Palworld Review: A great survival game that’s more than ‘Pokémon with guns’
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Featured Image Credit: Pocket Pair, Inc
If you’ve been looking at trailers for Palworld and thinking it’s basically Pokemon with guns, you’d only be half right. While yes, at some point the creatures in the game - called Pals - can handle heavy weaponry, it takes quite a while to reach that point. Mostly because you have to find the right pal and then craft their ‘Pal gear’, then yes, the tiny green monkey, Tanzee, gets an assault rifle, or your cutesy blue penguin, Pengullet, a rocket launcher. But, as I say, this takes a while.
For the most part, you’ll be trawling the gorgeous surrounding world for wood, stone, ore, and all kinds of materials, building a base of operations, recruiting Pals, and forcing them to work without pay. Because, despite what the trailers show, Palworld is first and foremost a survival game. Imagine, if you will, Rust crossing over with Pokemon.
That’s not a bad thing if you like scavenging for resources, building lots of crafting stations, and unlocking new technology in small increments. However, it’s worth getting this out of the way, if you’re coming to this game expecting to play a Pokemon-style game with guns and grenades, you might be a little disappointed. With the knowledge that the game is very different, you’ll get exactly what Palworld is: a fantastic survival game that combines action-packed sequences and extensive crafting with a wry sense of humour.
On that latter point, the game never takes itself seriously. It knows it's riffing off of what has now become an industry template of catching cute creatures and battling with them. Here, you catch them in Pal Spheres, rather than Pokeballs, and if you’re unlucky the game will declare “the little bastard” got away. The humour pervades everything - there’s one Pal type called ‘Depresso’ that spends most of its time stress eating or avoiding work in the base.
The overall tone is playful and this comes through in Pal descriptions or quippy information. It’s worth noting that the game currently doesn’t have much of a story. I say currently, because this is an Early Access release, although the main nuts and bolts are here. It’s a feature-packed release and the developers have implemented enough that you can play for 25 hours or more and still be discovering new things to build or new facts about the Pals.
The game opens in much the same way many RPGs open up, with your character waking up on a beach, minus the memory. Hovering above your head, looking down at you, are several Pals who soon scatter when you sit up. From here, you’re told to build a base and explore this new world. Pretty standard opening for this open world, RPG, survival, creature collector. Slowly, you’ll be collecting wood, stone, and a blue rock called Paldium, all of which can be used to craft weapons, tools, and the important Pal Spheres.
It’s the usual start for a survival game; soon you’re building a small base. Base building is a genuine joy. Foundations, walls and floors all snap together easily, and crafting unique structures or utilities is as simple as opening a menu, checking you have the materials, and placing it down. Though the Pals need to hammer at it, completing the build for you.
From the off you’ll be out into the immediate area to catch some Pals, who are easily the star of the show. There’s an air of early 2000s Pokemon in the Pals’ designs. They’re gorgeous, bold, colourful, mostly based on common animals with an added flair. It shows that with a clean slate, a simple design is often best. It won’t take long before you have favourites, though this might not just be based on the character design.
Most Pals come with perks to help make your job of surviving a little easier. For example, a Pal will raise your carrying capacity, or cause more of a resource to drop when harvested. They also have certain actions or skills for when they’re left working in your base, too. A fire-type will stoke the flames of a furnace, while a water-type will water your crops or move a water wheel on a mill. Then there are the obvious, like the chicken Pal, Chikipi, laying eggs and the sheep Pal, Lamball, making wool, which you can use to craft cloth.
Using Pals back at your base is a key part of the experience. As your base expands, as dictated by missions given to you via the Palboard, you’ll be able to select Pals and put them to work - though you can’t assign them to specific jobs. With each upgrade of the Palboard, you can assign one more pal and eventually have a large team who will dash between crafting stations, feeding themselves, and taking rest when they need to. However, as with most people, Pals have emotions and needs and can often go off in a bad mood refusing to work. Don’t worry, you can pick them up and move them around, forcing them into more back-breaking work. Failing that, kill them.
Palworld doesn’t mind if you kill Pals. If you choose to grind for XP in order to reach the next branch of technology you can head out and massacre everything that moves. Occasionally, you’ll have to venture on a cull anyway as each Pal drops a unique item often needed for crafting. The rarer the Pal, the rarer the item and these will need to be stockpiled for later in the game.
Palworld does suffer from a few Early Access woes, but they’re pretty negligible in most cases. Pals can sometimes get stuck on rooftops or in shallow water, forcing you to call them back into the Palboard and then assign them again. They have a mind of their own which sometimes backfires. I’ve had mine randomly attack a huge roaming boss who then decimated my home Pals forcing them all to take a ten-minute break to heal. There needs to be some more balance across the board - weapons often degrade a little too fast, the stamina system makes travelling tedious as it runs down quickly and prevents Pals from flying and jumping when worn out, and sometimes Pals whinge about being hungry constantly and start slacking off from work for little to no reason.
You’ll be out in the world more than hanging around at your base. Once you’ve got a few Pals crafting for you, you’re not really needed for periods so you can explore - a ticker tape of information scrolls the side of the screen telling you what the Pals are doing back home. Oh boy, the world out there is wonderful. While it’s not going to win any awards for originality, Palworld is stunning - high rocky peaks, bright blue seas, rich dark forests, as well as crunchy ice and snow. Every area is lush, pocked with ruins and crumbling buildings, if you can imagine a cartoon version of The Lands Between from Elden Ring, you’re not far off. This goes for scattering around open areas prime for boss fights, too.
Bosses can appear in several ways - a human enemy usually accompanied by a Pal, a large Pal roaming the wilds, or within dungeons. Dungeons have both fixed and random spawns; a fixed spawn is usually where you’ll find a key boss within the adventure - a chief penguin with lots of penguin buddies, for example. However, as you explore you’ll find caves that spawn and usually feature a time limit before they end and can no longer be accessed. These dungeons usually last around 50 minutes and feature treasure, exclusive Pals, and Pal bosses guarding rare resources.
Around this point, several hours in, you can finally start thinking about guns. For a while you’ll only be armed with a spear and a bow, but as the technology tree progresses, you’ll gain access to handguns, rifles, and explosives. It took me around 14 hours to reach this point and even then, the materials needed are rare. This is mostly because guns are powerful and unlocking them early would allow you to stomp over everything, rather than utilise your Pals.
You might be wondering about using Pals in battle, another key aspect of the game. Much like other creature collectors you’ll choose a small team to carry around with you. You can summon one Pal at a time and they’ll walk with you, attacking when you attack or using their special moves - you can ride several of the Pals, with a few giving you the ability to fly around.
Each Pal has a range of attacks they will cycle through automatically so you can focus on your own attacks. You’ll often find that your Pals are quite overpowered and could kill another Pal you’re trying to capture, so it’s a balance of summoning and putting them away in the right situations and monitoring the enemy health bars. As with Pokemon, the lower a Pal’s health, the easier it is to capture them.
Your enjoyment of Palworld will be based on how much you enjoy survival games. The allure of the Pals probably won’t suffice to look past the focus on surviving and constantly crafting. As a fan of this type of game, I was in my element. The grinding for materials was appealing, as was the monitoring of crafting trees.
While I didn’t get a chance to interact with the multiplayer component of Palworld, it’s pitched to play a bit like Rust. When you die, you’ll drop a backpack of loot that must be picked up before another player gets there and loots your corpse. You can also raid each other’s bases to fight other Pals and destroy progress. Don’t worry though, if this isn’t your idea of fun, you can play single player, or with buddies to take away any pressure felt.
It’s astonishing how much has been packed into Palworld given its Early Access status. Sure, the developers will probably expand the world, add in more Pals, and grow the story, too. But what we have here is already great, and features so many small details you’ll be amazed at what you discover. It’s a little rough around the edges in places, but the blueprint and starting product are more than enough to keep you going. With a dedicated community, Palworld can only get better. Is it a Pokemon beater? Probably not, but it deserves its place in the conversation.
Pros: A sumptuous world filled with adorable Pals, built on great survival mechanics and a sense of humour.
Cons: A little rough around the edges and some Pals don’t interact well with the environment.
For fans of: Pokemon, Cassette Beasts, Digimon.
Palworld is due to be released on Steam (version tested) and Xbox Series X/S via Game Pass, on 19 January. A review code was provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.