EARLY ACCESS REVIEW: This is a launch review of an early access service game that is likely to evolve significantly in the coming months as the game’s developer adds and changes its systems. This review is accurate as of the early access launch window.
As I take my first steps out of a cave, surveying a familiar-looking plateau draped in nothing but a loincloth, I suddenly crash into a bulbous, bleating ball of cotton-wool. Half sheep, half sentient ball of fluff, it lets out a startled meep, curling into a ball and rolling head-first towards me.
Panicked, I repeatedly mash the left mouse button, pummelling the dead-eyed sheep/candy floss hybrid with my bare fists. As I deliver a devastating blow the creature lets out a final, pitiful bleat, toppling over and leaving behind a solitary chunk of meat. Welcome to Palworld, the eyebrow-raising indie mega-hit that PETA should definitely be worried about.
Firstly, let’s address the Donophan in the room. Like most misty-eyed nerdy millennials, I utterly adore Pokémon. From its incomparably-iconic cast of lovable creatures to its multi-media spanning fiction, it’s a universe that even in my thirties, makes me grin from ear to ear.
Yet despite the litany of ‘Pokémon with guns!’ comparisons swarming the internet, Palworld actually has far more in common with survival games. Borrowing the best bits of Valheim and Ark: Survival Evolved, Japanese developer Pocketpair builds upon that craft-happy formula and sprinkles some creature-catching comforts atop.
In fact, with Palworld it’s harder to talk about what hasn’t been lifted wholesale from other games. Not content with cribbing from just one Nintendo franchise, climb a crumbling wall in the vast starting plateau and there’s more than a whiff of Link’s latest. Yet while it hints at Hyrule, take more than a few steps across Palword’s plagiarised playground and the map reveals itself to be less Tears of the Kingdom and more breath of the mild.
A wild Ditto has appeared!
It’s this smug, unashamed plagiarism that made me want to hate Palworld. From its clearly stolen monster designs, to proven allegations of generative AI use, and copy-and-paste game design, Palworld represents a cynical, calculated approach to art that completely rubs me up the wrong way. Yet, I can’t stop playing it.
Initially, merely inhabiting this brightly coloured bizarro land feels sacrilegious. As you sprint across its fields or battle across its cave-like dungeons, you can clearly see the pieces of art that Palworld’s creature collage has ‘borrowed’ from, like squares from various magazines glued together. Yet once the various systems of the tedious grind click together, that copyright-infringing heresy is slowly replaced by endlessly beckoning, satisfying, busy work.
As I start a fire, gather wood and chuck a bunch of ‘Pal Spheres’ at the various colourful creatures bobbing around the outskirts of my base, I suddenly feel that familiar base-building pull. Hours disappear. I just need one more upgrade, I think, and then I’ll finally have that shiny new piece of armour.
In order to nab everything that you need to kit out your character, you’ll have to leave the confines of your base and set out into Palworld’s wide and incredibly weird world. Adventuring sees you going out to find new Pals, gathering resources, taking out bases filled with human enemies – much like Pokémon Scarlet/Violet – and then entering mini-dungeons to battle challenging bosses.
With your custom-made avatar brandishing their own weapon, it’s not just your Pals doing the dirty work, lending combat an MMO-like quality as you fire at your opponent while your minions draw enemy aggro. Much like in Pokémon Arceus, a handy dodge roll allows you to avoid the brightly coloured blasts emanating from these dead-eyed creatures. How do you capture your Pals? By chucking that aforementioned legally distinct Pal Sphere at them, of course!
A truly weird world
While Pokémon merely join the player on a globe-trotting adventure, the role Pals serve is far more sinister. Once captured, those once free-roaming creatures become the player’s indentured slaves, forced to toil away at your base chopping wood, mining stone or cooking.
They can be worked to the point of exhaustion, injury and even death. You can even opt to cook and eat the pals that you have defeated, showing these fictional creatures in the same brutally commodified light that animals are treated in the real world.
It all feels like developer Pocketpair might be making a more poignant point about the nature of capitalism and animal agriculture, but with little other story to go on, it feels like maybe I’m being a bit generous here.
Still, if it wasn’t clear already, this is a game that very much isn’t for kids. It’s a fact further cemented by the jarring text that appears when a pal breaks free of a Sphere, chiming “the pal escaped, the cheeky bastard!”.
As I witness four bandits stab a merchant to death and unlock a skill that gifts my green chimpanzee an assault rifle, Palworld feels like an unhinged ROM hack that’s somehow infiltrated the mainstream. Yet, when the core gameplay loop is this compelling, it’s easy to see why it’s become such an overnight sensation.
Pokémon can’t be Arceus-ed
Ultimately, everything that Palworld lacks in originality, it makes up for with impressive execution. The combination of survival genre elements with creature catching is hugely captivating, resulting in a serotonin-gobbling gameplay loop. Despite the modest size of the team creating it, Palworld’s litany of systems mesh perfectly together, defying its indie origins.
After the disappointing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, Palworld succeeds because Pocketpair does what Nintendon’t. Even when playing on Steam Deck, Palworld runs at thirty frames per second in its pre-release, un-deck verified state, a feat that even a year on, Scarlet and Violet barely achieves.
It’s hard not to see just how badly Game Freak has dropped the Pokéball when a small team creates a more competent portable experience than the massive budget Scarlet and Violet.
Where Palworld really fails? Its lack of charm. When art isn’t made from the soul, it shows, and it’s the absence of any personality or care put into the creature designs, characters and story that lends this colourful world a forgettable, free-to-play feel.
It’s telling that even 20 hours in, I can’t remember the names of any of the Pals I’ve been training. Instead, it’s Palworld’s well-thought-out systems and technical competency that draw you in, rather than its flimsy fiction.
Early Access Verdict
While you may feel that Palworld is the opposite of how ‘good’ art should be made, when an Early Access game looks, runs and plays better than the last mainline Pokémon game, you can’t blame the consumer for going elsewhere.
From ‘99 – ‘06, Pokémon was at the cutting edge of tech, its handheld releases pushing the hardware they were on, delivering impressively vast adventures in the palm of your hand. Yet despite the wider Pokemon brand and fiction being stronger than it’s ever been, its video games now lag far behind, feeling like relics from a bygone era.
Palworld, then, fills that hole, straddling both the survival and monster-catching genres in an impressively feature-complete way. With the game still in Early Access – and thanks to its massive success – it only has the opportunity to iron out its issues and become even more impressive.
Whether Pocketpair takes the opportunity to capitalise on that success or not, it has still unquestionably altered the course of Pikachu and pals. Because if the fan outcry to Scarlet and Violet weren’t enough to make The Pokémon Company consider its current video game position, Palworld’s 12 million PC sales will certainly have caused Game Freak to do some soul searching.
Everything that Palworld lacks in originality, it makes up for with impressive execution. The combination of survival genre elements with creature catching is hugely captivating, resulting in a serotonin-gobbling gameplay loop. Despite the modest size of the team creating it, Palworld’s litany of systems mesh perfectly together, defying its indie origins.
- Combining survival and monster catching is hugely compelling
- Impressively feature-complete
- Compelling gameplay loop
- Its design can feel utterly cynical
- Shamelessly derivative, charmless art