By Leif Conti-Groome / March 16th, 2016
|Developer||Lazy Bear Games|
|Publisher||tiny Build Games|
|Release Date||January 8th, 2016|
|Platform||PC, iOS, Android|
It feels like everything in Punch Club is drenched in 80’s and 90’s nostalgia. Characters are named after famous heroes/villains from old action movies (most suitably from the Rocky franchise) and tons of pop culture references are littered throughout the game. I love fighting Teenage Mutant Ninja Alligators as much as the next nerd, but anything with that many homages is bound to suffer an identity crisis.
The devs at Lazy Bear Games also love the difficulty from olden days; Punch Club is a challenging game. It’s a mix of a modern day resource management sims and a grind-tastic old school RPG. Hard doesn’t necessarily mean bad but there has to be a sense of fairness and progression to make it worthwhile. There is definitely a deep strategy system in place in Punch Club, but the constant leveling and randomized battles really bog it down.
In the game you play as the son of martial arts master who was charged with protecting a sacred amulet. Your father is murdered and the amulet stolen. It’s up to you to find the mysterious assassin and take back the artifact. To do this you’ll have to fight your way to the top through a rookie league, an underground ultimate fighting organization and get all the way to the world championship. If parts of the story sound familiar, it’s because Punch Club has again borrowed from classic movies and games. One segment in particular is literally ripped straight from one of the Rocky films.
The story of hunting your father’s killer is serviceable enough but the fact that you only get a cutscene every 4 hours or so really takes the excitement out of the mystery. The dialogue is quite utilitarian with only a few characters having anything close to a personality. It takes more to making interesting characters than naming them after John Q Action Movie and having them spout out lines of referential dialogue.
On the positive side, Lazy Bear Games really nails the old school graphics. They even have a retro mode in the settings that displays a grid to highlight the pixel graphics. The backgrounds are especially pleasing with lots of small details thrown into each location. While there are a lot of areas that are visually appealing like the biker trailer park or Chinatown, my favorite is your coach’s office. Old Mick’s (yup, another Rocky reference) place of business is jam packed with loads of fun things. There are costumes from TMNT and Mortal Kombat and an arcade game with Karate Kid inspired design on it. The character models also have a nice amount of variaton. It’s refreshing to face off against guys in alien costumes, giant bikers and even animals rather than the same grunt with different palette swaps.
Most of the soundscape of the game doesn’t make too much of an impression. All of the sound effects have that oldschool computer feel which fits in nicely with everything else. The songs are only memorable (in a bad way) after you’ve heard the same three throughout the 15+ hour campaign. There are a few standout tracks but they usually show up for one boss fight and only last at most 2 minutes. I really wish the song for the final scene was more prevalent because it’s an excellent remix of the main theme of one of my favorite fighting franchises.
The gameplay is definitely the highlight of Punch Club and it is a very complex system. I’ll break down the basics. Since this is a resource management game there are many different gauges you have to keep an eye on. Your personal stats are divided among health, food, mood and energy. Each will go up or down after certain actions are performed. For instance working out costs you health, food and energy but increases your mood.
Then there are your battle stats which you can build up through exercising. Working out in various ways increases your strength, agility or stamina. Some crazy workout routines like hitting a tire with a sledgehammer will increase all three at once but at a reduced rate. Your battle stats affect how good you are in fights; for instance strength increases your hit points and your damage. Then there are different skills and perks you can unlock through the skill tree. These are tied to your battle stats and you need to have certain levels of the three to unlock different fighting moves and modifiers. While most of the skill tree is made up of your standard punches, kicks and blocks there are unique perks like ‘Heavy workout’ which allows you to use less energy when working out. If you do end up playing through the game, then I recommend skills like ‘Meat runner’ and ‘Muscle memory’ which keeps your battle stats (stamina and strength respectively) from falling below a certain threshold.
And if all that wasn’t crazy enough, there are a trio of specific paths you can choose in the skill tree: way of the bear (strength), way of the tiger (agility) and way of the turtle (stamina). Punch Club is built around picking one of the battle stats and working almost exclusively on it; that’s why the ‘way of the x’ system is in place. For instance I built up my stamina and took it slow with the way of the turtle. I attacked with powerful moves that consumed a lot of energy but also put up a protective shell (get it?) with a lot of blocks.
On top of the three battle stats having a rock, paper, scissors relationship, you also get to choose your character’s moves in between every round. All fighting in Punch Club is automated and somewhat random. The game switches back and forth between your punches, kicks, blocks and other moves and does the same with your opponent. I’m fine with automated segments but there were a few times that I faced the same opponent with the same stats and got completely different results. One battle I barely touched the guy and the next my foot was in his face for an entire round. Just be warned that there is a large element of luck in this game.
I do enjoy strategy in certain games but I found Punch Club wanted you to go too far down the rabbit hole. To their credit the devs do have a small tutorial and introduce the concepts with little interference. You’re encouraged to experiment and also to stick to one main battle stat which theoretically make replays more enticing. The problem is that all your stats are constantly falling (you lose a significant chunk of your strength, agility and stamina every day) and you have to grind constantly to keep them up. The random elements mean that you might still lose that championship fight even if your stats are at high levels. Then you have to spend another week training and fighting your way back to the top.
However, there was a moment when everything just clicked and I started figuring out effective strategies and started to win a lot. I became smart about my training and found ways to maximize my resources. I couldn’t be stopped! I made it to the opponent that was supposed to hold the amulet and then… I realized that I was only two thirds through the game. And then the last third introduced the completely new fame system that amounted to a horrible grind fest that completely took me out of the game. I persevered and made it to the final boss but it didn’t feel like the final boss. And after a plot twist that just came out of nowhere, the game abruptly ended.
Quite recently some free DLC was released called The Dark Fist. This extra content is technically a side story but it’s difficult to even call it that. The basic premise is that you find a strange briefcase in your house that somehow can guide you to where a crime has been committed. Some items get stolen, your cat is kidnapped, and then it all just devolves into a toothless parody of TMNT and Fallout. The story is meant to be absurd but I only chuckled a handful of times.
Nothing has really been added to the main game outside of a hardcore mode. You can fight new enemies and go to new locations but they’re so inconsequential to everything. Beating the side mission only gets you an achievement. There are no new abilities or skills. You can’t even dress up your bland superhero alter ego ‘The Dark Fist’ (which is just you in a sad mask). Lazy Bear Games could’ve even thrown a hint at future DLC here; something to indicate that yes, there will be an actual ending to this game. Worst of all is that you can’t even access this extra content from an old save; you need to start a brand new game. My ‘3 hours of additional missions’ turned out to be another 18 hour playthrough. And at the very end I was once again faced with the awful late game grind for the DLC on top of the grind that’s already going on. This DLC actually made me drop the score of the game because it got so frustrating in the end hours.
If you’re curious, hardcore mode has your enemies leveling along with you. Considering my issues with the random elements of the battles in this game I figured that I didn’t need things any more difficult. The DLC also added additional Twitch options to the game since it’s been such a hit on the streaming service. I didn’t really play around with these features either, but the ability to bet on matches while watching someone else play does sound cool.
Punch Club is an imbalanced game. The design and gameplay are strong but everything else is either battered in way too much nostalgia or half-baked. It took just under 20 hours to complete (plus 18 hours for the second playthrough with the Dark Fist DLC) and while I’m sure a seasoned strategist could get through it in 15 hours or less, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that the gameplay gets stale long before the end. The game crashed a few times and there were a few missteps along the way (indicating the wrong opponent for the next fight, menus too small to fit all the perks). My guess is that there will be more free DLC down the line and possibly some sort of resolution to the story. I can’t say I’ll be booting it up again even if I don’t have to pay for the extra content. That said, if you love yourself some 80′ and 90’s pop culture and enjoy intense resource management sims then this game is probably for you. If you’re not, you might want to look somewhere else to get your fighting needs.
This review was based on the Steam version and was given as a review copy.
Lazy Bear GamesPCPunch ClubRockySteam