In case you haven’t paid attention to gaming news lately, the new monster-collecting survival game, Palworld, has taken the gaming world by storm for a myriad of reasons. Controversies aside, I wanted to see for myself exactly why it’s appealing to millions of players worldwide. After at least eight hours with the game, it has a lot going for it. It’s more than just the “Pokemon with guns” label that it’s unfairly been given but at the same time, it has some issues that hold it back from being great.
Despite what you’ve heard, Palworld isn’t a game where you collect monsters and battle other trainers in the style of Pokemon. At its core, it’s a survival game with crafting, building and resource management. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but the Ark and Rust comparisons are accurate. In fact, it’s less about collecting adorable monsters, called Pals, to train so you can compete in battles and more about using Pals as workers to help you maintain your base.
When I first realised that I was essentially running around and collecting Pals by the minute just to put a hammer in their hands and scoot them towards tending to my base of operations, I was taken aback. Sure, there are moments where Pals actually have to fight other “bad guys” – Pals are controlled in real-time combat with the tap of a button instead of turn-based – but for the most part, building your base takes top priority while exploration in a surprisingly large open-world only serves to further your base-building goals.
Even after only eight hours, I had caught at least a few dozen Pals and built up a sizeable base, barely exploring a fraction of the world. What I didn’t realise was that eight hours had passed by and I didn’t even notice because the game, at some point, becomes incredibly addictive and rewarding.
To point out the positives first, Palworld boasts a visually gorgeous world that’s leagues above the drabness of Pokemon Scarlet/Violet. The graphics, while not the most advanced, are still pretty good for an early access title. Seemingly taking notes from Elden Ring and The Legend of Zelda, the world is dotted with landmarks off in the distance that are begging to be explored. Adventure comes easy when you have a clear direction to work towards, helped by the fact that you might catch some new Pals along the way.
Instead of using Pokeballs, Pals are caught with something called a Pal Sphere. Yes, it’s basically just a spherical object that vaguely resembles a Pokeball and it’s pretty obvious what it’s referencing. You still have to weaken Pals before you can catch them, which can either be accomplished by using your own Pals to fight or simply equipping yourself with a wooden bat and beating them senseless until their health is low enough. I’m not kidding.
In my first hour, I accidentally threw a Pal Sphere that caught a human NPC. To my everlasting surprise, I could actually summon that human like a Pal in battles or “employ” them to work at my base. This was the biggest sign that Palworld had a wicked sense of humour that borderline parodied Pokemon to an extent. The commentary isn’t exactly clear but there is a clever hidden message about the inhumane cruelty of games like Pokemon, which I honestly did not expect… or it could just be an early access bug and I’m looking too deep into it. Who knows.
To address the elephant in the room, Pal designs absolutely resemble Pokemon even with plagiarism allegations aside. The designs, colour schemes and anatomies are a bit too on-the-nose to be unintentional, though I suspect developer Pocket Pair knew what it was doing. That said, it all just sort of fades away after a while. Forgetting the fact that you can give Pals guns, the monster designs work for this type of game and it clearly worked for millions of players drawn in by the visual similarities.
The building and crafting systems are also very intuitive but not perfect. The gameplay loop is straight-forward: collect resources, manage your base and make sure all your Pals are happy, fed and working. You have stats like health and stamina to upgrade as you level up but you also have a Technology tree that houses all your craftable items (that looks ripped straight out of Ark). Despite the overwhelming systems and features, it all eventually becomes second-nature and easy to understand once you get the hang of things – it’s quite a simplified version of more hardcore survival crafting games, to be honest.
Where Palworld stumbles at times is in its execution. I get the “soulless” criticisms because it does feel that way sometimes. At face value, it all feels stitched together and derivative of other games. You have elements that clearly evoke feelings of Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring and even Fortnite to a degree. Palworld delivers a feature-rich package with so much to do and see but it unfortunately lacks an identity of its own because of how heavily it borrows from other popular projects.
That’s not to say none of it works. It still managed to sink its claws into me and as I’m writing, I’m thinking about playing it so it’s doing something right. What Pocket Pair needs to do now is refine the game, break down its cheap-feeling mechanics and rebuild many things to make it more unique. The story is practically non-existent too so the developer now needs to employ some good writers to craft a compelling narrative to hold everything together and give this game a better sense of purpose.
The potential is there and it lays a very solid foundation, though I don’t see it surviving long on the market if it doesn’t define a strong personality for itself in future updates (and before the final release, if we get there).
I was scepital about Palworld before I played it but in the end, it kind of won me over. It’s not the deepest survival crafting game nor the best monster-collector but everything just gels together so well, even if it does feel very derivative. Pocket Pair have delivered a game that absolutely has the potential to compete with its counterparts but there’s a long road ahead before it reaches the point of greatness.
Palworld is now available in early access for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC via Steam.