In a matchup that seemed like a lopsided Rocky vs. Apollo Creed fight, a true contender to Nintendo's globally dominant Pokemon franchise has appeared -- and it's super effective!
I'm talking of course about "Palworld," the indie creation of Japan-based Pocket Pair. It's pocket monsters for the rest of us, finally, and it's an endearing genre mashup that we never knew we needed in our lives.
"Palworld" burst onto the scene a few weeks ago, launching in early access on Steam and on Xbox's Game Preview, and sold 8 million copies within the first week (and now almost 20 million since its late-January launch). By comparison's Nintendo's latest Pokemon game sold about 23 million copies in its first year.
Whether it ultimately fizzles or flourishes remains to be seen, however. It's a glorious hot mess in many ways, a Frankensteinian mashup of Borderlands-esque comic humor, Dark Souls-like third-person combat, open-world survival-crafting like Valheim -- and guns. Lots of guns.
"Palworld" begins on the Palapagos Islands, of course (expect many puns in this game), with the start like that of many survival-crafters: Pick up some sticks and rocks, craft a stone ax and mining pick, start a small base, hunt some local wildlife. The wildlife in this case, however, are more than 100 cartoonish monsters whose names rely on both function and funny. Up first are the Lamballs, which are ... fluffy, ball-like lambs. And then Chikipi (chickpea) and Lifmunk (leaf chipmunk) and then the fiery Foxparks (fox sparks), and you get the picture. It's wordplay all the way down. I think my favorite is the Teafant, a tiny, adorable, porcelain-like cross between an elephant and teapot that quickly got a job watering plants at my base.
And that brings us to, uh, slave labor? Sort of? See, outside of combat, all these Pals have other skills, too, that we can use to guard our bases, cook food, craft tools, plant crops and so on. I love its implementation. While I'm out adventuring, my Pals back home are working autonomously on tasks I've assigned them to do, like crafting more arrows or more "Pal Spheres" that I can use to catch more Pals.
And speaking of the world, it's a pretty vast place. It's a series of biomes and islands, and rather difficult to traverse (at least until one acquires a flying mount), and it's filled with Pals of varying levels and aggressiveness -- and also poachers from the Syndicate, who have camps all over, and often have a Pal in a cage needed to be rescued. See, you're the good guy! (Ignore the fact that at later levels, you unlock a butcher knife for unnecessary Pals ...) The Pal world (see what I did there) is thankfully gore-free. Pals just sort of flop around and look knocked out after being defeated, and the human enemies dematerialize.
Similar to their Pokemon-like inspiration, monsters come with a large amount of element-based attacks (grass, electric, dark, fire, etc) and unique abilities, and there's both Alpha and Shiny variants to acquire. Many of their abilities are simply to ride them, but others assist in combat. For example, the fiery Foxparks can be picked up and used like a flamethrower, and the Tanzee (a baby chimp) for some reason whips out an assault rifle.
However, we're not entirely living in Paladise here. The game isn't complete, and still has a number of serious issues that must be worked on (and it is getting frequent updates toward that end). Xbox and Game Pass owners can play co-op, but only with up to four people. For players on Steam, they can play on servers with up to 32 total people. Unlike Valheim, there's no importing a character and possessions from one server to another. Join someone else's game and you're back at level one.
Also, the official multiplayer servers are a total mess right now. My first experience was marred by hackers (on seemingly every server) using an exploit to kill everyone and destroy everyone's bases (despite there being no PVP yet). The text-based chat was spammed by bots trying to get people to their websites. This has been a problem going back 20 years to the original "World of Warcraft" -- why is there no fix for this yet in gaming? Eventually, I did meet a few folks, and spent a few happy hours crafting a joint base and leveling up -- until the server crashed, and when it came back up a few minutes later, the entire server had been wiped and our characters and progress were gone. So, avoid those completely for now.
The laundry list of improvements and additions to "Palworld" that I'd like to see is lengthy, and even though it's unpolished and sometimes glitchy -- it's still a diamond in the rough. Let's hope it turns into something that dazzles us all.
- Platform: PC, Xbox
- Cost: $29.99
- Rating: Teen for comic violence
- Score: 7 out of 10