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The weakest part of Palworld is, unfortunately, the Pals

I struggle to adore these little beasts

A series of small, cute Pals that look like green, leafy chipmunks are working tirelessly on an industrial assembly line. The scene is bleak and menacingly, and the Pals are under duress. Image: Pocketpair
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Palworld is a monster catcher and survival game that feels mildly off. The cute, round, and friendly designs of the Pals you encounter don’t quite fit with the more organic and natural environments. It’s a jarring sensation that I was able to get past fairly easily, except for a dissonance more insidious than the initial visuals: Despite playing a monster-catching game, I found myself actively resenting my Pals. It’s a bit of a problem that in a game named, well, Palworld, maintaining a party of Pals is the least interesting bit.

Despite the memes of Palworld being “Pokémon with guns”, and enslaving your Pals for industrial-level manufacturing being a main mechanic, the game takes its time building up to that absurdity. Your character awakens on a beach, surrounded by curious Pals that scatter as you climb to your feet. This is a genuinely endearing moment — but the rest of the game dissuaded me from forming any real emotional attachment.

It takes a little time to start acquiring Pals; you’ll have to engage in the time-honored survival game tradition of punching trees and picking up rocks until you can build a humble base. Only then can you engage in catching Pals and forming a little battle team. And it’s here where the problems start. Your first Pals will be little critters, like the bouncy Lamball and the fiery Foxparks. They’re cute, but not particularly interesting. In fact, with all of the one-note noises they make, they can be downright annoying.

Two Pals in Palworld: one is pink and cutesy and the other is darker with galaxy-like cloud fur. Image: Pocketpair

The first sign that there’s something really amiss with the Pal options available to you is in the technology tree, which allows you to unlock a meat cleaver for butchering Pals. Later, you can get an overseer’s podium that allows you to cruelly overwork your Pals. Done right, this introduces the kind of delicious friction that has led me to love games like Rimworld. Do I protect my beloved Pals, shielding the adorable creatures from the demands of industry? Or do I build an assembly line and put those little critters to work building me assault rifles?

The problem is that I don’t particularly care about any of my Pals. Sure, some of them are cute or regal, but they’re also a little bit frustrating to deal with. I continually have to assist my laborers as they get stuck on top of things or at the edge of the base, growing furious from the stress and growing so hungry they eventually risk starvation and death. I’ll hit “F” to claim some ingot, only to jump on my Eikthyrdeer or grab a Cattiva instead. There’s no tension, because there’s no choice — of course I’m going to put these guys to work in the factory.

Zoe, a girl with pink and back split-dyed hair, holds up a Palworld ball, ready to battle. Image: Pocketpair via Polygon

A rare few get to escape this fate and be part of my active adventuring party. That being said, I often found myself keeping them in their Pal Spheres and just going it alone. I can give commands to my active Pal, telling them to attack or to hold off. But there’s no way to ask them to attack until the wild Pal is at low enough health that I can capture them. After losing some real good Pals I had intended to attach to my Dazzi’s ongoing lightning damage, I gave up. When it comes to the game’s extensive platforming, they tend to fall behind immediately. Now, I fight most creatures with my own gumption and trusty crossbow.

Pals aren’t utterly useless; I can use some of them as mounts, or have others haul junk for me. But that doesn’t make them my partners or allies. They fill a very similar role as my paraglider — they’re a basic tool. I understand that part of this is the point: It’s meant to be a cruel mirror of the transaction between Pokémon and trainer. But that’s a thin joke that wears very thin, very quickly. “Bad thing happens to cute little guy” has been old since Happy Tree Friends.

With all that being said, Palworld is in early access. There are likely changes coming, and perhaps some of them will make me actually form a connection with my Pals. I hope, at the very least, they can stop devouring berries so loudly. These little guys keep getting stuck on walls until they must feast, creating an endless stream of scarfing that makes me long to send them back to the mines.

The next level of puzzles.

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