Even in another life I think, I don’t believe that I could have cut it as a vengeful street fighting type. The relentless training, fighting, the futile attempt to manage some semblance of social life – I just don’t think I could hack it (the lack of Hearthstone in my life would prove to be an insurmountable downer, i’m sure). Thankfully then, Punch Club by Lazy Bear Games has popped along to not only reaffirm that fact but also provide a somewhat stonking fighter management sim in the process.
Liberally drenched in a charmingly retro, 16-bit pixel aesthetic (complete with optional scanlines for extra visual crustiness and lovely universal app presentation), Punch Club sticks players in the sweaty trainers of a young lad who must avenge the death of his martial art practicing father at the hands of a sinister and mysterious assailant.
Threatening to derail this 1980’s inspired odyssey before it even begins is a painfully one-sided fight at the beginning of the game between the player and a bat wielding attacker (whom you meet again later on). While the fight unavoidably kicks the ass of our poor protagonist to the Moon and back, it actually serves a dual purpose; letting the player know that losing a scrap isn’t the end of the world while allowing them to define the sort of fighter that they wish to evolve into – be it one focused on the principles of either strength, agility or stamina.
Like any wannabe fighter worth their salt though, you need to begin with the basics first, which naturally of course means hitting the gym and hammering your body into some sort of shape. In doing so, you can focus on working on each of three main previously mentioned stats in order to develop your fighter into a particular type of combatant with the different exercise machines, weights and aerobic activities all serving to increment the three stats to varying extents. As real-life teaches us however, gym memberships aren’t free and so while you can exercise at home for free, the proportion of gains that you receive are comparatively little until you stump up the cash to convert your garage into an effective sweat factory of your own.
Speaking of cash, the only real way to accrue the Benjamins is by taking on a job, with an initial manual labour gig paying well and working out your strength stat while less physical fare such as delivering pizzas, starts to become available later on in the game. Beyond these considerations, nutrition, sleep and even happiness must all be kept in balance lest their ill-effects rear their head on fight day. In one example, I pushed my fighter to the limit in the gym but neglected his sleep, instead forcing him to exist on energy drinks to keep his energy levels topped up. Once into the fight itself he kept getting knocked on his ass because he simply didn’t have the strength to stay standing, ostensibly proving that a successful fighter is also a prepared one.
The vibrant, 16-bit arcade style visuals can often make it easy to forget that Punch Club is a fighter management sim rather than a fighting game in the traditional vein, so when the fighting actually begins, it can feel more than a little jarring to have control over your prized pugilist entirely wrested from your grasp.
Essentially fights unfold as soon as you’ve assigned a finite number of moves and perks to your character. Once you’ve configured your lamping loadout, you then hit the fight button and the scrap unfolds with the AI in full command of your fighter. Unfortunately, the random nature of the contests is where things come a little unstuck for Punch Club. Because of the fashion in which the randomness works, the occasional elation that you get when you faceplant an opponent far stronger than yourself is overwhelming outweighed by the frustration that manifests itself when you get your clock cleaned by an inferior fighter. As such Punch Club can often feel like a somewhat bi-polar experience, tempered at once by moments of pure bliss and hand-shaking rage as your fighter lands picture perfect strikes when you want him to in one fight but stands around like a pixel punching bag in another.
Thankfully, as evidenced by the first fight that you have, losing is not a truly a loss in the traditional sense but merely an opportunity to learn and develop, imparting a valuable lesson applicable to real-life in that each time you get knocked down for the count, you can dust yourself off and prepare yourself for future success. In Punch Club, while winning is obviously the best way to progress, each loss still provides experience points that can be ploughed into a number of different skills and abilities that goes someway to alleviating the frustration of lost content that should have gone the other way.
Really, Punch Club is an exercise is balance. To successfully complete the journey from talentless scrub to world class face destroyer, everything need to be in tune. From training and fighting, to rest, nutrition, happiness and of course, managing the passage of time, it’s fair to say that despite its skull-breaking aspirations, Punch Club is more about matters of the cerebrum than the violent vocation that one might automatically associate with its visceral moniker. If such planning feels onerous, it’s worth noting that a welcome addition is a diary that allows you to keep track of your appointments and sub-quests with commendable ease.
Elsewhere it’s worth highlighting just how well-balanced the skill development system is in within Punch Club. In other similar fare, the temptation to simply upgrade each of the three skills in unison would prove to be a strong one simply because the all-rounder approach is one that rarely fails. Here though, success only really manifests if you are focused on either strength, agility or stamina and bolstering this notion is the fact that different moves and skills each focus on one of those statistics, thus encouraging and allowing different players to create bespoke fighter builds without ever duplicating a safe ‘master of none’ tact.
In the end and despite the frustrations that the random fights can sometimes bring, there’s nothing quite like Punch Club on the market right now. While the first rule of Fight Club might be you don’t talk about Fight Club, Punch Club’s impressive caliber is such that it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops and championed in a fashion befitting its struggling protagonist.
You can also snag the OST for the game here.
Developed by Tiny Bear Games and published by tinyBuild, a review copy of the game on iOS was kindly supplied by the latter for the purposes of this review.