Pushing Buttons: Why Palworld leaves me cold

The biggest story of the year so far in games has been Palworld, the “Pokémon-with-guns” early access game that broke and rebroke concurrent player records on PC. It’s showing a few signs of being unsustainable, as those player numbers have dropped off in recent weeks and the developers reveal the eye-watering cost of keeping servers online for so many people (almost $6m a year), but it’s still in with a shot of being 2024’s biggest game in terms of pure revenue.

There’s something a little unsavoury about Palworld that has other developers and critics wrinkling their noses. It’s not just the ick of turning guns on creatures that are, unlike Minecraft’s blocky animals, designed to look cute. Its character designs are so close to Pokémon’s that it has sparked allegations of plagiarism, with some 3D models of the game’s creatures aligning improbably closely with those from recent Pokémon games. (The Pokémon Company is investigating, while Pocketpair’s CEO, Takuro Mizobe, said that Palworld “cleared legal reviews”, and that the studio has “absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies”.) Its lead developer has also been cheerfully outspoken about using AI tools, which is a super-unpopular opinion among everyone who works on games in 2024, except certain company executives.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, from 2022. Photograph: The Pokémon Company

The game also borrows ideas from several other ones without bringing all that much of its own to the table. It’s not Pokémon that comes to mind as you play Palworld, but Ark: Survival Evolved – a nine-year-old survival game that has you taming dinosaurs, alongside the usual gathering, building and crafting. Once you’ve captured a creature it is pressed into indentured servitude on your base, or comes along to battle with you out in the wilds.

There is nothing here that you haven’t seen in several other survival games, but Palworld makes it totally frictionless, removing a lot of the busywork between you and the next shiny upgrade. Like Genshin Impact, also an enormous hit, it takes familiar game tropes and makes playing so easy and compelling that it’s hard to put it down.

It helps that there are no other players trying to ruin your fun, as there are in Ark, or Rust, another survival game in which there’s always someone ready to smash you with a rock and take your stuff. Player v player competition doesn’t currently exist in Palworld (it’s planned for in later versions); instead, you cooperate with other players on a server. The game’s attitude to its creatures is cutthroat – they exist to be killed, enslaved or eaten – but its attitude to players is very welcoming. There are reasons it’s so popular.

Nonetheless, I find Palworld hard to like. It’s soulless, and anecdotally appears to have a lot of kids in its 19-million-strong player base, when this is not a game made with children in mind. Compared especially with the Pokémon games from which its creature design draws such obvious inspiration, it is violent and amoral. In Pokémon, a children’s classic that has evolved over 25 years, your creatures are companions, not just pets but friends. You battle them for sport, sure, which is not something Peta would approve of, but they don’t get hurt, there are no weapons and you certainly don’t eat them.

Carnage at the farmyard … Palworld. Photograph: Pocketpair

Palworld is closer to what panicked parents and reactionary preachers of the late 1990s thought Pokémon was like, back when Time Magazine was running scaremongering features headlined Beware of the Pokémania and Christian organisations were arguing that Pikachu was a literal manifestation of Satan. “Monsters make for disquieting playmates. No matter how toylike and frivolous they may appear, monsters are unnatural and, in the end, deal in unresolved fear,” opined Time, in 1999. “But monsters also have a way with children. Consider the suspicious charms of the Pokémon creatures … The four-to-12-year-old set can exhibit the most troubling fanaticism about Pokémon.” It is laughable to read these lines now, but I remember when this was the tone with which video games were always talked about in mainstream media: as a symptom of some deep spiritual sickness in children of the 90s.

Anyway, I’m not here to start a moral panic about Palworld – it’s cynical, but it’s also mostly harmless and undeniably compelling. I wouldn’t let my seven-year-old play it, but anyone over 12 will have seen worse on YouTube. Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, and the majority of breakout games from here on out will be repackaged ideas we’ve seen 10 times before. But I remain hopeful that the next unexpected hit I play this year will leave me with a smile, rather than an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

What to play

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. Photograph: Game Grumps

It’s Valentine’s Day, so I must recommend a game about love, a topic that many games do not confidently tackle. Dream Daddy is a dating game in which you play a single father looking for love with one of seven other eligible single fathers in your new neighbourhood. Before it came out in 2017, many thought that it would be an overdone joke, but it remains one of the most sincere and unexpectedly touching dating games around. Your teen daughter often helps you work up the courage to talk to your dad of choice, and it frequently segues into gently surreal mini-games where you, for instance, try to dazzle your date with competitive pride in your kids’ achievements. It turns out to be a game about the love between parent and child, as well as the budding romances between you and the hot neighbourhood bachelors, all of whom have their own problems and stories that are handled with humour and compassion.

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC and smartphones,
Estimated playtime:
2-10 hours, depending on how many dads you want to date

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What to read

Star Wars x Fortnite, anyone? Disney has invested $1.5bn in Fortnite maker Epic. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
  • We are still waiting for Microsoft to outline its vision for the future of Xbox: it’s happening tomorrow evening,UK time, via a podcast featuring Xbox executives Sarah Bond, Phil Spencer and Matt Booty. It comes as recent research from 2K Games suggests that the PS5 has outsold the Xbox Series X by two units to one.

  • I loved Gene Park’s feature about the Yakuza series on the Washington Post, titled “A Japanese crime game series wins hearts with kind, heroic masculinity”. It gets to the heart of the appeal of these games, for anyone without the tens of hours spare to play them.

  • The British maker of Jagex, the company behind Runescape, has been bought for £900m by a pair of private equity firms.

  • Disney has invested $1.5bn(!) in Epic Games as part of a deal to create a “new persistent universe [that] will offer a multitude of opportunities for consumers to play, watch, shop and engage with content, characters and stories from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar and more”. Sounds like that means more than a few more Star Wars skins in Fortnite.

What to click

Question Block

Fantasy-flavoured … The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Photograph: CD Projekt RED

This week’s question comes from Rosie from New Zealand:

What games for the Switch do you recommend for a mature teen who plays the likes of Dead By Daylight, Left for Dead, Hitman and Red Dead Redemption on PC?

I do love the Switch, but it’s not great for teens (or adults whose inner child is less close to the surface). A combination of its family friendly reputation and lesser power compared with the Xbox and PlayStation leaves it lacking in purely adult-oriented games, whether that’s muliplatform staples such as Call of Duty or the PlayStation 5’s exclusives in the vein of The Last of Us and God of War. That said: the original Red Dead Redemption is on Switch now, and Metro Redux is a duo of interesting post-apocalyptic shooters that holds up well. If they are interested in something more fantasy-flavoured with exciting combat, they may also enjoy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Dark Souls. For old-school shooter/horror vibes, there are also Bioshock and Resident Evil collections on Switch. Most of these games are rereleases or remakes: alas, the latest multiplayer shooter or horror games are not to be found on this console, but you’ll easily find them on PC.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com.

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