Palworld: Pokemon for psychopaths
We’ve seen all the comparisons between Pocketpair’s new open-world survival crafting game and a certain beloved creature-collecting franchise. However, there’s a lot more to Palworld than first meets the eye, and this title has experienced some incredible growth in the first weekend of its release into early access that has set it up for future success.
Many players who haven’t experienced the game for themselves are still wondering, though, what IS Palworld? Is it a shameless ripoff of a big IP? Is it a promising new hybrid for the survival genre? Is it an innovative new direction for creature collector games? Or is it simply just “Pokemon with Guns?” We’ll be covering all of this and more in this review.
Before we begin, we’d like to clarify that this review only takes into account the early access version of the title at the time of writing and may not accurately reflect the completed title.
Story and concept
Palworld is an especially non-linear game that ultimately leaves the decision of how to progress up to the players but includes a rudimentary framework that makes up the backstory of the island and gives you a general direction to go in.
You play as a castaway, inexplicably washed up on the shore of the mysterious Palapagos Island. This strange land is filled with cute, cuddly, dangerous, and occasionally horrifying creatures known as “Pals.”
An ancient civilization once lived and worked alongside these Pals, using the mysterious blue crystal found here to create technology capable of capturing and controlling these creatures. But now, the island is ruled by the ruthless Syndicate, overrun with man-eating Pals and littered with forgotten ruins hiding the secrets of the forgotten society.
If you’re going to survive here and become the very best (like no one ever was), you’ll have to adapt, learning to harness the power of the Pals and constructing the tools you’ll need to uncover the mysteries of the island’s ancient inhabitants and defeat the Syndicate. The game’s story is admittedly pretty bare-bones at the moment and is only told through brief interactions with near-lifeless NPCs, brief (but very pretty) cutscenes, and forgotten journal entries.
That said, the background information found in Pal descriptions and the worldbuilding surrounding the island itself can be quite interesting when you take the time to consider the dark and horrifying implications of certain features.
Palworld’s…world is inherently more twisted and less cheery than most monster-collecting games, but it’s the fact that it can be remarkably subtle about the sinister aspects of the world that make it so effective.
We’d say Palworld pays homage to its obvious inspirations in this manner, though it takes the dark undertones from previous titles to the next level in its own engaging ways.
Palworld is an odd graphical mix between strikingly beautiful and disappointingly bland, though the latter of these two descriptions is a much less common occurrence. The environments of Palapagos Island are vibrant and alive, with gorgeous waterfalls, serene shorelines, glowing caverns, and towering ruins. Exploration is a feast for the eyes, and climbing to the top of the island’s many mountains is as rewarding for the view as it is for the rare eggs and treasure found there.
The models for the Pals themselves are the centerpiece of this title, and they definitely do not disappoint. They’re cartoony, bulbous, intricately detailed, and absolutely adorable. Those players familiar with another franchise will find it quite obvious where some of these huggable monsters got their inspiration from, and some of the resemblances are, admittedly, a bit uncanny.
The animations for these creatures that are definitely, 100%, for sure not Pokemon are cute, well-done, and buttery smooth. Animations for the player character are (mostly) the same, with the dodge animations, in particular, showing off how spry our castaway is, regardless of how monstrously huge you make your arms and/or legs.
There are even unique animations for different Pals doing the same job. For example, a Pal with hands might use an axe to cut trees, while a deer Pal will simply hack at the tree with its antlers. These little details give so much life and personality to individual Pals and are an incredible addition to the overall experience of working alongside them.
There are several animations that seem to be missing or need a makeover, however. Kindling animations for fire Pals, when working with forges, seem to be absent, and sometimes Pals without hands will still have an axe attached to their body when chopping trees with their horns. The animations associated with human models are where the most work is left to be done, with enemy models using a single attack animation or lacking one altogether and several very stiff melee animations for player characters.
We mentioned some bland graphical elements at the start of this section, and those generally refer to man-made objects in the game that don’t seem to fit the title’s overall visual theme. Dreary and lifeless shantytowns for NPCs and oddly realistic furniture options for player decorations feel weirdly out of place next to bright and cartoony Pals.
Though it’s clear the developers made some effort to incorporate these elements by adding in details like black-and-white photos of Pals or discarded Palspheres, we still felt like there is some work to be done to better adapt these textures to the overall style of the game.
Also, several different kinds of player equipment all use the same model, so an Old Bow, a Three-Shot Bow, and a Fire Bow all just look like an old stick strung with rope, which greatly detracts from the satisfaction of crafting a new piece of gear.
Almost all of the particle effects for Pal moves and various other attacks are bright, flashy, and exciting. However, it may be beneficial to add some unique flair to certain moves to make them more distinct among the numerous attacks with similar effects.
The game implements lighting effects that give the world an extra layer of immersion. That said, it’s easy to pick out any Pal that isn’t jet black at night by the difference in brightness between their colors and the background.
Sound and atmosphere
Music isn’t a standout feature of Palworld, but the tracks the game incorporates are all solid and well-implemented. Combat tracks are suitably exciting and energetic, while more pensive ambient tracks give a sense of wonder to open-world exploration. None of the musical tracks stuck out to us as unique or above-average, but they do their job well enough.
Sound effects present in this title are a mixed bag of great, serviceable, and missing altogether. The cries of distinct Pals and their reactions to the world all sound fantastic and add more personality to different species.
Mining, logging, crafting, and building make the expected crunching, splintering, clanging, and clattering sounds that give survival gamers the necessary dopamine to grind out resources. Before long, your base becomes a noisy place filled with the sounds of your Pals busily completing their tasks, and this cacophony comes across as the pleasant sounds of life and activity rather than a bothersome racket.
Praise aside, there are certainly some areas that are incomplete or could use improvement. Obviously, missing sound effects for items like the grapple gun need to be included, but this is early access, so we won’t dwell on that.
Another point we felt we needed to mention was the lack of hit feedback from player characters. Over the crash and flash of combat, it can sometimes be hard to tell when your character has taken a hit, with so many particle effects masking impacts and minimal outcry or reaction from your character to alert you to damage.
Palworld’s core gameplay is centered around a mix of survival, monster collecting/RPG, and colony survival management. If we had to pick a few games to compare this one to, we’d say the survival and base-building reminds us a bit of Valheim, the traversal reminds us a bit of the most recent Legend of Zelda games, and, of course, the Pal collecting is similar to Pokemon. The real draw for this title, though, is how all of those elements overlap and intermingle.
Players will divide up their time between building up and managing a base, gathering resources, hunting and capturing pals, exploring the world, and taking on dungeons and boss battles. None of these activities is completely separate from the others, however. For example, Pals you collect can be used to help you at your base by performing various tasks such as building and crafting. Certain Pals can only perform certain jobs, and some will perform those jobs better than others. Fire Pals can be used to cook food and smelt ore, while electric-type Pals can be used to generate electricity.
Naturally, players can also keep a party of Pals with them to assist in combat, exploration, resource gathering, and much more. Once again, the abilities of each Pal will vary widely, and some will be better at work while others will be better suited for combat. Each Pal also has a unique skill called a Partner Skill, which allows the player to utilize their Pals in special ways. One Pal might be ridden as a mount, another might assist in gliding, while some can even be picked up and used as a flamethrower.
The countless different ways to utilize Pals and their unique skills in and out of combat make collecting, breeding, hatching, and upgrading your Pals an addicting and rewarding experience. Of course, you’ll need to manage their needs as well as your own, so creating infrastructure, food sources, and defenses to accommodate them will also be necessary. Over time, your base can become a bustling den of happy and healthy Pals or an awful camp of overworked laborers; the choice is yours.
As the game progresses, the player will level up and earn technology points and stat points. Stat points can be spent to increase basic player stats, such as your health, stamina, or how much you can carry, while technology points can be spent to unlock new items for you to build or craft. Pals will also level up over time, learning new moves and improving their own stats.
One particularly interesting aspect of this title is how it slowly acclimates the player to more and more heinous acts to advance. At first, most will simply begin by carefully capturing and working alongside their Pals to stay alive. Later on, however, players gain access to items that allow them to, for example, butcher their captured pals for more resources, sacrifice them in order to improve another Pal’s stats, or even command them to overwork themselves without rest.
You can buy and sell Pals to shady black market dealers or steal them from other players. You can even capture, enslave, and sell other humans with your Palspheres (though their stats are horrible.) What we like, though, is you don’t have to be cruel to progress; it’s just more profitable and easier.
As fun and unique as this blend of gameplay is, it doesn’t come without the early access experience of LOTS of issues. To begin with, the game’s AI lacks the ability to adapt and can be pretty brainless. Pals and especially human enemies will get stuck on (or inside) the terrain frequently. This can lead to enemies getting stuck inside rocks and out of reach, starving Pals who can’t reach the food you set out, and an awful racket when a Pal gets stuck between tasks and ends up picking up and dropping the same item hundreds of times a second.
Additionally, building mechanics are frustratingly inconsistent. Certain structures can be built within or on top of others, but not vice-versa. For example, if you want to build walls next to stairs, you have to build the walls first, or it will register as overlapping. Many furniture items must be built before the roof of your house, or else it will be built on top of the house.
You will often return to your base and find Pals stuck up in trees or inside a nearby boulder. You will have tasks that don’t get done at all because your Pals prioritize something else instead. And, for whatever reason, most Pals can’t use stairs or doors and will put random items in random places. We would strongly recommend the developers implement some way to manage task priorities and container preferences aside from physically picking up a Pal and throwing it at the workstation.
Palworld is shaping up to be an incredibly replayable game, and it already includes TONS of different ways to play and countless things to keep players busy and coming back for more. Whether you want to curate the perfect fighting team, build up a massive base complete with mounted guns and production lines, or simply collect every Lucky Pal in the game, there are plenty of reasons to keep playing.
The incredible depth already shown by this title is only improved by the application of multiplayer and supported servers where players can turn Palapagos Island into their own paradise for their Pals or a battleground for ruthless warlords! Additionally, random dungeons, timed boss runs, and more are hidden around the map for players to find alongside other treasures.
Palworld’s many inspirations are clear and obvious, but this title is far more than simply a derivative of something else. The way the different kinds of gameplay have been combined into this experience is incredibly creative and produces an experience that is very much its own.
We’re convinced that it isn’t the similarity to any other game that is giving Palworld its fanbase (though that may certainly have drawn some in at first.) Instead, the title’s unique mix of gameplay and a bit of its dark fantasy charm has allowed it to take off with such speed.
Simply put, we’re having a ton of fun playing Palworld. The developers still have a ways to go if they want to live up to the expectations they’ve set by releasing in Early Access. All we can do is wait and hope they can continue to improve the experience to fulfill the potential such a surprising mix of ideas has clearly shown.