‘Palworld’ is a Smash Hit. Gamers Claim It’s ‘Pokémon With Guns’

Palworld, an action-adventure video game by Japanese developer Pocket Pair, debuted via Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Preview on Jan. 19. In just three days, five million copies sold, making it the top-selling and most-played game on the Steam charts, with players describing it as addictive fun: “Tried it for a couple of hours at 9pm, had some fun, it was then 3am,” reported one satisfied redditor who downloaded the game.

But that customer’s description of the game itself hinted at a point of controversy that has complicated the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Palworld. “Scratches both the Pokémon and survival game itch all at once,” they wrote. Indeed, the game’s cast of “Pals,” — fanciful creatures that can be captured and used to the player’s advantage — has prompted many comparisons to Nintendo’s massive Pokémon franchise, developed by Game Freak, which is likewise based on a cast of critters to be caught for the player’s own purposes.

The Pokémon comparisons have generated hype for the game, with reviewers characterizing it as “Pokémon With Guns.” In a post quoting Palword’s impressive performance on X (formerly Twitter), one user quipped, “The children YEARN for Pikachu holding an AK-47.”

The game allows you to not only equip your Pals with weapons but ride them into battle or make them work on construction projects — and even eat them if necessary. (Between details like this and its dark humor on the subjects of poaching and forced labor, some Palworld critics found it a sour kind of entertainment.) Such varied forms of interaction in an open-world setting where players can choose their own objectives marks a departure from the many Pokémon releases over the years, which tend to have a role-playing narrative quest structure.

In other circumstances, that might have differentiated Palworld enough for Pocket Pair to claim plausible deniability when gamers accused them of ripping off Pokémon. The trouble seems to be that a lot of Pals closely mirror a lot of Pokémon, from overall aesthetic right down to the 3D model schematics. Of course, both sets of critters are largely whimsical reinterpretations of real-world animals, but some developers, artists, and designers believe the matches are too exact to be accidental.

Reactions have ranged from indignation at the alleged copying to dismissals of plagiarism to absolute indifference. Those asking “who cares?” tend to point out that if Pocket Pair is eating Game Freak’s lunch by dropping Pokémon-like characters into a new format, it’s because the latter developer hasn’t made the most of their own valuable intellectual property. (Even Pokémon fans tend to agree that there has been a drop-off in the quality of the games.)

Meanwhile, Pocket Pair founder and CEO Takuro Mizobe on Monday issued a statement noting that company artists had been targets of abusive comments and “death threats,” affirming that he is “responsible for the production” of the game. Without directly addressing the debate over the Pals designs, he added, “I would appreciate it if you would refrain from slandering the artists involved in Palworld.” In an interview with the gaming news site Automaton, Mizobe also stated that the game had been vetted and was facing no legal action. “We make our games very seriously, and we have absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies,” he said. 

Nintendo and Creatures Inc. (parent of the Pokémon Company), who jointly own the Pokémon franchise with Game Freak, did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.

But any perceived similarities between a given Pal and Pokémon may be moot before long: Australian YouTuber Toasted Shoes has already teased a modification of Palworld that recasts your protagonists as the Pokémon trainer Ash and each Pal into a familiar Pokémon counterpart, so that you can travel around on a Deerling or conscript Pikachus to mine rock for building a fortified stronghold. He plans to share a full video of the mod on Tuesday, and from there, it’s likely many players will embrace the mashup to get the heightened “Pokémon With Guns” experience.

Of course, the attention of gamers is a fickle thing. No matter how much buzz (for better and worse) it has generated through the Pokémon connection, Palworld will need to continue to evolve in this early access period to keep customers engaged. Mere novelty can fade away in a matter of weeks. If, on the other hand, Pocket Pair can meet demand for refined features and gameplay, it won’t just guarantee more sales — it will also help cement the impression that their game is a unique, standalone competitor in the monster-collecting genre.