There are plenty of simulation games on the market, but not too many delve into the complicated world of sports. Even fewer attempt to tackle the world of combat sports, but Punch Club has taken up that mantle, all while paying tribute to some of the sport's better known personalities. It's not just about fighting though; you have to worry about life too. Having a girlfriend, eating and sleeping and dealing with injuries, they are all just additional sides to this rather quirky game.
After seeing a brief opening cutscene that highlights how your father was killed in the past, you're quickly brought into the modern day, where the bus you're riding on the way to work gets hijacked and some nasty bikers beat you up. It's a wake-up call, but fortunately an old geezer called Mick is watching and offers to help. You see, he knew your father and wants to help you onto the right path, but it isn't going to be easy.
Heading into Mick's office, you can see the tributes all over the place. Actually, they're in effect before that due to a nice little Terminator reference during the game's opening sequences. Although many come in the form of references to the fighting world, such as the famous fight promoter Din Kong, Mighty Bruce and Casey Ryback, there are plenty of other references thrown in too. If you pay attention, there are tributes to Pulp Fiction, Clerks, The Godfather and even Indiana Jones.
Perhaps the biggest tribute follows you through a lot of the narrative. Rocky was obviously huge for the sport of boxing and combat sports in general and with so much emotional filtered through each film, it's not too surprising to see it used as a base for the game. It filters into quite a lot of what you can expect, but there are some interesting twists. Without wanting to spoil too much however, we'll just say that yes, you will end up going to Russia in order to defeat a soviet machine of a fighter who may or may not have killed your fellow fighter, turned best friend.
It's a rollercoaster of a ride and it's actually quite impressive how much detail was put into this aspect of the game.
The other side, the simulation aspect, also has a great degree of care, but it doesn't exude the same level of quality. It's quite fun seeing how it all ties into the story, such as delivering pizzas for money (and other reasons), or taking part in prize fights, but the core mechanics of the game feel a little flawed.
There are three stats (strength, agility and stamina) that you need to train up and there is a skill tree that allows you to learn moves associated to each of these stats. All fine so far. It's just that when this is put into practice issues start to appear. Due to the fatigue system in place, you will lose a certain amount of each stat every day depending on the level you've achieved. That's fair enough, as it means you will find it difficult to have a balanced fighter. The idea is to force the player to pick an area to focus on. The issue is that one area is significantly better than the other two, but you will only find that out after you've put too much into one of the others to switch focus. You also can't re-spec your character, so if you've gone too far, life becomes rather difficult.
Accuracy and evasion are crucial to success, perhaps too much so. For example, if you go down the strength route, you will be able to punch pretty hard, but will often be beaten by fighters with almost no strength and high agility. Turn that on its head and you will near enough zero chance of winning.
You could continue trying to gain skills that would make life easier, but when you're in the later parts of the game, acquiring skill points can get rather tedious and the amount of points required is pretty hefty. Up until that point, even with the added level of frustration, progress wasn't too bad. You had plenty of fights to keep you occupied, each with rewards. At the end of the game, a lot of this is taken away and it just becomes a monotonous grind of training for very minimal gains and attempting to get fame through boring fights. It's drawn out so much that finishing the game feels like a chore, and that's never a good thing.
It got to the point where I decided to start again and see how another focus would play out. After all, if the AI with these setups can kick my ass so easily, surely it would make sense to go down that route instead? It was a correct hunch, as by doing the same things as before, but with a different focus, the game was significantly less challenging. That could be taken as good or bad thing depending on your perspective, but I'd say it was more frustrating than anything.
It detracts from what otherwise is a very positive experience and here's hoping that it can be better balanced over time.
On a lighter note, the music is pretty catchy and the visual style works well. It's fun to see how many known characters have been inserted into the game and the turn-based combat works pretty well, if you ignore the bias towards agility-based fighters.
Punch Club has plenty of good things going for it. The homages hit the right note and throughout large portions of the game, everything melds well to create a cohesive and enjoyable experience. But it's difficult to ignore the balancing issues that are present within the fighting system and the grind-fest that becomes the end of the game. Hopefully these obstacles can be dealt with over time, because at its core, Punch Club is a fun little simulation game.
|Plenty of pop-culture references.|
|Early to mid-game.|
|Taking part in multiple fight rosters.|
|End-game peters out.|
|Could have benefited from a few more options.|