Four Hours In, ‘Pokémon With Guns’ Hasn’t Given Me Any Guns
It may still prove to be interesting, but right now it's another survival-crafting game
8:10 PM EST on January 19, 2024
Palworld, which launched into early access on Friday, is a sensation. In just a handful of hours, it sold over one million copies, and it peaked at over 370,000 concurrent players on Steam and 434,000 viewers on Twitch. One does not need to subject their brain to the game’s nightmarish labor conditions to figure out why: In the run up to its release, Palworld gained a reputation for being “Pokémon with guns.”
Based on trailers, that reputation was well earned. They’ve depicted players blasting away at creatures living on the outskirts of Nintendo Lawsuit City with all manner of machine guns, shotguns, and explosives. Creatures, too, are shown manning turrets and even firing rockets from their backs. But the game itself, at least so far, is a bit of a different proposition.
I’ve spent around four hours with Palworld, and despite its promises of open-world Pokemon-esque antics paired with gunplay and, er, factory labor, it’s mostly a standard survival-crafting game in the mold of Rust or Ark: Survival Evolved. What I’ve played so far is not terrible by any means. It’s compulsively satisfying in that way these sorts of games tend to be: You punch down some trees, pry some rocks free from the nefarious clutches of bigger rocks, and lug them back to your base.
Just as that cycle threatens to turn tedious, you unlock a bunch of new stuff to build. At first, you’re limited to storage, beds, and other bog-standard fare, but after a few hours you start being able to create entire quarries and logging sites, which of course need workers to man them. And who better to perform those inglorious tasks, Palworld posits, than Wooloo’s long-lost cousin and his best friend, Straight Up A Cuckoo From The Legend of Zelda?
Initially, you fight Pals yourself using crafted items like a club, a bow, and a spear, and then, once they’re weak enough, you capture them with a “Pal Sphere,” which is so close to the word “Pokeball” that I have to admire the audacity. Once a Pal has joined your team, you can redeploy them – one at a time – into the field to fight alongside you, or, more usefully, you can put them to work at your base. At first, this is kind of sweet: You begin bonking together a ramshackle shield at a crafting table, and then a Pal totters over and puts its tiny hands to the task as well. When you’re finished, it whoops in glee.
But even where I am, clearly a ways out from all the game’s systems opening up, there’s a sinister undertone to these moments. Creatures, who I’ve beaten and captured, toil away on projects of increasingly industrial scale until they slump into unconsciousness at night – often without even reaching their beds. It’s not subtle, but then, if you’ve made it this far and were still expecting subtlety, I don’t know what to tell you.
That said, so far it mostly feels like edginess for edginess' sake. The Pokémon-as-dogfighting comparison is right there, but Palworld doesn't really engage with it. I suppose over the years the Pokémon series has, especially in the anime, implied that Pokémon do labor for humans, but it's not really a focus, and Palworld -- at least, so far -- does not seem narratively driven enough to say much of anything with its core conceit. Perhaps, in tying a fun reward system to Pals' endless toil, it seeks to make the player feel a little bad for having a good time. But it remains to be seen what, if anything, the game is trying to say with that.
Automating your base by choosing the correct types of creatures for the task(s) at hand has been the most satisfying part of the game so far. I have perhaps over-indexed on Pals with luxurious coats, so the ranch I constructed is burying me in wool. Meanwhile, I’ve got a plant dude seeding soil, a penguin dude watering the soil, and a cat dude harvesting crops from that soil. A few Pals also take turns collecting eggs from the ranch, which they put in the feed box I built, meaning I don’t even have to manually feed my creatures anymore. I am king of a tiny, overworked kingdom. It’s fully at odds with my ethos, but it feels good.
Everything else, though, has been kinda whatever. By day I typically explore and capture Pals, but combat at this stage – which, again, involves clubs and spears, not guns – is so basic as to border on mindless. I purposefully made my character look like Kratos to really embrace the heartless brutality of this world, but so far it’s been less God of War and more God of Mining For Ore. I can’t make guns yet, and though I see an item in my crafting tree that I think will maybe allow me to use a recently-captured fire Pal like a gun, I can’t access it yet.
That said, I have had guns used against me! The first time was entirely my fault: There’s a tutorial NPC near where you start the game who offers advice and a couple free items, and I wanted to see if the game would live up to its grim, no-holds-barred reputation enough to let me attack him. It did! I stabbed him with a spear until he fell off a cliff. Then the game alerted me that I had committed a crime and sent two machine-gun-toting, level-24 NPCs after me (I was level 6 at the time). They chased me to my base, and I thought they were gonna slaughter my Pals alongside me, which would have been exceptionally dark. Fortunately, I was able to lose them or glitch them out of existence or something by climbing into my bed and just lying there for a while. Crisis averted.
A little later, while exploring, I came across a base full of poachers who’d caged a rabbit Pal and, in so doing, pissed off the local wildlife. They opened fire while creatures charged and swooped at them from land and sky. With the chaos muffling my footsteps, I snuck in and freed the rabbit Pal from its cage. Then I poked the remaining, thoroughly distracted poachers to death with my spear. It was a cool moment, but I couldn’t help but feel the way I imagine the Pals who work for me feel all the time: I wanted a gun.
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