Punch Club is over two years old but because of it’s lower profile I missed it. It worked in my favour though as I picked it up for €4.99 in the Spring Sale on Xbox Live!
Punch Club is a 16-bit throwback title. If you have read my games reviews you’ll know it’s a genre that I am quite fond of. It has an excellent art style and Punch Club is filled with 80s and 90s pop culture references that dovetail its visuals. It almost feels like a game that was made in 1993 but was never released due to massive copyright claims.
There’s a girlfriend love interest named Adrian. The grocery store has two layabouts hanging around outside. They are most likely holding, possibly singing “15 bucks, little man, put that shit in my hands” as they annoy the Clerks inside. The Pizza Shop owner is named Casey. He will often ask you to make special deliveries down to the sewers for his favourite customers. They just happen to be four large green brothers who like to kick things and eat pizza when their master isn’t angry at them. There’s a gentleman who lives in a trailer park, he’s an excellent fighter but loves his “Dags” more. The elderly coach goes by the name “Micky”. I could go on…
All of this is great window dressing on a surprisingly deep RPG. This is a sports management sim rather than a fighting game. Your primary goal is to improve the stats of your fighter while picking up new moves and styles along the way. You need to take your character from journeyman bum to World Champion while the storyline helps you find out who killed your father in the opening scene of the game. The problem with Punch Club is finding the motivation to keep playing.
Punch Club forces the player to upgrade stats in Ability, Strength and Stamina. One of the jobs in town helps slightly with two of those, other than that you need to go to the local gym or grind to be able to afford home gym equipment. Most of the game involves working out and I enjoyed the stat management for a while. However, the game has a puzzling stat degradation system.
At the end of each day you lose a sizable chunk of each stat, usually a quarter or so of the bar. This means you need to constantly be mindful of each stat and find ways to keep it ticking over. There are upgrades available to put a block on the stats falling below a certain level but the levels are 4 and 8 units. I only started to see real success in the ring when I got my strength level to 12 and above, 4 and 8 basement levels won’t cut it.
This design element completely ruined the game for me. I see the value in keeping the player mindful of his fighters stats but to lose so much progression every few minutes (one day in-game essentially) is tough to accept. Are we supposed to believe that a fighter loses so much base strength, agility, and even more baffling, STAMINA after a good night’s sleep…every night? Come on. Does my fighter have a terminal illness we are not aware of?
Punch Club is a sports management sim so you don’t actually control the fights. All the player can do is prepare the fighter for each bout, the rest is left to the AI. This provides some great moments of strategy between rounds as you swap out attacks to balance survival with the will to win.
Once again though Punch Club is only half baked in that regard. Countless times I have watched my fighter stand on front of his opponent eating hooks, jabs and even roundhouse kicks without attempting to block or fight back. It is incredibly frustrating to spend so much time managing the degrading stats, eating well, sparring and getting plenty of rest in before a big fight only to see your fighter just stand there. You get your fighter into peak condition but he stands in the ring using his face as a speed bag.
I would be willing to accept an off day here and there for my fighter if I hadn’t spent an age getting his stats to a level to be able to compete. You take the loss and go straight back to the gym before your overnight stat degradation terminal illness sets back in…
I wanted to finish the storyline but as much as I wanted to keep fighting on the game just kept throwing dirt in my eye. There was no way I was staying with it even though I wanted to. I went to the main menu to check if there was any setting to remove the stat degradation. The only way to do it was play in easy mode. “Fine, let’s do that and get the storyline over with” I said through gritted teeth. When you select easy mode Punch Club reveals a warning.
First of all easy mode disables Xbox Achievements. What a slap in the face that is! Your games’ progression system is soul destroying but I want to see the narrative through to a finish. I want to keep playing your charming, broken game but you’ll take achievements away?! Fuck you, buddy.
Secondly, and hilariously, Punch Club warns you that playing on easy mode (thus removing the element of stats that degrade) “breaks the game”. I had a good laugh at that one!
The third warning is the best one. The game tells you that there will be a new Punch Club with this stat illness removed. If that isn’t an admission that the game is broken I don’t know what is.
I enjoyed the story from start to finish on easy. There’s some fun stuff hidden behind the punishing progression system like a Don King type promoter that helps you on the pro circuit as you fight characters that resemble Ryu, Ken and the Immortal Hulk Hogan who is the final pro fight for the strap…brother.
The real fight in Punch Club is that of perseverance. There is a gem of a game here that is crippled by its own arrogance. I enjoyed the hell out of it on medium up to a point. At 15 hours in, loving it, I had to stop the grind. I was a hamster on a wheel at that point.
The ending of Punch Club is another old chestnut befitting the theme. If I had grinded and battled through on modes with the overnight cancer setting I would have actually thrown the TV through my window.
The Punch Club sequel alluded to (as the game bashed me for trying to enjoy it) had mentioned a 2017 release date. Yeah, I guess I’m not alone in my disappointment in Punch Club, I still like it but it doesn’t appreciate my time.
Three Meltzers for me but it really, REALLY should be more.