A fighter for sure, but the champ is not here.
Punch Club is a boxing simulation/management game developed by Lazy Bear Games and published by tinyBuild. The game originally came out in early 2016 on PC and mobile, and then a year later on Nintendo 3DS, among other consoles. The game begins with a series of cutscenes that show the main character’s father as a fighter who is murdered in cold blood as his son watches on, serving as motivation for your character to train and eventually find the killer. When the game starts, the son has grown up and is living by himself in a small house with a couch, a TV, a refrigerator and a garage, which is where you train.
The gameplay in Punch Club centres on training your fighter to become stronger, faster, and tougher so that you can win boxing matches (kicking permitted). Various exercises improve your strength, agility, and stamina meters that are displayed at the top of the screen, and as you fill each meter, your level in that particular stat goes up; the catch is, as the in-game clock ticks down and each day comes to an end, your stats degrade. In addition to these meters, four other wellness-related metrics are there: happiness, energy, hunger, and health. These affect your character’s ability to train, fight, and work. For example, if your energy or hunger levels are too low, you can’t function and have to sleep or eat to fill up your meter. I think you can see where this is going; most of the game is spent watching meters and moving from place to place to train, sleep, work, buy food, and fight. Rinse and repeat.
When you do get to the combat part of the game, you select two abilities (up to five with skill unlocks) and enter a fight that is completely simulated. The only actions taken by the player are selecting which abilities to start with and then switching abilities between rounds if desired. The fights can be fun to watch as your character and his opponent have both a health meter and an energy meter that decrease as bouts progress, but the lack of player agency means the fights quickly lose their luster. It’s frustrating to watch your fighter block eight times in a row without throwing a punch and lose to an opponent who had been sitting on only a few health points for half a round.
Being successful means specializing in training one of the three major traits. Because your stats gradually decrease over time, trying to keep all of them at a high level is more or less a fool’s errand. As you fight and do special training at the gym, you also gain ability points that you can plug into one of four skill trees. The first tree is for general and basic skills like punching, blocking, and kicking, and near the end of that tree you can open up one of the other three trees, one each for strength, agility, and stamina-based character builds. Within each of these advanced trees, there are a number of options and paths to take, and this means you can create a fairly different fighter each time you play the game.
There are also story-based “achievements” that pop as you meet new characters and complete main quests and optional side missions. Decisions can be made that lead to different story beats and ultimately one of two endings. Don’t kid yourself, though; most of your time spent playing Punch Club will be watching meters rise and fall, and although seeing your character’s progression in terms of leveling up and acquiring new skills can be satisfying, the premise wears thin after a handful of hours. There is a challenge to the game in figuring out which training regiments to undertake and what skills to equip your fighter with to contend with different opponents, but once you figure out how to improve and win fights, the minute-to-minute gameplay becomes a bit of a slog.
The 16-bit graphics and ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture references add charm to a game that needs it, even though some of these were a little too on the nose (e.g. “Apu” as the grocery store clerk). It was enjoyable to unlock various branches of the story tree, but again, as the game progresses, these story elements become fewer and fewer; grinding, however, is ever-present. The stat decay seems to be an unnecessary way of padding the game’s length. I know that a real-life fighter’s strength deteriorates over time without continual training, but I shouldn’t be losing half my strength gains every in-game day. Interestingly, there is a “SUUUPER EASY” difficulty mode with no stat decay, but the game dissuades you from choosing it as it is “broken balance-wise” and contains no achievements (which the Switch version doesn’t have anyway).
Overall, I think Punch Club is a neat experiment of a game, but it needs a little more story and gameplay variety and a little less repetition. The first rule of Punch Club is obvious (right?), but the second rule is put on some headphones and your favourite podcast. You’re in for the grind of your life.