Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Lazy Bear Games
Publisher: Tiny Build Games
Even as a 90s kid Rocky Balboa was still an integral name to my childhood and formative years, the famous drawl of Sylvester Stallone as he fought his way to the top becoming one of those background things you just associate naturally with your early years. Many games have attempted to capture the idea of a fighter going from hero to zero, some making you lace up the boots and step in the ring yourself, others asking you to act as a manager. Punch Club, coming from Lazy Bear Games, attempts to do both; you take control of your fighter, and yet control is limited, making you feel more like a guiding force, a manager telling yourself what to focus on, where to go and what moves to employ in a fight. It’s an interesting idea, but does it work?
As stories go Punch Club likes to keep it simple; as a child you witness your father, a professional fighter, be murdered by a mysterious man with a red eye. Raised by a friend of your father you set out to keep your promise to become the best fighter you can, while uncovering a mysterious plot surrounding an ancient and powerful artifact. If it sounds incredibly hammy then that’s because it is, and deliberately so, it seems. The writing is clearly meant to invoke the cheesiness of the 80s and 90s as characters typically blurt out their dialogue in a ham-fisted manner, stumbling through conversations with all the naturalness of a hippo trying to shop in Asda. To go along with its beautiful retro-inspired visuals Punch Club jams in a myriad of references. This is a game where you deliver pizza for a guy called Casey and wind up fighting a Teenage Mutant Ninja crocodile, get into streets fights at the urging of Tyler (Durden) and can pursue a love interest named Adrian. Glancing at the background will reveal things like Raiden’s costume from Mortal Kombat, and you’ll fight in an ultimate tournament at the behest of a mafia Don. There’s not a scene or piece of conversation that doesn’t manage to reference the 80s and 90s in some way. On the one hand the constant references can become too much, especially since they don’t move past just being, “Hey, remember this movie? And this costume? And that thing? Weren’t they awesome!” but on the other hand the game never shoves them in your face or feels like it’s doing it for anything less than a genuine love of the source material. Still, Punch Club feels like it needs to get its own identity rather than using references to disguise the fact that it doesn’t have one. Although simple and told entirely via text and graphics the story remains surprisingly fun, simply because of how bad it actually is, in a completely good way. Most games, books and even movies that set out to capture that classic hamminess fail through trying too hard, but Punch Club manages to mostly get it right.
The goal of the game is straightforward; become the best fighter you can, advancing from rookie leagues to the cold land of Russia to the big paydays. To achieve this you need to balance pumping iron , hitting the bag and running the treadmill with earning money to eat, sleeping and finding time for relaxation. It’s a challenge because just like real life there’s only so many hours in a day. You even have to decide whether to spend two hours walking across town to the gym or pay a few bucks to take the bus. So let’s consider an average few days of in-game time; To get some money to buy equipment for working out in the garage instead of paying the gym entry fee you opt to spend a long time laboring away at a hard job that saps your overall happiness and energy. Manning the jackhammer (or delivering pizzas or even collecting protection money) makes you hungry, too, so a chunk of cash goes toward buying some meat and pizza before you pass out on the couch to catch up on some sleep. By time you wake up another day has passed so your three primary attributes (strength, agility and stamina) have degraded slightly and you’re hungry again. You head to the gym to workout after finishing off what meagre supplies you had in the fridge, focusing on just one or two skills because it’s impossible to get good enough at all three, before realising you don’t have enough money left to buy more food or even a bus ride home. You win the next fight but now you’re tired, hungry and broke. You skip signing up for the next fight in order to go hang out with Roy to regain some happiness and so you can get more money for food. Before long you’re fighting in underground tournament to earn some big bucks quickly and wind up earning yourself an injury. Well done, genius.
It’s a constant struggle to meet your various needs, and its here that Punch Club is at its finest, constantly making you feel like you’re juggling mum’s precious china. As you play the game the map slowly opens up with new locations that offer more options, like taking part in those aforementioned underground fights or hanging out with friends or even pursuing a potential love interest, although even she boils down to getting a stat boost that proves useful when training. Everything is controlled using just one button; the left mouse click. Want to work out on the bag until hunger, exhaustion or boredom stop you? Left click on it. Want to do a few hours labor? Left flick. Walk across town? Left click. Agree to a fight? Left click. Aside from this click, though, there’s very little player interaction involved. The worst of this is, the combat; as the player you have absolutely no control over the fight once it gets started. You can pick out the moves that your fighter will employ on a round-to-round basis, but that’s it. Watching your first few matches is fun and there is a certain tension created by viewing helplessly as both fighters pummel each other in a close-fought contest, but after a while it becomes a drag.
So let’s dig more into the nitty-gritty of how fighting works. The three basic stats that you build through working out on various pieces of equipment are easy to understand; strength lets you punch harder but drains stamina quicker, too. Should your stamina reserves reach zero mid-fight you get knocked down and take a chunk of extra damage, giving your opponent a few vital seconds to regenerate some of their own energy as well. Agility, meanwhile, determines a lot of defensive moves but also makes your strikes more accurate. A strong fighter, then, wants to back up their muscle with a lot of of energy or else their sheer power won’t mean very much, growing winded long before the fight is over. Meanwhile a lack of raw oomph isn’t important if you build your fighter so that he can dodge everything and go forever, slowly chipping away the opponents health. Currently, though, the game does place too much important on agility and stamina, with more power-focused fighter struggling. By using points earned throughout the game you can slowly build up the reasonable skill-tree, acquiring new skills that compliment the stats you’ve chosen to focus on. You can also branch out into three different paths that emphasis one attribute over all else, such as the way of the Turtle for defensive players or the Way of the Bear for brute power.
When it comes to the fight proper you’re given a chance to weigh up your own stats against the opponent’s, and also to view the moves that they’ll be using in battle, letting you plan out a potential count-strategy. Opponent got good energy? Maybe a knee-crushing strike that heavily damages said energy might be a solid plan or a powerful body blow. Certain perks you’ve bought also compliment certain moves, so my heavily strength focused fighter took a perk that made all boxing style moves more likely to hit, while another skill also made the straight punch more effective and likely to combo. You start out only able to equip two different skills, but as the game progresses you can opt to add more slots via the upgrade tree, and between rounds you can swap out skills in order to alter your approach if things aren’t going well. You may, for example, be running out of stamina too quickly compared to the opponent, and thus a skill that gives you a chance to skip the attack phase to regenerate stamina instead might be useful.
Once the fight begins, though, you’re part in it is largely done as the game takes over and decides which moves will be used and when. You can’t even assign priority to certain skills, which feels like a potentially wasted opportunity. There’s a high degree of RNG (random number generation) at work here, too, which can make it very frustrating to watch as your fighter falls under a barrage of hits while missing every strike of his own blocked or dodged. Losing fights that your stats you say you should have won can and will happen. Likewise winning a fight that your numbers say you probably shouldn’t have is quite exciting. The primary problem is that the system seems incredibly unclear as to how it all actually works. How does the game select which move to use? Why will one fighter suddenly unleash attack after attack after attack while the other does nothing? Why is it possible for a fighter that you completely outclass launch attack after attack and win the fight while your own warrior stands idly by and does nothing?
In fact you better just get used to losing. Punch Club isn’t a truly difficult game, but it’s not a pushover, either. There’s no way to back out of most fights, so even if you sign up to a league and find yourself completely outgunned by an opponent with vastly superior stats you must simply resign yourself to your fate and take the loss like a boss, much like real life. Still, no victory doesn’t equal no rewards as you’ll still be granted points to spend on buying new skills for the next fight. Furthermore it’s actually possible to get stuck entirely by achieving a point where you can’t sleep due to hunger, and can’t work out due to said lack of food and sleep. And should you ever gain a reasonable amount of money there’s a chance of being mugged, usually by people boasting hefty stats. Thankfully a recent update has tweaked how often this happens, as previously being mugged was a sure thing if you had about $100 to your name. Actually, difficulty spikes are a little bit of a problem as the game has a tendency to veer from pitting you against an opponent that can demolish your fighter to over-compensating with someone too easily defeated. A bit of balancing is still needed, then.
Ultimately it’s the game’s repetitive, grindy nature that will make or break it. This is really a tycoon style management game at its core, one where you’re simply clicking on a few things to balance out a range of stats. That means the game quickly develops a sense of repetition as you click on the same things again and again, watching as your on-screen avatar performs actions with no player involvement needed. You can spend an entire hour of real-time just doing the same things; go to the gym, workout, fight, buy meat, go home, repeat. You quickly enter into a rut, an optimised gameplay loop designed for efficiency, not fun. There is something compelling about watching your stats slowly rise and opponents fall to your strikes, but after an hour the monotony becomes too much. The game attempts to introduce other things later on like being able to throw parties and fights with two opponents and such, yet these still all just involve you left clicking on something while numbers change This is a game severely in need of something to break up its gameplay loops, such as more meaningful control over fights.
Ultimately Punch Club manages to capture both the thrill of victory and the tedium of life as a professional fighter. It looks beautiful, too, boasting a really nice visual style that’s complemented by the retro music, although it repeats itself too much.