Palworld is a massive success, celebrating an astonishing 1.5 million concurrent players on Steam. In a highly competitive market flooded with quality games, it can be difficult to predict which games will succeed and which will vanish off the radar. Palworld’s selling pitch of “Pokémon with guns,” combined with survival game elements, helped propel it to the top. But there’s another factor in Palworld’s success, and it’s fan frustration at the stagnation of the Pokémon franchise.
The Pokémon RPGs are often criticized for being the same game over and over again, with only slight adjustments to the formula and more Pokémon to catch. This isn’t entirely true — Pokémon Legends: Arceus was a big open-world experiment, allowing the player to take some agency back from their team of Pokémon. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet built off of that foundation, expanding the open world and introducing the well-received Terastallization battle mechanic.
But it can feel like for every step forward, there are two steps back. Scarlet and Violet struggled with graphics issues, including frame drops. Accumulating a collection of Pokémon across generations is still difficult, even with the addition of the Pokémon Home service. Older fans in particular have been asking for more adult themes or complex factors to deal with in Pokémon games, but Game Freak and The Pokémon Company have largely remained stalwart in maintaining the kid-friendly tone of the games.
Palworld wasn’t built to satisfy those fan demands, but it does hold a certain intrigue for players. There will never be a Pokémon game that goes to the lengths of Palworld, where the player can set their Pals to work in horrible factory conditions to mass-produce guns. But it’s almost like a glimpse into an alternate reality, where the Pokémon franchise could get weird, experimental, and unafraid to release entries aimed only at adults.
But Palworld is not just “Pokémon with guns.” In addition to riffing on Pokémon, Palworld is liberally cribbing from other games, too. It’s very much a survival game that borrows from predecessors like Rust, Ark, or Conan Exiles. It also takes clear inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring, and even the slide from Apex Legends.
Compared to the calcified mechanics of a mainline Pokémon game, playing Palworld and enslaving a horde of adorable sheep to make assault rifles feels like a rush of freedom. At first, the monster-catching experience felt flat and uninteresting. But the game’s survival mechanics got me hooked, providing a drip-feed of dopamine every time I unlocked new technologies, expanded my base, or built a cool new gadget.
Before long, I was hungry for rock and stone, and unable to mine all of it on my own. I quickly realized that with the right Pals, I could automate that process, and the game clicked. While the game has issues, some of which are a result of it being an early access title, it proves that mixing monster-catching with survival gameplay loops is a natural fit, like chocolate and peanut butter.
Nintendo has traditionally brought the hammer down on Pokémon fan projects, even ones that hardly seem like they pose much financial risk to Nintendo or its brand. This stance, along with the consistency of mainline Pokémon titles, has driven some fans away from a once-beloved hobby. Palworld represents the opposite of the Pokémon brand’s approach, for better and for worse. That’s part of the appeal of this survival game — it answers a demand that Nintendo and Pokémon aren’t meeting. The only question left is whether a grim take on Pokémon has legs. Palworld’s massive debut shows that there’s definitely fan interest in the idea — but it remains to be seen whether that sustains itself past the initial wave of novelty.