We are less than a month into 2024, but the surprise gaming hit of the year might have already arrived. On January 19, Palworld entered early access on PC and Xbox. If you haven’t heard its name, there’s a chance that you’ve heard it described as “Pokémon with guns,” which is a fairly accurate description. I mean, just look at the screenshot above.
It’s impossible to overstate how successful this game has been just a few days after launch. The game’s official social media channels claim that more than five million players bought Palworld in just three days. That’s half of what The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for Switch sold in its first three days. Keep in mind that one of these is a first-party Nintendo game and an entry in a decades-old franchise. The other is an indie survival crafting game.
Just as impressively, there were over 1.8 million people playing Palworld on Steam at the same time this week. It now holds the record for the platform’s second-highest concurrent player count of all time, behind PUBG: Battlegrounds.
Alright, so we’ve established that this is the smash hit of 2024 so far, but what exactly is it?
First and foremost, “Pokémon with guns” doesn’t tell the whole story here. In reality, Palworld is an open-world survival crafting game like Rust, ARK, or Valheim, in which you gather materials, craft equipment, build shelter, and fend off enemies. The twist is that you can catch the creatures running around the world with Pal Spheres and then put them to work at your base, bring them into battle with you, or ride them around the world.
If you’ve played any of the games mentioned above, you pretty much know what you’re getting into. But aside from the catchable, ridable “Pals,” the game also smartly sidesteps many of the annoyances that so often plague survival games.
In this genre, the early game is typically a grind. Your character is naked, unarmed, and useless in a fight. Chopping wood or mining ore takes ages because you can’t craft the best tools. But in Palworld, you have an army of critters to do the dirty work for you, so while you’re out hunting for rare materials or more Pals, the Pals you’ve put to work at your base will be gathering, crafting, and leveling up (as long as you keep them fed and happy).
Palworld also abandons procedural generation in favor of a static map that looks the same for every player. Spawning in a procedurally generated world in Valheim with biomes strewn miles apart from one another can be infuriating, but in Palworld, you’ll always know where to find the boss, specific resources, or a cave with a game-changing Pal.
Palworld solves some of the genre’s worst problems and adds a full-fledged Pokémon system, but there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the game’s structure. Combat is serviceable but repetitive, enemy AI is laughable, the art design fails to impress, and there are glitches and bugs galore at launch. Clearly, none of that matters to the millions of players who are catching Pals, building bases, and toppling bosses in 2024’s biggest hit game so far.
More importantly, Pokémon developer Game Freak cracked the door open for competitors like these by failing to provide meaningful innovations for their own franchise. Palworld might not be the most creative, original, or even competent survival game on the market, but the same can be said of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet for the Switch. They were buggy, lifeless, and iterative when fans were expecting a fresh, exciting take on the formula.
So, why is Palworld such a hit? I don’t think it’s because everyone was really desperate to put a gun in Pikachu’s hand. I think it was a perfect storm of marketing, word of mouth, the seemingly undying popularity of the survival genre, and the disenchantment with Pokémon.
If you want to buy Palworld, it’s currently available for PC on Steam for $26.99 (regularly $29.99) and for Xbox on the Microsoft Store for $29.99. If you have an Xbox Game Pass subscription, you can download the game for free on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One.