For a game that’s been repeatedly described as “Pokémon with machineguns”, the first thing that strikes me about Palworld is just how un-Pokémon-like it actually is. To its credit, it does do quite a good Pokémon Legends: Arceus impression when you first step out on its big, Breath Of The Wild-style hilltop and take in the open world vista of its monster-stuffed starting continent. But if the opening moments of washing up on the island in nothing but your very scantily clad undies hadn’t already given it away (seriously, why do shipwrecks always destroy the clothes you had on, but not your smalls underneath?), then the ream of tutorial prompts about punching trees to get more wood, building bases, putting pals to work on said bases, and the endless parade of crafting technologies you’ll need to unlock to actually do anything on this godforsaken rock will quickly pull the wool clear away from your hopeful little face.
For underneath the cute round eyes of its cover stars, Palworld is really a survival game wearing the dead skin suits of Game Freak’s catch ’em all monster friends. In a lot of cases, those skin suits are quite literal, such are the blatant palette swaps and so-close-to-copyright-infringement-I-can’t-believe-Nintendo’s-lawyers-haven’t-shut-this-down-years-ago rip-off creatures on display here. For that reason alone, Palworld can feel about as soulless and cynical as it comes. But that’s not the worst of it. Even aside from all the survival gubbins, base building and sweatshop automation practices shoved down your throat, Palworld is just an awful example of monster-catching games in general. If it’s a Pokémon game on PC you’re after, go and play Cassette Beasts. Go and play Coromon, TemTem, or Monster Sanctuary. Anything but this.
I have, admittedly, only played a handful of hours of Palworld so far, so these impressions are mostly focused on the earlier moments in the game, and how it goes about introducing its pals and your relationship to them. I fully intend to put more time into Palworld over the coming days and weeks to give it a proper shake, but given how jarring its messaging is around these so-called ‘pals’, I’m not sure I’ll find much success with it.
For instance, when you hit that first ‘everything the light touches’ lookout point, you’ll quickly spy another survivor hunkered round a campfire. Despite their foreboding get-up and very large, gleaming silver shotgun, they’re friendly enough to talk to – though when they start muttering about this island being “a living hell” and how all “those damned Pals ate every one” of his mates, the whole atmosphere of the game takes an abruptly dark turn. These are cute Pokémon clones we’re talking about, surely? There are literal fields of adorable fluffy sheep clouds down there, accompanied by pink cats and little slugs and comedy-sized chickens. How are these meant to be believably bloodthirsty savages?
Indeed, your instincts are immediately proven correct as soon as you come within spitting distance of them. If they don’t instantly run away, these pals mostly straight up ignore you, even if you walk right up to them and start running circles around them. Even the honking great alpha pal that roams the starting continent – a Lv.38 leaf mammoth – doesn’t give you the time of day either. These are wholly benign creatures at the end of the day, which makes their inevitable enslavement all the more gruesome and unpleasant.
And look, I know Pokémon itself isn’t entirely innocent. That, too, is a game about pitting animals against each other in deathmatch combat scenarios (sorry, feint-match?), and sticking them in tiny balls until the end of their earthly lives. But Pokémon also doesn’t encourage you to beat these things with your own fists, clubs, spears and torches to wear them down, nor does it ever ask you to hand those weapons back to them so they can then go and attack other monsters – such as the case with Electabuzz’s machinegun-wielding cousin up in the header there.
Pokémon and other good Poké-likes are ultimately about unlocking innate skills and abilities found within their given monsters, building on cultural philosophies seen in thousands of other Japanese games and anime series. It’s always the hero (and in this case, the monster) who’s digging deep to win the day, unlocking new levels of power (Dragon Ball) or awareness (Gundam) within themselves rather than simply relying on external tools and gadgets. They are stories that champion the power of the heart and soul. But unfortunately, Palworld doesn’t even have the faintest concept of what these things are.
Once you’ve beaten your pal into submission with your own fists, it’s time to capture them. You need to be careful not to kill them completely, of course, as the only thing you’ll gain if their health bar drops to zero is a fully physics-enabled corpse you can boot around the map (as seen below). Honestly, if you thought Shadow Of The Colossus made you feel bad for slaughtering its monsters, you ain’t seen nothing yet, my friend. You can have up to five pals accompany you at any one time, but the focus is still squarely on you, the human, when it comes to combat. You can call one out to fight alongside you (though your command options are limit to “attack aggressively”, “attack one enemy at a time”, and “don’t attack at all”), but they’re essentially an automated companion, much like Atreus in God Of War, or your dog Torgal in Final Fantasy 16. You have no control over what attacks they dole out. They’re just there, in the background, helping to divert attention away from your club/spear/torch batterings.
Some have special combat abilities you can call on occasionally to give you more direct control of what they’re doing, but these powers are framed in such an exploitative fashion that I actively don’t want to use them. The fluffy sheep cloud I mentioned earlier, for example, can be taken hostage and used as an impromptu shield like one of those blokes you can collar in Trepang2, and their cute, smiling faces will soak up damage for you until you hurl them back into the field. The stunt double stand-in for fire fox Vulpix can also be squeezed like a bagpipe flamethrower, once you’ve crafted the appropriate harness to hold it in your arms without burning yourself, that is. Most pal abilities lie outside the world of combat, though, such as the entirely natural sounding “ah yes, I can now carry 50 extra weight because my pink cat’s with me”, or, “of course, with my big green slug I can now harvest wood that bit faster”. They’re so entirely gameified that you can’t help but start to see them as nothing more than mindless tools, ready to be used and manipulated for maximum exploitation.
Sure, thre’s an option to pet and feed them where you crouch on the ground and are rewarded with a tiny animation where they do a little dance for you at the end of it. But this is not making them happy or building up some kind of affection bar. Oh no. The sole stat for your pals’ wellbeing is called SAN – short for, I kid you not, Sanity. You’re literally keeping these animals sane by giving them a pat on the head, making sure they don’t starve and building them beds to sleep in at night back at your base. Not by becoming friends with them, but making sure they don’t loose their tiny little minds as you put them to work felling trees, punching veins of stone until (I imagine) their paws bleed, and building more weapons and capture balls to beat their friends round the head with. And heck, you can quickly automate the feeding part of the equation by building food bowls and campfires for them to cook their own meals, the poor sods.
It’s an utterly miserable-looking existence, and the tutorial dings that tell me I can get an EXP bonus when I capture ten of the same pal type just leave me feeling increasingly hollow. Sure, Legends: Arceus took a similar route with its catching, but there the approach to catching multiple monsters was purely in the pursuit of understanding them better, and studying what makes them so unique and purposeful. You’re also encouraged to release them when your boxes start getting too full as well, but there’s no such hope of escape over in Palworld. Here, an early objective to catch five sheep clouds is entirely so you have a ready-made workforce available once you start levelling it up and getting more worker pal slots to fill it with. It’s all take-take-take in Palworld, and never about giving anything back.
All of it fills me with a kind of despair that only gets worse when you see it having such a rip-roaring start in early access, too. At time of writing, Palworld is both the top-selling game on Steam right now in the entire world, and the third-most played game today, with over 340,000 people punching pals in the face right this very second – so many, in fact, that its servers are struggling to cope with them all. I hope Palworld gets its just desserts and fades into obscurity once the novelty of “Pokémon with machineguns” starts to wear off a bit. But it’s also the kind of game I can see having an extraordinarily long life ahead of it regardless. The desire for a Pokémon game on PC is that strong, even if the end result is the polar opposite of everything Pokémon actually stands for.