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Palworld is more than just 'Pokemon with guns', but not much more

Pokemon with guns? TemTem via Tears of the Kindgom? Digimon does Ark: Survival? Whatever it is, Palworld is a mixed bag.

Early Access review card for Palworld that reads: "Its best bits feel like they’ve been lifted from somewhere else."
Image credit: VG247/PocketPair

Since Palworld was first shown off, plenty of folk described the game as ‘Pokemon with guns’, and that’s not exactly a stretch. One look at the Tokyo Game Show trailer for the game and you’ll quite clearly see Pal designs (those are the creatures you’ll be collecting) that are akin to fan-favourite Pokemon, albeit wielding AK’s and other weaponry.

Taking inspiration from other developers, especially those behind one of the most prolific monster-collecting games globally, is fine. But that’s only one of my qualms with Palworld. Developer PocketPair claims 'it has taken no inspiration from Pokemon whatsoever', instead citing Ark, Minecraft, Rimworld, Rust, Grand Theft Auto, and Dragon Quest in an interview with The Gamer about the topic. But the game also features typography and music that you could’ve told me was from Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and I might’ve believed you. Many of these Pals look explicitly like pre-existing Pokemon.

So, there’s no reference to Zelda or Pokemon having been an inspiration, despite a lot of nods to the contrary. And the sad part is, I believe this all goes a lot deeper, with some folk on Twitter claiming Pocketpair have copied Fakemon designs for Palworld’s Pals, too.

Possible plagiarism aside, Palworld is fun. It brings some new, refreshing ideas to the monster-collecting table that I’d love to see in future Pokemon installments. As you roam around this vast, open archipelago of islands, you’ll encounter different biomes, over 100 Pals to collect, and find plenty of crafting possibilities at your fingertips.

And it all plays out smoothly. Sure, I had a few Pals end up in places they shouldn’t have been (but I could pick them up and move them), and there were some movement mishaps at times, but all in all, Pocketpair has dished out a relatively flawless Early Access experience (and how often do we get to say that?). But it would be nice to see more exploration of the world, making it more productive and fruitful; this is the same issue I had with Pokemon: Legend Arceus, which Palworld feels a lot like.

The similarities lie in crafting and overworld combat – you’ll go for the attack, alongside your Pal, before throwing a Pal Sphere at the creature to capture it. Aside from discovering the occasional resource, chest, and Lifmunk Effigy, the world feels quite barren. During exploration, you can just run, uninterrupted, for a while before encountering anything new or interesting. But with boredom sometimes comes reward; after roaming around for a few hours yesterday and venturing into some dungeons, I ran into a Black Marketeer I could buy and sell Pals with! A far more interesting mechanic than simply releasing spare Pals into the wild.

The player rides Grizzbolt while they use a gun in Palworld
Image credit: Pocketpair

Once you’ve caught some Pals and made a start on your base, you can put those Pals to work. They’ll help you acquire food, wood, stone, and other resources (enabling you to build structures and new gear), and they’ll have their own unique traits that determine how good or bad they’ll be at working. You can tell them what to do, pet them, and when out in the wild, use them as fluffy shields or personal turrets – which is hilarious. You’re telling me I can turn this little penguin Pal into a cannon? Say less.

New recipes and crafting opportunities are unlocked as you battle and collect Pals. And when it comes to crafting, there are a surprising amount of options to choose from as you work your way through the Technology Tree; there’s numerous choices for weaponry, decorative items, and just everything you need to make a base feel unique. This is the crux of Palworld's fun. Building with my Pals (who are ever so adorable when they’re helping you out), and creating the perfect farm (or sweatshop, if we’re being honest about it) is a fruitful experience.

Combat, on the other hand, is a harder sell. It’s quite distinct from other monster-collecting games and I definitely had fun figuring it all out, but there was something rather dissatisfactory about it once you get to the bones of the thing.

Rather than combat Gym Leaders in turn-based battles, you’ll instead take part in real-time fights against Tower Bosses, and these are timed. Palworld’s first Tower Boss features an Electric-type Pal who you’ll have 10 minutes to defeat. He’s quite formidable, and surprisingly difficult, which I appreciated. I’d prepared a party full of Pals of different types initially, only for most of my Pals to do poor damage. It's like Miltank all over again.

Pal, Anubis, uses their skill in Palworld
Image credit: Pocketpair

After returning to the boss battle with a personal army of Fire-type Pal, Foxparks, the fight was a breeze. Encounters like these often rely on your Pals and their Partner Skills (read: abilities they can use alongside you). In Foxparks’ instance, they can become a mini-flamethrower for the player character, while other Pals can wield guns, and others can be mounted to make traversal faster.

While it’s pleasant – and achievable – only having to overcome one Pal during these boss battles, it feels somewhat underwhelming that the best counter for these fights is to have an entire Pal Party of one typing. I’m quite the fan of selecting a handful of creatures and keeping them with me throughout the game, but Palworld doesn’t quite support that. So when I’d anticipated taking on a gauntlet of Pals, I was reminded that this ultimately isn’t Pokemon, and it appears that to succeed in most of Palworld’s toughest fights, you’ll have to be rid of your emotional attachments to your Pals. But then, in a game with indentured labour and monster-based black markets, maybe that's the point.

Pal, Lifmunk, wielding a gun in Palworld
Image credit: Pocketpair

In fact, it probably is. Especially since you can easily work these little guys to their deaths. Despite my qualms with combat, I can’t deny that weaving between and dodging attacks while using my Pal-shaped flamethrower on this particular Tower Boss was quite fun. But then you take a step back and see this boss, its arena, and its moves – and it all feels unequivocally Zelda once more.

Ultimately, Palworld is good fun. I’m looking forward to seeing how multiplayer works out with my friends. It’s easy to argue that much of Palworld’s best bits feel like they’ve been lifted from somewhere else, somewhere that has not been intentionally disavowed as an inspiration. Palworld definitely has some features worth admiring, and is finally letting keen monster-collectors dabble in the whole ‘what if Pokemon, but dark and violent’ query that many of us have often had, but I’m quite disappointed in how unoriginal it often feels.

It’s difficult to make anything wholly original and fresh in 2024, but after playing Temtem in 2020, I also know that it’s possible to create a distinct game in a popular genre. And Palworld – as great as it can be – could’ve done better.

Palworld's Early Access is available on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S via Xbox Game Pass, and is also available on PC via Steam. It was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.

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