyboards or gamepads. The keyboard mapping scheme isn't terrible, but the gamepad button mapping is awkward and unintuitive with no means for me to change it.
The Pale City only features "meaningful battles" and winning each battle is exhausting. I can appreciate the type of strategic approach The Pale City strives for, since Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was one of my favorite RPGs of the PlayStation 2 era. However, The Pale City's monotonous battles were overlong exercises in tedium. Unlike Nocturne, which had dynamic gameplay elements like Press Turn to keep combat fresh and exciting, The Pale City has a bare-bones turn-based system with no interesting flair to make combat even the slightest bit interesting. It also doesn't help that the limited number of enemies are disgustingly stingy with money and experience so I felt like I was mostly just running in place and not progressing the character at all.
Opportunities to prepare for battle are almost nil, so most every battle I fought felt cheap and unfairly balanced against me. There was one point where I had to battle an enemy whose unblockable skills and powerful attacks took me out in 2-3 turns, but because the game's design only had "meaningful battles," I was basically up a creek without a paddle because I could not grind myself stronger or get more money for supplies and better equipment. Any victories I scraped by with were the result of sheer dumb luck rather than any sort of thoughtful planning. I understand the creative desire to make battles this way, but their execution was abysmal. All this being said, recent updates to the game include the option of a slightly easier difficulty setting when starting a new game. From what I sampled of this updated "story mode," it is less punishing than the normal difficulty.
Exploration was also absolute drudgery because there was nothing appealing to look at in the environments. The dreary, dingy, and often dark color palette made the game look washed out to the point where I couldn't look at it for more than a few minutes at a time. The sprites look just as drab as the environments. There aren't enough features to distinguish between characters and their animations look stiff and awkward. Although the game wants you to "stop and smell the roses," I was too put off to do anything except get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. But even that was a chore because of Vasek's slow running speed and jerky movement. Vasek's running animation is unintentionally comical to watch because he runs like a duck. The most detailed sprites are those of giant monsters, but those are stiff as well. The long and short of it is that The Pale City is a truly ugly game in the worst possible ways.
Speaking of ugly, the minimalistic "music" was ear-bleedingly dissonant and felt like an assault to my senses. It either sounded like toneless banging and clunking on broken, out-of-tune instruments or it was a cavalcade of harsh cacophonies that I couldn't shut off fast enough to end the aural agony.
Bear in mind, I'm no stranger to dissonant sounds or atonal music. For example, Dysrhythmia (a band known for unconventional sonic textures that are challenging to listen to) is one of my favorite bands, I'm getting into "trap metal" hip-hop artists like Scarlxrd who utilize jarring noise to great effect, and I'm a death metal fan who listens to bands like Cattle Decapitation on a daily basis. I've also gigged and toured with punk and metal bands, so I've experienced more than my fair share of raucous music. So, for me to say that the music and sonic textures presented in The Pale City made Tidus' cringey "crow-leaf blower-chicken" laugh in the Japanese version of Final Fantasy X sound sweeter than an angel's harp is a powerful statement.
Hate is a strong word and not one I use lightly at all, but I hated The Pale City with every fiber of my being. The ten hours I spent with this game were some of the most deplorable hours of my gaming career and finally deleting it from my computer was incredibly satisfying. Considering my morbid fascination with bad gaming and the sheer magnitude of things I've endured for the site, my expression of hatred is not hyperbole. I've played throwaway games like InuYasha: Secret of the Divine Jewel to completion, so I have a monstrous tolerance; The Pale City roasted, toasted, and burnt my Jedi-level fortitude to a crisp.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.