I thought Palworld would be easier to write about.
Give a games journo a game pitched as “Pokémon with guns” and we assume a wellspring of Takes and loose academic considerations must ensue. Instead, Palworld is a largely fine open-world survival crafting game composed of overly familiar ideas and aesthetics. You’re dumped into a contextless world full of Pals, legally distinct creatures whose domination of this rugged, natural oasis has been threatened by encroaching factions and the slow creep of the modern world. Over dozens of hours, you’ll capture Pals, unlock better equipment, explore, battle, survive, and thrive. From the moment you punch a tree to gather wood, you know what Palworld is.
It runs well, looks decent, gestures toward potentially exciting future iterations beyond its current Early Access state, and slips in just enough goofy imagery to make a stray TikTok possible. It’s overwhelmingly fine. And there’s nothing harder to write about than a just fine game.
All this has happened before…
There’s an inevitability to much of the satisfaction you can find in Palworld. These are systems you’ve almost certainly played with before, and the reason they’ve been stitched together here is because they fundamentally work. Building a small campsite into a thriving farm works. Organising your disparate item stashes and resource generators into a lean, mean agricultural machine works. Getting mad at yourself because the pot plant you thought would liven up the place is a fraction of an angle off the wall just works.
I’ve recently been dabbling in Green Hell, a total horror show of a survival sim, but even its grotesque bodily harm and harsh systems can’t dampen how much I’ve enjoyed choosing the most aesthetically pleasing place for my water catcher and stick holders. If this genre clicks for you, it clicks almost despite its surrounding settings and systems, and Palworld trusts this instinctive enjoyment to a fault.
This heavy reliance on pre-established pleasure points runs deep. After several hours of resource grinding and Pal hunting, I eventually found the towering Eikthyrdeer, a vibrant purple creature with antlers the size of my human character. Like many of their Pals, Eikthyrdeer can be equipped with a harness that unlocks a special move for their owner to deploy at will. This is largely where the ‘Pokémon with guns’ thing has come from, a boatload of Pal harness abilities seeing them whip out modern weaponry and wreck shop, either autonomously or as aimed by the player, but more on that whole thing in a bit. With harness in place, my impressive Pal could now be mounted in the open world for faster traversal, including a suspiciously familiar double jump. Reader, I shit you not, the first time I used this Torrent-lite ability I crested a cliff face and clocked an impossibly large tree jutting into the sky off in the distance.
On my subsequent journey toward the Totally Not Erdtree, I was able to deploy a glider to cross canyons, stumbled upon derelict churches with deity statues tucked in the back, mystically sealed gaols, remnants of an ancient-alien-ish technology (all of which triggered a signature, melodic piano tune), and of course upgrade my stamina bar that allowed me to climb almost any surface I could see. Palworld’s emulation of contemporary open-world adventures is so thorough and brazen as to swing all the way back around to being just a little bit funny. Like its farming systems, it’s a game that understands how, and even why, all these systems and signifiers work for players but deploys them with the grace and precision of a shotgun blast.
Lock, Stock, and Smoking Marill
Speaking of, I’ve probably made you wait long enough to read about the guns. To be honest, there isn’t all that much to say. Palworld’s marketing has leaned hard into the schtick, generating a memefied idea of the game in the industry that even its developers aren’t entirely happy with. The imagery of Pokémon-adjacent creatures tearily working factory machinery and being loaded into rocket launchers is a Hell of an opening bit but beyond the initial shock value of a small woodland creature producing an AK-47 from its pouch, Palworld doesn’t seem to know what to do with its own premise.
The game effectively requires you to put Pals to work in your base because the crafting time on many items is excruciatingly long and dull otherwise. Pal’s have various traits associated with labour and battling (lumbering, rock breaking, manufacturing, etc) and while they can complain about work conditions if you don’t provide basic amenities and roster management, the hit-and-miss task allocation and rudimentary satisfaction meters make them feel a bit lifeless. Paired with the game’s insistence on your catching hundreds of the things for EXP boosts, you’ll have access to a rotating workforce that can simply be stored when discontent gets too much. I suppose you could drum up a thesis there, the world is technically littered with factions vying for domination or liberation of Pals, but Palworld seems to have only a passing interest in things like labour exploitation and violence in its current state.
And it’s because Palworld is such a vibeless place. There are echoes of a narrative found in diary entries but beyond some cinematics for dungeon boss introductions and faction camps, Palworld is exceptionally light on story or even basic worldbuilding. And despite its supposedly evocative imagery and gestures at big ideas, it has yet to produce a single coherent moment of true emotional or systemic immersion for me. The overall art direction is pleasant, and it ran pretty damn well on my PC that’s now aged into pension benefits. The setting sun gleams just as nicely as the creeks babble and the Pals skitter, but it never feels like more than a toybox. For all its understanding of the systems and machinery of modern open-world titles, Palworld has yet to figure out the divine.
Mum said it’s my turn with the labour exploitation simulator
Toyboxes rule, though, and Palworld’s is crammed full of shiny plastic to smash together. The Pals themselves are visually diverse and likeable enough, running the gamut from standard elemental marsupials to vague humanoid furry bait. The absolutely massive open world is littered with the little dudes, often found roaming in packs or getting into scraps with factions and each other depending on aggression level and area. Palworld’s necessitated efficiency focus means it’s difficult to get attached to a core team as functionality trumps sentimentality in this world, but there’s just enough dopey cuteness in the creature design to make you involuntarily chuckle when your Pal punts a whole human off a cliff.
The core combat and monster-catching loop are equally agreeable, your Pal hunter controlling relatively well and even needing to deploy a well-timed dodge and strategic use of level design during tougher fights. Palworld houses many discreet dungeon encounters, often short, interior runs through beefed-up Pals and factions before facing down a boss with a health bar better suited for multiplayer raids than a single player. But if you’re not vibing with enemy health pools, item drop rates, Pal catch rates, or much of anything, you can just tinker with your world’s settings and establish your own unique difficulty parameters. This kind of control is genuinely fantastic in the face of the game’s level-gated technology trees and resource-heavy crafting, both of which may fare better in a team, but if you’re heading into Palworld alone, do yourself a favour and bend its world to suit your schedule.
I get the impression Palworld in its current state is just that; developer Pocketpair is an old hand at rolling updates for large multiplayer titles and Early Access should allow for a world in which Palworld evolves nicely. For now, despite its plethora of decently tuned systems and overarching likeability, Palworld feels like a game unsure about which parts of itself to take seriously, abstracting its handful of ideas to the point of emotional nullification. The goof of a Pal with a gun and a manifesto on the plight of the worker might crack a smile at first but as the hours wear on, Palworld’s lack of conviction keeps you at arm’s length. Perhaps more of a causal acquaintance than a good pa…friend.
Review conducted on Xbox Series X using a pre-release code provided by the publisher.
Image: Pocket Pair Inc.
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