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Is it Pikachu? Is it Electabuzz? No, it’s a Pal, nothing to do with Pokemon whatsoever…
Is it Pikachu? Is it Electabuzz? No, it’s a Pal, nothing to do with Pokemon whatsoever…

Pop CultureJanuary 22, 2024

The surprise gaming hit of 2024 is… Pokemon with guns?

Is it Pikachu? Is it Electabuzz? No, it’s a Pal, nothing to do with Pokemon whatsoever…
Is it Pikachu? Is it Electabuzz? No, it’s a Pal, nothing to do with Pokemon whatsoever…

Over the weekend a game called Palworld took the gaming universe by storm, selling millions of copies. But what the heck is it? Sam Brooks explains.

What’s all this then?

Palworld is a new game from Japanese developer Pocket Pair that blends familiar open-world gameplay (think the recent Zeldas) with survival mechanics (think DayZ) in a world populated with animal creatures known as “Pals”, who bear quite a strong resemblance to Pokemon (think Pokemon). 

It was released in early access (a pre-release version of the game intended to serve as a taster) for Windows, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S on January 19. Within three days, it sold over four million copies. For comparison, Hogwarts Legacy was the best selling game of 2023 and sold 23 million copies worldwide. Palworld also broke the record for the most concurrent players at any one time on Steam, with over 1.2 million.

Palworld or Pokemon? (It’s Palworld)

Is it really ‘Pokemon with guns’?

Despite that being a pretty great summary, in an interview, Pocket Pair CEO Takuro Mizobe claims that Pokemon wasn’t a reference point to the game, instead pointing to other games, including Ark: Survival Evolved, Rust and the Dragon Quest series. 

However, comparisons to literally the most successful franchise of all time have persisted. There are over 100 Pals the player engages in combat with, via their own Pals which they’ve captured using “Pal Spheres”. Once captured, these Pals can fight for the player, or be assigned to player bases to assist with various tasks. They can also be used as weapons and mounts. A second popular reference point has been Digimon, another series that has received some flack for its own similarities to Pokemon. (It also does not help that the mascot of Palworld also appears to be a large, yellow, electric-adjacent, rat.)

A marked point of difference is the game’s “dark” sense of humour, including references to labour laws and illegal hunting. While Pokemon occasionally engages with the philosophical conundrum of capturing sentient creatures and pitting them against each other in combat, it doesn’t take a satirical or humorous approach to the topic. And in Pal Spheres, humans can be captured, which is very much not something that can be done in Pokemon.

So what makes this a big deal?

Well, it came more or less out of nowhere. Pocket Pair is an independent developer with only one other game to its credit (Craftopia) and press coverage was scarce. However, even if it had received a lot of coverage or pre-release buzz, this kind of record-breaking success is unprecedented. For comparison, the game that previously held the record for most concurrent players on Steam was Cyberpunk 2077, a game from a major studio that had been hotly anticipated for years.

Is it any good?

Despite its commercial success, critical reaction has been mixed.

The gameplay has generally been praised, especially the combat, but the “unoriginal” designs of the Pals and the game’s sense of humour has come under fire, with one review describing it as “mid-2000s Newgrounds edgelord”. If that reference doesn’t mean anything to you, you may be too young to play Palworld. The Pal monster designs have also been criticised for being too similar to Pokemon designs, with players pointing to Pocket Pair’s historical use of generative AI tools

However, audiences on the whole seem to be enjoying the game, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

The gameplay of Palworld.

Where can I play it?

Palworld is available in early access for Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S through Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Preview respectively. It is expected to remain in early access for at least one year, with new features including PvP modes, raids and cross-server trading. 

Meanwhile, there are several Pokemon games available for the Nintendo Switch.

Keep going!