Note: This review is specifically of the PC version of Palworld available through Steam. Because the Xbox version and the PC version available via the Microsoft Store (both on Game Pass) has significantly more issues and different features, which the developer says is due to the certification process, we will post a separate review of that version later this week.
Nothing about what Palworld does seems like it should work in the slightest. A thinly veiled Pokémon clone where you and your collectible monsters shoot people in the face with literal guns? A base building survival game where you use your kidnapped creatures as laborers, and may even resort to cooking and eating those unpaid employees when times get tough? An open-world co-op adventure where you and your friends thwack helpless sheep over the head with baseball bats to harvest their wool? Defying the odds, this wholly irreverent, gun-toting take on the creature collection genre has been unrelentingly fun across the 100-plus hours I’ve spent shooting cartoon kittens in the face. As an early access game, it’s got plenty of bugs and performance issues to go around, and sure, it shamelessly cribs the design for many of its collectible creatures. But its survival mechanics are intuitive and deep, its action-packed combat is silly and satisfying, and exploring its world in search of new Pals to kick the snot out of hasn’t come close to getting old. I am baffled to report, dear reader, that Palworld is very good.
Despite the clear, eyebrow-raising inspiration it takes from a certain creature collecting powerhouse, Palworld more closely resembles a formulaic survival game like Grounded, with a roster of lovable monsters to capture as a clever twist on that formula. You find yourself inexplicably dropped into the wilderness of a strange land filled with oversized, dangerous beasts called Pals. From there you’ll need to build a base, hilariously force the local fauna into your servitude, and upgrade your gear to wage war against the rotten human factions who try to murder you with assault weapons every chance they get. You won’t find yourself hanging out in idyllic towns or challenging gym leaders to friendly contests – this isn’t that kind of adventure. Instead, your goal is to survive the harsh land and face off against evil and/or psychotic Pal trainers who raze villages, attack your base, and command foreboding towers and dungeons filled with goons who shoot to kill.
And yeah, tonally, that’s an utterly unhinged combination. One moment I was taking in pastoral views as I explored for new Pals, gliding, climbing, crafting, and cooking like this was an off-brand Tears of the Kingdom. The next moment I was firing guns at armed thugs and considering the possibility of butchering a Pal who had been mentally broken by the poor working conditions of my sweatshop so I could consume his meat to avoid starvation. Rather than not addressing the questionable aspects of the creature collecting genre, Palworld amusingly leans into them and lets you do absurd things like pick up your fiery fox Pal and use it as a flamethrower to burn your enemies to a crisp, or equip your monkey Pal with a machine gun (which sure beats using Tail Whip). Once you get over how incredibly weird that all feels, it’s a complete blast.
It’s hard to overstate just how effortlessly funny Palworld is, often feeling like a satire of the creature collection genre rather than another straight-faced iteration of it. For example, later in my playthrough I accidentally discovered you can capture humans in your Palspheres, binding them to your will and allowing you to put them to work at your camp or take them with you on adventures like regular Pals – an insane inclusion that’s never advertised to the player and has no purpose aside from being ridiculous. Or how you can just give an rocket launcher to your panda Pal, then sit back and watch him blow some poor woodland creatures into oblivion. Palworld is steeped in utter irreverence every step of the way, and that works to its benefit since creature collecting is already silly as heck to begin with.
Catching Pals out in the open world is a ton of fun, though it’s definitely a bit weird to hack a small penguin unconscious with an ax before you can stuff it into a Palsphere – or, even more alarmingly, to take out a gun and riddle it with lead. It feels extremely wrong at first, to be sure, but I found myself disturbingly used to the ritual after just a few hours. I mean, is doing the dirty work myself really all that different from battling them with another captured creature instead?
The Pals themselves, on the other hand, aren’t quite as original as the process of catching them, as I’d describe the majority of them as “almost copyright infringement.” Seriously, there’s a mouselike lightning Pal, a sassy two-legged cat Pal, a dinosaur with a flower on its head, and many more that reminded me an awful lot of some collectible monsters from the days of my youth. That said, uninspired and derivative as they are, the designs are still mostly pretty neat and have a lot of personality, which makes each one a ton of fun to hunt and do battle against. I’m especially fond of the ditzy and nigh-helpless Dumud, a complete blob of a creature who thrives bouncing around the desert in delighted defiance of Darwinism.
Though capturing, leveling up, and fighting alongside Pals is a major and awesome part of the adventure, you’ll likely spend much more time hanging out at the various bases you’ll build. It’s there you can craft useful items and facilities, cook meals, and arm yourself for war in the epic battles ahead. Just like most other survival games, you’ll need to keep a steady stream of crafting materials flowing in, like wood, stone, and food, and the key to automating that process so you don’t spend endless hours mind-numbingly chopping down trees and swatting rocks with a pickaxe is by making clever use of the Pals themselves. For example, farming could soak up lots of your time as you plant seeds, water your plots, and then harvest the crops, but once you’ve captured some Pals and put them to work at your base, you can have a plant Pal spit seeds out of its mouth, then have a water Pal blast them with water, before another Pal comes along to harvest the crop and move it to your storage container.
This Pal-based cooperation is not only ridiculously adorable to watch, but gives you even more reasons to catch every creature you find. You might not have much use for the fox-like Pal Foxparks in battle, but if you keep one at your base, whenever you fire up the grill to cook or use the furnace to smelt some ingots, your charming fire friend will come running to shoot fire at the appliance and make the task go by faster. Even the weakest creatures give you a whole new reason to catch not just one of them, but a whole bunch to be put to work at whatever it is they do well. As you level up your character and capture Pals with different abilities, you’ll be able to transform your bases from shabby camps to industrialized fortresses, complete with conveyor belts for your Pals to go to work assembling weapons and ammo for you to use against your enemies – a hilarious transformation that made me question how much better I was than the villainous rival trainers I faced out in the wilds.
That said, there are areas where the work of maintaining your bases requires far too much grinding to keep up with. For example, the near-constant need for ore, which is used in dozens of vital recipes, becomes increasingly cumbersome the longer you play as you start consuming massive amounts of the material. Instead of being able to fully automate the process of harvesting and refining this resource like you can do with wood and stone, you have to stop what you’re doing regularly to farm some ore and turn it into ingots just to fuel your basic needs. One of the most constant uses for ore is to craft Palspheres, which are used at a rapid pace as you try to catch increasingly powerful Pals with very low capture rates – and since some sphere recipes require five ingots to create a single one, I found myself halting my adventures for 20 minutes to grab a ton of ore to build spheres, then running out again an hour later, forcing me to start the process all over again. Here’s hoping they’ll add more advanced options to automate some of this stuff later on, because for the time being there’s far too much manual work required just to get back out in the field putting your Pals to good use.
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Thankfully, once you get away from the base to explore the absolutely enormous map, it’s consistently fun to run around looking for hidden chests and eggs, battle dangerous boss Pals, raid dungeons stuffed with loot, and chat with the handful of NPC and vendors scattered throughout the wilderness. In one area I get chased by wild packs of snow cats and their giant papa cat, in another I found a creepy blackmarket trader who sold rare, probably illicitly obtained Pals, and in another I watched a squad of suicidal tucan Pals rush into a camp of poachers and self-detonate, sending the whole place up in smoke. Sometimes the action even finds you, like when various enemy groups or wild Pals organize raids against your bases, including a personal favorite moment when seven high-powered “Bushi” Pals attacked my camp with samurai swords (this is the nature of war, after all).
Once you unlock the ability to ride Pals, especially flying ones, the world really opens up, and you’ll find miles and miles to explore, from bamboo forests filled with goofy panda Pals to murky swamps overrun with goblin Pals. There’s even an active volcano to be scaled where all the Pals are, predictably, made of fire. Crafting gear and leveling your Pal squad to survive increasingly unwelcoming parts of the world is rewarding, not just because of all the interesting new Pals to find a capture, but because certain biomes will give you access to materials you’ll need to bring your base and equipment to the next level. Even cooler, you’ll be able to see at least a few massive spires rising in the distance from anywhere on the world map, serving as a reference for your ultimate goal – to reach them all and challenge the lethal bosses lurking within.
Like most survival games, everything Palworld offers immediately becomes more fun when joined by friends in multiplayer – up to 32 people can be in a single server on the Steam version, though that number is currently capped to a paltry four on Xbox and the PC Game Pass version. Running wild throughout the open world, taking down powerful bosses together, and managing a collective base all work without hassle (aside from some short-lived server issues right around launch). Seriously, this thing just demands to be played with friends, especially since it also alleviates some of the stress of having to grind for resources all the time… if those friends are willing to chip in and not steal all your stuff, that is.
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It probably goes without saying for an Early Access game, but be warned that you are bound to encounter technical issues and bugs on occasion, though the issues I’ve seen are fortunately mostly minor so far (at least on Steam). I’ve been hit with rough framerates and stuttering, hard crashes, and multiplayer disconnects, but none of that was so commonplace or game-breaking that it ever significantly got in the way of good times. There’s a lot more that Palworld could benefit from, like a fleshed out story and more NPCs or evolutions for the Pals, to avoid so many of them becoming irrelevant at higher levels, but I’m surprised by how polished the whole package already feels at this early stage.