Pokémon with guns: why Palworld could become 2024’s biggest game

This survival adventure from a relatively small Japanese studio sold 5m copies within three days of its release. What in the name of Pikachu is going on?

The new year has barely begun but it seems we already have 2024’s biggest game – and it’s not a multi-million dollar sci-fi extravaganza set in a vast universe created by a gigantic publisher. It’s a survival adventure released by a small company in Japan, which had only previously released one game. It’s called Palworld, and it’s being accurately described as “Pokémon with guns”. And if that sounds horrible to you, it seems you are very much alone. Within three days of its release on 18 January, it had sold 5m copies. What in the name of Pikachu is going on?

What is Palworld?

Developed by Tokyo-based Pocketpair, Palworld belongs to a genre known as survival adventures, in which players are cast into an inhospitable open-world environment and have to – yes – survive, by finding food and shelter, crafting tools and of course fighting enemies, whether they’re space aliens or hungry wolves. Minecraft is perhaps the most famous example, but titles such as Rust, Ark, Don’t Starve and Subnautica are all competing in a similar space.

What do you actually do?

A screenshot of Palworld shows a character shooting at a monster
Palworld: funny, silly and weirdly engrossing. Photograph: Pocketpair

You control a character who arrives in a lush open-world environment known as the Palpagos Islands and must survive by farming, cooking, building shelters and combatting various enemy factions. Also living in this world are more than 100 different types of cute creatures named Pals, which all have their own abilities. You can capture these cute beasts and either use them to battle your foes, or put them to work in your base crafting useful items.

Much of the game involves exploring the world, looking for Pals and resources. It’s important to monitor your hunger levels, and to gather resources. As you fight enemies (using your captured Pals) you unlock new crafting recipes working your way through a varied technology tree. You can either play alone or, if you choose the PC version, you can choose to go online with up to 31 other so-called “pal tamers”.

It’s funny, it’s silly, and it’s weirdly engrossing even though all the separate elements are so recognisable. Some feel that Pokémon developer Game Freak has been too reticent to really shake up its ageing series over the last five years, and that Palworld is the modern incarnation longterm fans have been crying out for. It’s certainly gone down very well with lots of top video game influencers, becoming the No 1 game on streaming platform Twitch within a day of its release. This has certainly helped with attention.

So it’s a sort of neoliberal pastiche of Pokémon, accentuating the immoral exploitation of these animals as mere resources?

Um, that might be overthinking it a little, but sure, why not. And actually one of the enemy factions you face in the game is the Free Pal Alliance, an activist organisation dedicated to freeing Pals from slavery.

Palworld video game.
A screenshot of Palworld shows a character riding a flying dragon like monster Photograph: Pocketpair

Are people angry about the obvious Pokémon connections?

The game has been extremely controversial, not only for its similarities to Pokémon, with some developers accusing the developer of plagiarism with its creature designs, but also its use of tropes and conventions from other successful survival games, especially Ark and Rust. However, the people responsible for Pokémon – Nintendo, Creatures and The Pokémon Company – have not yet commented, although Don McGowan, who managed the Pokémon Company’s legal team for a decade recently told news site Game File: “This looks like the usual ripoff nonsense that I would see a thousand times a year when I was chief legal officer of Pokémon. I’m just surprised it got this far.”