Review: Punch Club

By Alex Connolly 18 Jan 2016 0
Finally a store that caters to both my pumpkin and teddy bear needs. Finally a store that caters to both my pumpkin and teddy bear needs.

Get up, eat a steak, go a round or two with the speed ball. Go to the construction site, gotta put bread on the table. The training ain't free. No such thing as a free lunch, 'cept if I go to Mick's. And he's good for advice. Keeps me focused. Sees the potential. Fight's coming up. Gotta get in the zone. Make it. Rise up. Except I've gotta deliver this pizza because I'm short again. And the gym equipment I'm eyeing at the depot ain't chump change. Goddamn, lost the fight. Gotta get my edge back. And I'm short again. The fridge is goddamn mother Hubbard. I can do this. Just gotta get some rest first. Body's a temple. Now I'm hungry. What am I doing with my life? Kick, kick, block.

Punch Club is a boxing management sim that runs on Balboan aspirations. Heavy on the wink-wink fan service, your character yearns to follow in his father's footsteps, a fighter himself gunned down in his prime. The introduction serves an adequate setup, delivering the ambitious-but-directionless young palooka into the ring and looking for meaning. Illustrated in smart pixel art, livened by conservative animation loops and invigorated by a fine chiptune soundtrack, Punch Club makes a good first impression.

Put $20 on Clubber Lang. Put $20 on Clubber Lang.

In an interface resembling something of a simple point-and-click adventure, players shunt their plodder between locales on a main town map. Within each location -- the gym, manager Mick's office, a variety of workplaces and the disheveled abode of your up-and-comer -- there are things to do that augment your physical fitness and dynamic skills. This forms the core of Punch Club; figuring the optimum regime between rostered fights. Strength, agility and stamina form the basic proficiency of a player's fighter, being the proxy building blocks of a fighter's proficiency and fitness. Whether it's jackhammering concrete for a buck or dead-lifting at the gym, specific actions feed points into one or more of these base proficiencies. And, true to life, if you slacken off the routine or eat the wrong chow, the base proficiencies roll backwards. Punches are weaker, energy levels lessen and hits received strip health faster than a Semmy Schilt noogie.

Choose your own mis-adventure Choose your own mis-adventure

Fighting itself is hands-off. Players select an initial two-function move suite for their character. It might be a basic punch and a dodge. A low kick and a block. These set the procedural move rotation for a round, and when concluded, move-set adjustments can be made. There's a rich strata of statistics behind each character, and those aforementioned trio of core fitnesses help break open more moves. Fights are awarded with tokens that can be used to unlock universal moves and, eventually, up to three specific styles of fighting. Punch Club is, if anything, a stat cruncher's game. What ringside might lack in active player participation, it makes up for in granular feedback. For a 16-bit retreaux, looks are quite deceiving in the amount of mathematics beneath the pixelated hood.

As though paying homage to the interface, there's also an endearing back-and-forth between an increasing ensemble of characters. These folk often open up specific events or actions, depending on player interaction. It's not especially deep, but seeing cameos like a certain Palahniuk character and overt inserts like girlfriend-material 'Adrian' is cute.

Just like real life Just like real life

Yet, for all this, for all the systems and scenarios, it's just not particularly fun to play.

You might consider Punch Club to be an evolution of the Kairosoft range, those cute Japanese management terrariums that extended toilet breaks the world over. Punch Club certainly does bring a lot of meat to the premise of a bright, colourful pocket sim. It has great production values, responsive menus and crisp vision. But despite the obvious love poured into it, the cyclic core of powering and plateauing loses any sense of enjoyment after a while. Traipsing back and forth between the job and grocery store, making sure all stats are bumped and buffed to maximise training efficacy; Punch Club begins to feel akin to a F2P chore. The fighting mechanics are good, but need interrupts or something a little jazzier beyond the round-based reshuffle. The fluff outside the ring feels at best, light-hearted and serviceable. At worst, a smorgasbord of busy work.

Just unlike real life Just unlike real life

Kairosoft succeeded in making the mundane taste good. Downtime felt as busy as peak hour. Unfortunately, Punch Club's main gameplay rotation -- the harvest, if you will -- isn't nearly as interesting or busy, despite the laudable pixel art, soundtrack and character window-dressing. Punch Club might have worked better as a card game, or with the immediacy of a visual novel interface. Maybe there's some sort of meta commentary or authorial intent in making the slog to the title fight so arduous and repetitive, a cheeky smirk and a knowing nod. Even if there was merit to this subversion, it's still a tough pill to swallow.

Coulda been a contender.

Punch Club was played on an iPhone 6S.

Review: Punch Club

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