Palworld is, depending on who you ask, a quirky monster-catching game in the very best traditions, a vicious mockery of something innocent, or, if they want to be the least interesting person in the room, claim that, ugh, it's just a video game, don't overthink it. Still, while people might like or dislike something, it's curious to see such contradictory opinions about the actual tone of a game and what we should be seeing when we look at it. Maybe you find Resident Evil scary and maybe you don't, but folks don't tend to argue about its actual status as a horror game.
Palworld seems more divisive than that. Look around and you'll see some people who frame it as an unapologetic animal cruelty sim, while others are bewildered at what appear to be the gentlest of combat encounters, no more brutal than any other game. After all, hasn't Pokemon itself always been little more than a child-friendly interpretation of organized cockfighting? Is Palworld really so much worse than that?
All smiles, no laughter
Well… yes and no. Palworld's confusion comes in part from the fact that the game's presentation is all over the place, so those that think they're playing a wholesome game about cuddling cartoon mascots are just as correct as those who see a game where you might slit a servant's throat to further motivate the rest of the workforce. It's a game where you can do incredibly cute things and incredibly evil things, and the two elements exist side-by-side with no acknowledgement of each other. The option to butcher a Pal and carve the bloody meat from its bones is on the very same menu as the option to give it a cuddle and call it your best fwiend.
But it goes further than that – Palworld doesn't seem to realize how strange this contrast is, and has no sense of humor about it whatsoever. In my Palworld review I called it an obliviously cruel game, and I still think that's the case now. There's no shortage of black comedy focused on cruelty being inflicted on cutesy or innocent things, whether in video games or beyond. Cult of the Lamb, The Binding of Isaac, High on Life, Happy Tree Friends, Itchy and Scratchy, certain episodes of South Park… That's the whole joke; the guilty laugh of seeing something monstrous happening to something adorable, like when Jack Black dropkicks the dog off the bridge in Anchorman. It's not for everybody, but god knows I find it hilarious.
But Palworld doesn't seem to see the inherent joke. The story tone and aesthetics are hilariously mismatched (the smiling plushies with realistic assault rifles could be on any boardwalk t-shirt), and going weapons-hot on Saturday morning cartoons is nothing if not dark comedy. But when Palworld treats that absurd image as something reasonable, it's hard to understand what you're supposed to feel or think, hence why everybody's seeing different levels of darkness. A bloodless gunfight is no worse than Splatoon or Fortnite, surely? And making your captured Pals work until their sanity and bodies diminish… okay, that's a bit darker. And cutting down a human being with a woodcutter's ax, kidnapping them and selling them on the black market… Actually, on that note, let's address the big Grass-element elephant in the room.
Despite its clear inspiration, Palworld is a game that gives players far more freedom than most Pokemon games ever do, and is generally a little closer to being more of a simulator. And the broad swath of neutrally-presented options, with everything from the loving to the lethal, serves to take the sting out from any individual one of them. No, you don't HAVE to kidnap humans, work your animals to death, shotgun a chimp in the face or roll a grenade under a sleeping duck. I mean, you can, and you probably will, but they're just a few of many choices given to you. You could also feed Pals cake, give them hugs, or spend your time building each and every member of your party an opulent palace. For many people, this probably helps reframe the issue from "Palworld is cruel" to "Palworld players can be cruel", an important perceptual difference.
Pokemon has tied itself in knots since it was first created to explain why its gameplay about capturing animals and siccing them on each other isn't anything other than wholesome. Don't worry, they're never truly hurt! They're your closest friends! They all choose to be there! It's just a jolly competition!
Palworld, contrarily, sees nothing to make excuses about – this is a wild world, one more amoral than immoral, and how you engage with it is your choice. For some, that excuse may be enough. For others, the law of the jungle being applied not to realistic animals, but the inhabitants of a Toys R' Us, may make it harder to accept at face value. I can't say I don't get why.
For more thoughts on Palworld, read why Sam thinks Palworld would be a better game with no guns, or for those determined to get the best gear in the game, find all the Palworld legendary schematics here!