If there’s one game I didn’t expect to hook me, it’s Palworld – or ‘Pokemon with guns,’ whichever you prefer. Part survival game part creature collecting sim, Pocketpair’s indie behemoth certainly resembles Pokemon at a glance, but its extensive crafting mechanics, sprawling open world, and general chaos are exactly what I’ve been looking for in one of Game Freak’s games for some time – it’s the itch that Legends: Arceus failed to fully scratch.
But before I get into that, there’s obviously the huge elephant in the room – the Teaphant or Phanpy, as it were. Palworld has come under a huge amount of fire for being a ‘Pokemon rip-off,’ prompted by similarities in creature design, as well as general in-game naming conventions. The adorable Lamball looks very, very like a Wooloo, and the ‘Paldex’ and ‘Pal Spheres’ are perhaps a little too close to ‘Pokedex’ and ‘Pokeballs’ for my liking. While Pocketpair insists that its survival game is “completely different” from Pokemon, CEO Takuro Mizobe’s comments on not being “particular about originality” certainly echo in my mind.
It’s something that initially dissuaded me from playing. ‘Pokemon with guns?’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s a nope from me.’ However, as the hype (and player count) skyrocketed, I found myself intrigued. I hopped in on Sunday, January 21, and I’ve been playing ever since. But I hate Minecraft, I hate Valheim – why on earth have I plowed [redacted] hours into a Pokemon survival sim? Well, it’s because it’s the Pokemon game I’ve been waiting for.
My entire childhood was Pokemon. Silver, Gold, Diamond, Pearl, Platinum – I had them all. Then, when I was in university, Pokemon Go came out – while I was in hospital, no less. Not only was it a great distraction from a particularly vicious kidney infection, it was perfect for meeting new friends and going on adventures with old ones. Pokemon Go changed the face of Pokemon, and the dazzling 3D visuals of Sun and Moon lured me back in.
Since then, however, I’ve largely fallen out of love with the series. I plowed years of my life into Sun and Moon, but Sword and Shield, then Scarlet and Violet, fell a bit too flat. Year after year, Pokemon started to feel increasingly less special for me. Sure, there are new Pokemon and some shiny bells and whistles, but there’s a lack of fresh ambition to its age-old format: you’re a young person carving out their Pokemon journey, battling gym leaders, helping out legendaries, and taking down the Elite Four, as well as a new iteration of Team Rocket.
It’s the same thing year in and year out, and while that’s great for some, I find it sorely lacking in any form of innovation. That, for me, was where Legends Arceus came in.
Legends Arceus looked like the Pokemon game I always wanted, with Pokemon wandering a vast and explorable world, we’re in the ‘past’ where Pokemon and humans don’t yet work together, you craft Pokeballs instead of buying them – yes, all of this is exciting.
And yet, once again, it just fell flat. My mum describes The Lord of the Rings as a ‘brown’ movie, and I’d describe Arceus as a ‘brown’ game. There’s no excitement, there’s no reason to keep coming back. The crafting system feels half-baked, and once again the story follows the same path. I was disappointed, to say the least.
Survival and crafting, however, is where Palworld shines. Sure, it’s a little janky, but the gameplay centers almost entirely on that crafting element. Just like any good survival game, you build your base, then you upgrade it. Your exploration has meaning – you’re looking for raw ingredients, picking up materials, or buying things from the definitely-not-shady dealer at the Small Settlement. In Palworld, your exploration has a purpose, whereas in Arceus it feels like you’re running from A to B, then back again.
But the survival base-building doesn’t outshine the Pals themselves – they are the heart and soul of the game, after all. By integrating creature-catching into base creation, catching Pals has a purpose. You need fire Pals to cook food and create ingots. You need water Pals to water your berry plantations – everything makes sense. Where, in Pokemon, you’re battling it out for the best of the best, every creature in Palworld has its place. Sure, as you find better ones you’ll cycle out your original crew, but Palworld’s world state constantly feels like it’s evolving – pun entirely intended.
And while the world’s story and lore are very basic, everything around you feels alive. There are sporadic raids, random Pals wandering around and fighting one another, and, most importantly, there are other players. One thing Pokemon has always sorely lacked is a sense of actual in-game community – it’s normally Pokemon battles, trading, or nothing.
While the Pokemon Scarlet and Violet multiplayer system rectified this slightly, the MMORPG-feel of running past random bases and other players just isn’t there in Pokemon. On my Palworld server, for instance, my partner’s base is just over the horizon, and I can see him casually yeeting Tanzees around. Below my base, one of our friends has gone wild and has pretty much every piece of gear – as well as some awesome-looking Palworld Pals I haven’t even discovered yet.
That multiplayer brings a sense of life. Sure, we haven’t partied up to do dungeons, or even wander around the world together, but knowing there are other people there makes this feel like a real, fleshed-out world that is much more convincing and exciting than interacting with the various NPCs you meet in Pokemon. I helped my partner catch a Eikthyrdeer, and our screeching down the mic was actually fun – especially given he was in the other room. I haven’t been able to do that in Pokemon, ever, and it’s a moment that I’ll never forget.
Where Pokemon’s modern worlds often feel flat and lifeless, Palworld’s has a sense of spirit. Sure, it’s buggy. Sure, the Pals have guns now. But, honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time. Where the Pokemon games feel predictable, Palworld offers absolute chaos. Palworld’s universe is a living place where actions have consequences, and your decision to arm a Tanzee with a machine gun can, indeed, tip the scales of life and death. It’s the world that Pokemon evokes but never quite manages to Exeggcute (I’m not sorry).
Palworld is the Pokemon game I always wanted but never got. As a child, I forged memories with Dialga and Palika, but with Palworld, I’m forging memories with my friends and a really, really big hedgehog that shoots lightning – my own little African pygmy hedgehog is rather jealous.
I have a whole list of some of the most critically acclaimed best PC games in my Steam library, but at the moment, Palworld is beating a whole lot of them for my attention. Is it going to be game of the year? Absolutely not (well, who knows). But, for now, it’s one step closer to the Pokemon game I’ve always dreamed of.