These are our current thoughts of a game in Early Access. If anything changes we’ll update this article.
The long-anticipated creature-catching survival game Palworld has finally hit early access on Steam and Xbox, and to say it’s doing well is an understatement. Developer Pocket Pair has reported around two million sales in just over 24 hours, and the game is all over Twitch, YouTube, and social media. The blend of crafting, survival, and creature-collecting game has been creating a buzz for months, with it being touted as “Pokémon with guns” in the lead-up to its release.
As of writing this, the game has been out for less than two days and already has a very positive rating on Steam, with over 17,000 players leaving reviews. I entered Palworld on my Xbox Series S thanks to its availability on Game Pass. You are just thrown into the world, told via text box to read the survival guide in your options, and left to get on with it. The survival guide is a paragraph on each aspect of the world and gives you the gist of what it’s all about.
I can’t lie; the opening of the game is a slog. You can’t catch any Pals off the bat; you don’t even have any weapons or a place to make weapons. It’s all about gathering materials to make a workstation so you can make other things to actually play the game. You can still go up to the low-level Pals in the starting area and just mercilessly punch them in the face until they pass out and get whatever goods they drop. Regardless, it takes a good while before you have the basics of what you need. I love crafting and survival games, but initial progress in Palworld is slow, like trudging through syrup.
Palworld Is About One Thing: Gotta Craft’ Em All!
The actual crafting itself is nice and easy once you have destroyed approximately 800 trees and punched 1000 rocks to get enough stone and wood to make anything. Truly, the crafting process in this game is a deforestation simulator. The amount of wood you need for things throughout the game would keep every beaver in the world happy for centuries. To craft buildings, structures, and storage you use a radial menu, for weapons, gear, food, etc. there are different workstations you need to erect.
Once you have toiled for hours and destroyed the ecosystem (it grows back so that you may revel in its destruction again), it’s time to get out into the wider world and start collecting Pals! Finally, it’s time to get to what was actually marketed about the game, creature-collecting. I think we can all agree they definitely buried the prominence of the survival elements in marketing. Pocket Pair knew what they were doing.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Pals are this game’s Pokémon. Yes, they are very cute. Yes, I love collecting them because collecting things makes my brain go ding. Yes, many of the designs are more than a little bit similar to actual Pokémon designs. For example, see the below picture of Legally Distinct Eevee (Cremis), Legally Distinct Luxray (Boltmane), and Legally Distinct Sylveon (Ribbuny).
These design similarities are the current subject of a lot of scrutiny online, and it isn’t hard to see why. Then, there’s also the possibility of the devs using generative AI in the game. This wasn’t confirmed or denied at the time of writing this review, but Pocket Pair has a history of both praising and utilizing AI. One of their previous titles is AI: Art Imposter, which is the entire premise of utilizing generative AI.
Gameplay-wise, the combat still needs a lot of ironing out. Targeting with a melee weapon, especially a spear, is terrible. There’s also a subplot about the Syndicate, which is not currently explained, but members of the Syndicate can be encountered in the wild. They often just stand in place, sometimes they attack you, sometimes they just stand there while you bash them up. They frequently run into gorges and get stuck/ become unreachable. It’s an early-access game. I can forgive things like this. The main part of the game is crafting and catching Pals, and for the most part, that aspect works.
The World of Palworld Feels Empty
It’s an open world, exploring will uncover treasures, resources, new Pals, and new biomes. There are dungeons littered around where you can face super-powered, larger-than-usual Pals and find rarer items. There are eggs in the wild that you can collect and incubate at your base – including large varieties that will yield one of the bigger species of Pals. These things usually create a game that I love, but the soulless nature of the art design and pretty clear “inspiration” from Pokémon designs is incredibly off-putting. It can be best described as vapid. Honestly, I’d rather it was just a survival and exploration game.
The experience playing on Xbox has been less than smooth. The game frequently just boots me out to my home screen. There is no music. The game is multiplayer, but there are currently no dedicated servers, meaning you can only play local co-op. The creatures and animations in the background suffer from the same issue that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet suffered from: a juddering, shuddery walk as they inch along the horizon. It seems it wasn’t just designs it took inspiration from.
This game has polarized me. On one hand, I actually really enjoy the exploring and crafting elements. Although standard, they work, there’s lots to do, and as long as you have the supplies, you can do it anywhere. Surprisingly, it’s the Pal side of the game that I dislike. It’s derivative, soulless, and feels devoid of creativity. It could work much better with original designs, but the similarities to many Pokémon designs hang heavy over the game. I love weird little guys; we know this, but I’ve seen these weird little guys. I’ve seen them for years in some cases. There are better, more original Pokémon alternatives out there. Games like Moonstone Island, Cassette Beasts, and Evolings have taken on the creature-catching genre and made it their own with interesting approaches and original designs. There are better crafting and survival games, too. Raft, The Forest, and Terraria are all survival games that get that balance right, although Palworld does at least do a decent job of that aspect.
This was one of my most anticipated releases of early 2024, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say I’m disappointed. I know it will remain popular regardless, and I understand why. The premise is great, and The Pokemon Company and Game Freak have lost a lot of goodwill with the slapdash appearance of Scarlet and Violet and the reported crunch placed on workers. So I get it. I do. I just can’t get behind it.