Inside Pulse 12

Review: Punch Club (PC)

Punch Club
Publisher: tinyBuild
Developer: Lazy Bear Games
Genre: retro/RPG/strategy
Release Date: 01/08/2015

Punch Club could easily be renamed “1980’s Fight Movie Underdog Simulator 2016,” as it really embraces its ideas and drowns you in a deluge of ‘80s and ‘90s references. At its heart, Punch Club wants you to be the very best fighter you can be. Do you want to be a master of fisticuffs? How about a kicker of butts? You choose your path to glory, then click, click, click your way to victory.

Click! Punch! It’s all in your mind!

Punch Club features a whole lot of mouse clicking, everything you do is a mouse click away. Why all the clicking? Why to make your meters fill up of course! The only thing this game has more of than clicks is meters to fill. You click on the map icon then click on the gym, click on the equipment you want to work out on, click on the vending machine when you get hungry,  click to work out some more then click your way back home to take a nap.

Most fights happen at scheduled times giving you time to prepare yourself, you need to make the most of that time. The way it works; you have 4 meters for health, food, happiness and energy. They deplete over time based on your actions for example: getting punched in the face drains your health, working out makes you hungry, work makes you less happy, and sparring takes energy. You can eat and sleep to regain health and your food meter, happiness is filled by fighting, wooing your lady and more, energy can be restore with energy drinks and naps. There are a lot more ways for them to deplete and many actions drain more than one meter, or drain one while raising others. It is a game of give and take.

You also have 3 meters for your fighting ability: power, stamina, and agility. You increase this mainly by working out. You don’t really have time to work out all 3, so you want to pick a main, and a secondary and only work the last at certain times that I shall explain later. You build these meters up level by level, but at the end of the day they lose a bit that you have to rebuild, so you have to remain diligent with your iron pumping.

The game also feature a skill tree or four with various unlocks; new attacks, traits, and other bonuses. As you fight you gain skill points to unlock these. One of the most important perks is to lock your strength, stamina, or agility at certain levels so they can no longer be reduced under level4, for example. This is a godsend, and the one time you really want to focus on your least used trait.

When it is time to fight you choose a load out of moves (it starts out limited but you unlock more slots to equip more moves), they can be attacks, defense, or various buffs. If you win the fight you move up the rankings or further the story, if you lose you have to either wait a few days to have another match, or you have to do outside tasks to return to a position to fight. There is the basic loop: work to eat, eat to work out, workout to fight, and then do it all over again. There are some side bits that add some depth, but it doesn’t deviate from the loop by much.

Living in the Past

Punch Club is absolutely shameless when it comes to its influences and references, and it is absolutely slathered in the 80’s and 90’s. That time frame influences the story heavily. Basically every story beat comes from some 80’s trope: your father dies, you have to train and fight your way to the top, fight a Russian, find a magically medallion, and most everything else you remember from the days of neon and Zubaz. From the 90’s you get sewer dwelling reptile ninjas, street fighters, fight clubs and more. I am pretty sure every screen or situation has at least one nostalgia trip.

Of Pixels and Punches

Punch Club fully embraces its 80’s motif with sprite based pixel graphics. You can play it looking nice and smooth and as modern as the style gets, or you can turn on a filter for that full nostalgia trip. The overall look feels somewhere between a Sega Genesis and SNES game. The sprites are mid-sized and have a nice level of detail, with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Crocodiles being my favorite designs in the game. Animation is very limited. The game features very few moving parts as is, and when they do move it is minimal, some walking and a whole lot of punches and kicks. It feels right however, if there were more movement it wouldn’t fit the look.

The Sounds of Violence

The soundtrack is very much an 80’s training montage played in chiptunes. It fits the vibe of the game, but doesn’t stick with me after I shut the game down, and that is ok. The sound effects are what you expect: whacks, thwacks, crunches, and others all sound about how you’d expect for the era Lazy Bear is emulating. The sounds can get irritating as you will hear some of them a lot, especially the workout noises. After a while I really wanted to have some other sounds to kind of drown it out, they aren’t bad on their own, just hella repetitive.

Taking a Dive

When I started playing Punch Club, I was all in. For the first three hours I was having a great time, then I started losing over and over no matter what I tried. I would finally break that loop and move on, at first, this felt great, it was a relief to finally break down that barrier. The problem is that every once in a while it would happen again, and each time it was less satisfying to get over the hurdle. Soon I went from enjoying the game to kind of hating it, but I wanted to keep going. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t playing it compulsively for fun, but rather because I wanted to see what pop culture reference came next.

The way it is set up really doesn’t let you learn your moves by trial and error, because if you lose you often have to repeat things over. The game really needs a rematch option in later fights. I have wasted a lot of time doing side tasks so I could try a fight again, but then you also need to keep working out, that takes even more time. Also, when a day finishes you are kicked out your activity, forcing you to go back to it and that gets incredibly irritating.

Overall, I just felt like the game wasted a lot of my time, and not in an engaging way or one that felt like I progressed much. All of my misgivings aside, I cannot just dismiss the game, as it is made well, and I am pretty sure it does exactly what it wants to do. I have respect for that, and there are people out there who will eat this up, but playing this game is just not for me at all. I would rather play “Where’s Waldo” by spotting all the references than engage with the mechanics.

Short Attention Span Summary

Punch Club is a weird game for me; it is aimed right at the heart of my inner 80’s child, and I took in all the nods and references with glee. Playing it, however, well… that had a weird effect on me. When it was running smooth, I was absorbed and didn’t want to stop, but sooner or later I would hit a wall, nothing went right, it stopped feeling good and I needed to take breaks due to losing all interest in playing it. When I break that wall though… it feels good again and I enjoy it for a few hours until I slam face first into a barrier again. In some games, this can feel rewarding, but in Punch Club it just makes you want to not play it. In fairness, apparently I took the most difficult path to victory choosing to take the strength and punching, instead of agility and kicking, but I wanted to punch people in the face in a game called PUNCH CLUB; I didn’t want to kick them. Don’t get me wrong, Punch Club is a good game, it just isn’t a good game for me. I really want to like Punch Club and I feel like I should like it. I may give it a second shot and go the agility route and see if I enjoy that more, but for now, Punch Club just hasn’t “clicked” with me.

  • Aaron Sirois

    I think, looking back, that the game’s biggest problem is how it shoehorns you down a specific path. Once you’ve chosen that path, you’re stuck on it until the end, and the number of tactical decisions you have (in terms of what skills to learn) is pretty limited. That’s a big part of why someone might hit a wall several times throughout a playthrough. Eventually, they’ll have to grind to get that right skill that moves them forward, or upgrade an attribute so heavily that the scales finally start to balance. It desperately needs more flexibility.

  • Steven WK

    It seems to want the illusion of freedom, but there are paths that are just are superior. If you play that way it is great, if you don’t it is frustrating. It is a shame, it could have been something pretty special.