Pulling No Punches
The first rule of Punch Club is: you don’t pull any punches. In this port of a 2016 game, you manage everything about a fighter’s life except the actual fighting. He handles that all on his own. Instead, you’re in charge of training him, feeding him, managing his social life, and keeping him happy. He’s essentially a Sim, except you can’t kill him by enclosing him in a toiletless room. Jokes aside, the concept is an interesting take on the fight simulation genre. However, a flaw with the execution decays the entertainment value.
You play as a young man trying to make your way to the top, following your father’s mysterious murder. Through multiple story branches, you learn more about your father, all while climbing the professional fighting ranks. The plot acts as a simple backdrop to the gameplay but effectively breaks up the monotonous daily grind.
Though much of your time is spent training, you’re also responsible for taking care of your basic needs. After all, you need energy to work out. To get energy, you must eat, which requires buying food at the grocery store. However, you need money for that, so you must work to get paid. Working, of course, requires you to be well-fed, which puts you back at square one. That’s not including the actual training and scheduled fights that make you hungry and tired. And good luck making time for friends or love. All things considered, the life management portion of Punch Club is on par with other simulation games and helps create the illusion that your fighter is a living human being. In fact, it’s only because the training system is flawed that I have any contention with this system.
The training appears simple enough. You go to the gym (or your garage) and work out using various pieces of equipment that increase three different stats: strength, agility, and stamina. Strength determines the raw power in your punches, agility decides how accurate your hits and dodges are, and stamina dictates your energy restoration and overall defense. Like in a role-playing game, each stat levels up after you raise it to a certain threshold. Leveling up your stats is laborious, but it’s rewarding to watch your progression as you start overpowering your opponents.
In Punch Club, each of your stats decrease at the end of the day, which is more detrimental than it needs to be. At the beginning of the game, your low stats raise fairly quickly. However, as your level gets higher, it becomes much harder to grind, and a larger percentage of your gains are taken away each day. To illustrate, I once gained 200 points for my level 13 agility stat. At the end of the day, I lost over 100 of those points. Ideally, I’d be able to train the next day to gain 200 more points. Unfortunately, life management got in the way, forcing me to get tired, then hungry, then too poor to buy food. At the end of the second day, I was finally ready to train. But in the process, I lost 100 more of my agility points, putting me back where I started. That’s not even mentioning the decays I received on my untrained strength and stamina.
At this point, you might see the problem with this system. Even if you’re following the ideal regimen of focusing on one or two stats, you may still be screwed over by this unnecessarily vicious cycle of diminishing returns. It’s demoralizing and stops being fun once you’re stuck in a rut. Unless you’re very patient or have your life planned out from the get-go, it may take many hours just to escape the cycle. And at certain points, when you think you have it all figured out, the game may send robbers to mug you. In the worst-case scenario, you can mismanage your resources and lack both funds and strength, being forced to restart the entire campaign.
At least the fights are fun, right? Not quite. You don’t control the fighting. Instead, you simply watch your fighter and hope he wins. The most you can do is manage his equipped skills in between rounds. These skills are categorized by punches, kicks, dodges, and fighting styles. Although most skills fall into these categories, they’re all different. One punch might be stronger than another, and one dodge might cost more energy but provide decent counterattack damage. Thankfully, these skills are permanent, unlike the stats. Some unlockable passive traits even prevent stat decay after a certain level. Early on, you can use points earned from fights to unlock skills quickly. Later in the game, it unsurprisingly becomes a grind, with fights offering minimal points for high-cost skills.
Now back to the fights. The biggest drawback is how much they rely on randomness. You can put so much into your fighter’s strength and abilities, but they won’t mean anything if your fighter can’t land a single hit. In some odd cases, your fighter will just stand there while you yell at him to no avail. Like an underdog story, you can edge out a victory against all odds or suffer a defeat just because your opponent landed all of his ridiculously heavy hits. Since these fights are merely luck-based, I wish there was a way to speed up or skip rounds altogether.
All things considered, I was frustrated by the experience, but didn’t outright dislike it. There’s a nice challenge early on, followed by a huge rut in the middle that can destroy or artificially lengthen playthroughs. While the game continues to be a grind during the endgame, the unique circumstances in the life of a pro fighter are interesting to play out, complete with some new mechanics. The story branches and junction points also give you a sense of progress in the fighter’s personal life, if nothing else. As a bonus, the included “Dark Fist” expansion DLC transforms your fighter into a superhero, leading to wacky sidequests and a few hours of extra content.
The game looks and sounds wonderfully retro. The 16-bit SNES-reminiscent pixel art is delightful and gives Punch Club a nostalgic vibe. It helps that virtually every area in the game has some 80s/90s reference, whether it’s your poster of the hit boxer “Stoney,” a man named Tyler running a fight club of sorts, or teenage mutant ninja crocodiles. Even the music is filled with riffs from “Eye of the Tiger,” Final Fantasy, and Tetris. The chiptunes are very catchy, and motivated me through parts of the game that were otherwise frustrating.
Punch Club is a cleverly devised fighter management sim, and could have been better if not for the arduous stat decay system. The monotonous grind screeches gameplay to a halt, possibly demoralizing you to the point of quitting. The decay itself doesn’t need to be removed to improve this title. But if it was less harsh and appropriately factored in the pressure of the daily grind, it could have been more manageable. Punch Club is only for the most hardcore micromanagers who don’t mind the long, grueling road to fighter stardom. It’s challenging, but it manages to replicate the hardships of real fighters, who constantly toil against vicious diminished growths, but then achieve amazing feats in the ring.
Note: A review copy of the 3DS version was used for this article. This review was originally written on DarkStation in March 2017.