I'm still not entirely sure of what to make of Palworld becoming so monstrously big – as in, "setting records on Steam" big. A survival-crafting open world game blowing up on Steam is no new thing, but Palworld is massive right now, and no small part of that can be its notable similarity to… that game. You know which one I mean. Of course, Palworld is an Early Access release that is hugely, thought-provokingly similar to the popular monster-catching game… Ark: Survival Evolved.
Release date: January 19, 2024
Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Publisher: Pocketpair, Inc.
Why, were you thinking of something else? Yes, Palworld embraces the standards of the popular survival-crafter wholeheartedly: you're washed up in an unfamiliar world where every animal, vegetable, or mineral can be hacked to pieces and repurposed into raw materials, letting you build weapons, bases and facilities. The difference is that here the animals have been replaced by wild anime buddies that you can both brutalize and utilize as you please, and the weapons develop not from stone axes to diamond axes, but to pump-action shotguns and ground-to-air artillery. Tonal whiplash, it seems, is no bar to success.
Team Rocket (Propelled Grenade)
I created a character to call my own and, having been dropped into the weirdly familiar setting of "forested island with ancient glowing towers every four miles", I immediately looked about to see where my promised machine gun was hiding. After all, Palworld has been pretty explicitly marketed with firepower at the forefront.
In retrospect, this element seems pretty overemphasized: you're dropped into the wild with nothing but your underpants and told to punch trees and rocks for the materials to make (say it with me) a base, a miner's pick, woodcutter's axe, campfire, and a crafting bench. Well, I've definitely heard this tune before, but found myself still impatient to trade out my knobbly stick for something with an extended mag and laser sights.
Sadly, a glance at the tech tree told me that crafting even a simple sidearm wouldn't be an option until level 25, and for reference, I spent the best part of the afternoon working to reach level 6. The lure of an assault rifle, contrarily, will have to provide a player with enough motivation to nearly max out their level. But while the chance for ground-level firefights with insurgent anime sprites was depressingly far ahead, catching "Pals" themselves was a process that began pretty quickly, weakening them first by beating them with a baseball bat (no, really) and slinging legally-distinct Pal Spheres that capture and tame the little critters in a flash.
So what we have here is a very recognisable survival/crafting system with the whole real-time Pokemon element merged through it, all to varying degrees of success. On an average excursion, you set out with a pocket full of Pal Spheres, some basic supplies and weaponry left over from Hitman, planning to go and unfog the map, and along the way use a combination of ammunition and strategically-applied dogfighting to catch new Pals and massacre hostile humans. There's powerful trainers and settlements and boss Pals along the way, though actual context for your adventure is pretty thin on the ground.
Overall, it's a setup that's not particularly distinct from any of the other survival crafters you can find out there, at least with the exception of the Pokemon factor. That element in particular is often fully automated, and not always to the game or player's benefit. Once out of their Sphere, Pals are basically free to do their own thing (beyond your ability to give them broad, sweeping instructions), meaning they frequently make stupid choices or mindlessly sabotage you, often killing something that you're trying to catch or stumbling into peril.
As a result, there's not much space for tactical thought in the average fight – you sling out a Pal and retreat to a safe distance to watch the fracas, maybe running in to land a few hits if you're feeling brave. If you are willing to get stuck into the fray, the gun and melee combat isn't exactly deep: swinging a stick or opening fire interspersed with the occasional stamina-chewing roly-poly is ultimately the sum total of your options in most encounters.
I found that the automated approach was better when it came to setting up my captured Pals all toiling in the base I had built, an impressively extensive system that had them laboring on jobs ranging from tilling fields to chopping wood to frying their own freshly-laid eggs. Get enough of them set up with a diverse range of skills, and they'll be wholly self-sufficient, like Animal Farm as told by 4Kids. I rather like that I could see this whole little community beavering away to my benefit, and if you're smart enough about it, they really don't need anything, leaving you free to explore at your leisure without having to micromanage upkeep.
Happy Tree Friends
But that brings me to the thing I really wanted to talk about in Palworld: the aforementioned tonal whiplash. It's a game that is, all at once, somehow so much weirder and yet so much less weird than I can easily explain. Palworld is formed of fairly generic components that nonetheless manage to rub against each other in surreal ways, the chipper tone and aesthetics of child-friendly monster-catching games palpably grinding gears against the ruthless, blood-flecked pragmatism you would expect to see in something like The Forest. Frankly, the anime mascots dripping with visually-mismatched military hardware are barely the start of it.
To explain, Palworld comes across like the writers and designers were told that they were making a game about feral xenomorphs, not realizing it would be populated by the doe-eyed inhabitants of a Tamagotchi. Once you start finding NPC humans out in the open world, they talk about Pals as slathering monstrosities – even though they're clearly anything but – and hoarsely whisper about the hundreds of innocents slain beneath their oversized cartoon paws. Sanity mechanics come into play if you work your Pals too hard, the in-game glossary rants on about the atrocities they commit, and not only do these adorwable wickle cwitters unceremoniously die like flies, you can roast their carcasses over an open flame and feed them to each other, which Palworld blithely accepts without comment or criticism. I'm no vegetarian, but even I balk a little at the idea of feeding a lamb to a lamb.
Don't get the wrong idea, Palworld doesn't contain the self-aware absurdity of a game like Bugsnax or Lollipop Chainsaw. Instead, it comes across as completely oblivious to how disconcertingly weird it is, which is somehow so much creepier. On a technical level there's not much wrong with the way it's designed, but the mishmash of brutal, amoral survivalism and innocent saturday morning cartoons is something that never stops being ghoulishly fascinating, for better or worse.
P-p-p-pickaxe a penguin!
But while Palworld's weirdness is arguably a flaw, it's still probably the best thing about the experience. Sure, I'm laughing at Palworld and not with it, but laughter is still laughter, right?
Unfortunately that eccentricity couldn't sustain me forever. After a while the unintentional joke started to wear thin, and I was getting irked by the bottleneck of needing certain resources in increasingly exhausting amounts. It also didn't help that the world, while initially pretty, didn't seem to be providing enough motivation or context to explore it.
Of course, these may all be things that get corrected as Palworld goes through the adolescence of Early Access, and I can't deny that it feels like a fairly robust package. However, what's there right now is a firm bedrock of (mildly sociopathic) mechanics that don't seem to be going anywhere yet. Mind you, with the explosive success of its cutthroat little world, I can't expect players will be waiting long.
Palworld was reviewed in Early Access on PC, with a code provided by the publisher