Why Monster Taming Survival RPG Palworld Is Such A Massive Hit

hero palworld flight
It's the question that the head of every AAA developer has to be (or should be) asking their staff right now: what is the deal with Palworld? This isn't an opening to a Jerry Seinfeld comedy skit, but rather a very serious question, because the game is kind of crappy and broken in a lot of ways, yet it's now the second-most-played game of all time on Steam (going by concurrent players). It's first, actually, for a paid game; the highest-ever concurrent player record is held by PUBG: Battlegrounds, a free-to-play title.

So what exactly is Palworld? Well, it's a video game made by Pocketpair, Inc, which was previously known for a few minor indie titles, most notably AI: Art Impostor and Craftopia. Neither of these releases were particularly successful, although Craftopia did garner itself a small audience for being one of very few Asian takes on the "survival-craft" genre popularized by games like ARK: Survival Evolved, RUST, and of course, Minecraft.

palpagos islands map
The Palpagos Islands, where Palworld takes place. Image: Pocketpair

Palworld builds on the Craftopia formula. It's once again a third-person multiplayer survival-crafting game, but this time made in Unreal Engine 5 instead of Unity. While it doesn't make use of UE5's bleeding-edge graphical technology (like Nanite virtual geometry or Lumen ray-traced lighting), it does use that engine's advanced world-building features to create a vast open play area in the form of a small archipelago known as the Palpagos Islands. The player character wakes up clad in rags and with little else to their name on one of these islands, and must fight, hunt, and craft to survive. It features relatively advanced movement mechanics, including leaping, rolling, and sliding, as well as dynamic climbing very much like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

palworld intro
The first scene of the game, as the player wakes up with three curious Pals looking down on them.

Of course, the key focus of the game are the "Pals". The Palpagos Islands are densely populated, not by humans, but by cartoonishly cute creatures known as Pals. They are obviously inspired by (or a ripoff of, depending on who you ask) the titular Pokémon from that series. Visually, they don't fit into the relatively-realistic natural environments at all, but that's arguably part of their charm; the Pals stick out from the environment and this helps them create a unique identity for themselves within an otherwise horrifically generic game world.

While the Pals themselves are very similar to Pokémon in terms of design and mechanics, the two games actually couldn't be further apart both in terms of game systems and in tone. Nintendo's series focuses primarily on turn-based duels where "mons" fight each other; the trainers are largely uninvolved aside from shouting moves from the sidelines. That is not the case at all in Palworld.

Players team up to hunt Kingpaca, a highly-durable world boss.

Pal trainers fight alongside their Pals with melee weapons, ranged weapons, hand grenades, land mines, and once you get to the end of the tech tree, even assault rifles and rocket launchers. Pals are captured in Pokéball-like "Pal Spheres," and you can carry a team of five Pals with you at a time. More similarly to Pokémon, Pals have an inherent "type" and moves are also "typed," so Pals are stronger when using moves that match their type and weak to enemy Pal's moves that are of their weak type. For example, an "Ice" Pal and ice moves will be strong against a "Dragon" Pal, but weak against a "Fire" Pal and its moves.

Canonically coffee-powered Depresso has quickly become a fan favorite despite mediocre stats.

Where Pokémon has largely stayed away from adult themes in its media, Palworld is not shy about engaging with them. Pals who are killed drop meat and resources like fur, horns, and leather; you explicitly eat Pal meat and use Pal materials in crafting equipment. Where Pokémon emphasizes the idea of wholesome companionship between a mon and its trainer, Palworld emphasizes that these creatures are disposable and replaceable, no matter how cute they are.

palworld mining
The player looks on as three Pals work hard breaking rocks in a mining area.

As perhaps the extreme expression of that philosophy, players are encouraged to deploy Pals as factory workers inside their home base, which they place and construct freely within the game world. Different Pal species have different "Work Suitabilities," which is to say that a fire Pal may be suitable for working a forge or cooking food, a water Pal may be adept at watering fields or operating a mill, while a more humanoid Pal with gripping hands might be suitable for "Handiwork," crafting items from materials (like creating cloth from wool.)

lifmunk manufacturing
These Lifmunks are probably not having a great time building assault rifles in a volcano.

Players can do most of the work themselves, but it's time-consuming, even if you put level-ups into the "Work Speed" stat. Instead, you're expected to have Pals do most of the work, and there's a ton of work to be done, because the game's tech tree is massive. It has fifty separate tiers of build-able and craft-able technologies, and there are many, many different resources the player must acquire, distill, and create to advance it. Pals will help along the way, by performing mining, harvesting wood and other plants, providing electricity to mechanical devices, and even transporting materials from one stage of manufacturing to the next.

So with all of that said, why has Palworld become such a hit? I think it comes down to three things, primarily. The simplest and most obvious is a matter of circumstances. Palworld is a $30 game with no microtransactions or DLCs, at least to date. You buy it once and you get the full game, and there's really not a lot else going on in gaming right this moment. Folks who are coming off of the big titles from late last year, like Baldur's Gate 3, Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader, or Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora are looking for something new to play, and Palworld is cheap, easy to run, and easy to pick up, so the barrier to entry is very low.

The adorable Lamball is likely to be the first Pal players encounter.

Another major point is that while the game is undeniably buggy and clumsy—the developers recently admitted in an interview that they had "no idea what they were doing"—it still does a fair job of blending the gameplay of ARK, Zelda, and Pokémon despite not relying on an existing IP. You can tell that the developers have a lot of experience playing games, if not making them, and despite being troublesome technologically, Palworld has a lot of quality game design packed into it. I've heard it said that it's about 30% as good of a survival game as ARK, 30% as good of an exploration game as Zelda, and 30% as good of a monster taming game as Pokémon, which adds up to about 90% of a damn good game.

The developers have been posting highlight videos like this for every Pal.

The final and arguably most important point is simply that it provides the grownup, open-world, full-3D monster catching experience that Game Freak has been loathe to deliver to its dedicated fanbase. The Pokémon developer recently took steps in this direction with Pokémon Legends: Arceus, but aside from swapping the turn-based monster duels with real-time battles, not much changed from the core Pokémon formula. Palworld is surprisingly immersive at times, and creeping through a darkened forest to poke a sleeping Pal with a spear to weaken it so you can capture it is something you won't do in a Pokémon game.

Indeed, unlike Pokémon, Palworld doesn't completely shy away from depicting the realities of living in a world with these cartoon monsters and their magical powers. In Pokémon, there are subtle hints that people eat mons, and vague implications of human-mon relationships, but this is all down to vague references on the fringes of the material; none of this is part of the game proper. In Palworld, you fight Pals directly with your trainer, and when you shoot a Pal, it drops meat which you can then cook into a delicious sauteé. Paldeck index number #69 is a giant pink lizard known as "Lovander" whose Paldeck description says that they hunt humans for "debauchery." Yes, really.

Did you think we were kidding? That's Lovander, Pal #69.

Palworld is extremely blunt with its adult themes, even though the game is surprisingly kid-friendly in terms of literal content; when Pals are killed, they don't explode in a shower of gore or anything like that—they simply rag-doll away with a knocked-out expression on their faces. There's violence, but it's purely of the cartoon variety. Despite this, there are still many adult themes on display here; Pals can be intentionally overworked to increase manufacturing production to the detriment of their health, and Pals have to be fed, which can result in cannibalism. Thankfully, the game doesn't model the effects of diet on Pals, because my Pals subsist almost entirely on a diet of baked berries and cotton candy.

A player throws a Mega Sphere at a Depresso to capture it.

This is all beside the core conceit that both Palworld and Pokémon center around: you're chasing down creatures that flee from you to imprison them in magical spheres so that you can then force them to either fight or work for you. This dark principle has always been at the center of Pokémon, but the franchise simply ignores the realities of this. Palworld doesn't exactly confront them head-on, but it doesn't entirely shy away from them either, and I think adults likely find it more engaging as a result. People have wanted a more "serious" and "adult" Pokémon title for a long time; the people who were playing Pokémon Red/Blue as 10-year-olds on the Game Boy are 36 years old now. Palworld serves to satisfy that desire, at least in some ways.

Considering PocketPair made Palworld on a shoestring budget, most of which was borrowed, using unfamiliar technology with a mostly inexperienced team, it's really impressive what the developer has achieved, and once you play it a while, it's really not hard to understand why it has exploded the way it has. Here's hoping that Pocketpair can keep its momentum alive with quick patches to fix bugs and add more content to the game—particularly some sort of an ending, a critical feature that the Early Access game entirely lacks.