STAFF REVIEW of Punch Club (Xbox One)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Punch Club Box art If you’re a fighting game fan like myself, you might have gravitated towards a small little title, called Punch Club, simply for its name. Developed by Lazy Bear Games, you may initially think it’s a pixelated retelling of the movie Fight Club in some form, but Punch Club is nothing of the sorts. Sure, there’s some fighting involved, but don’t go in hoping for some form of fighting game to tide you over.

Punch Club does something else completely different, putting you in the role of a fighter who needs to train, sleep, eat, fight, and train some more, and it is done in a simulation manager setup. So, while you won’t be directly in control of any fighting per-se, you’ll be managing the daily life of the protagonist, which just happens to include a lot of mundane tasks to do in an effort to get you to your next fight. As long as you know you’re going into a simulation management game, you’ll know what to prepare for, as it’s much more in depth than I was expecting.

Punch Club starts out with you, as a child, witnessing your father being murdered. You make a vow to your dying dad that you’ll avenge him one day, so from that day on you set upon a path to become the greatest fighter ever and find out who killed him. It’s a silly premise for a story, but it works for the context of the game setting, as it’s littered with humor and tons of 80's and 90’s pop culture references.

You are now grown up and are about to embark on your fighting career to become the best fighter in the world. To do this you need to eat healthy food so that you have the energy to train hard in the gym, but to do so you need to buy your groceries from the store, but to do that you need money, so you get a part time job. Now that you’ve worked you’re hungry and tired; and this is essentially the lopped premise the gameplay revolves around. You always want to do something but you need to complete a separate action to do so.

This is where the management simulation starts to kick in, as you need to constantly balance your time, food, health, training, work and of course, finding the time to fight and rise up the ranks. So while it’s billed as a boxing management game (though it’s more MMA or Kickboxing), the majority of your time will be managing your fighter’s day to day life and chores. While it may not sound exciting at first, and believe me the screenshots fooled me too, there’s a lot to do in Punch Club and you won’t realize it until you spend a few good hours playing.

As you begin your career you’ll almost exclusively need to worry about training and eating, but eventually your money runs out, forcing you to work, which takes time away from the set hours in the day. As you progress further, more special and unique events and opportunities open up to you, like delivering pizza to the sewers, joining an underground fight league, turning into a super hero and more.

Once you join the rookie fighting league at the local gym, that’s where your journey really begins. Fights are scheduled a few shorts days in advance, so you need to plan out your schedule ahead of time to make sure you’re rested and trained for fight day. You’ll want to make sure you improve your main stats and skills through training, but you can’t neglect your other duties either, or else there will be consequences. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that has a steep learning curve to figure out on your own.

If you don’t make the time to train, rest, eat, and more, your performance in your fights will suffer, which makes you slide further down the rankings. As you progress you’ll have more priorities to balance, harder decisions to make, and more storylines to unfold should you decide to focus on them. Just remember, there’s always a consequence for ignoring something else. You essentially need to find the correct gameplay balance if you want to progress positively, which by halfway point can become a little mundane.

Training may seem like a simple task at first, but there’s quite a lot of depth within. The more you train, the more your stats will go up, like strength, agility, and stamina. At the end of every day you also have stat degradation though, so no matter how well you do to balance stats, you’re always in a ‘2 steps forward, 1 step back’ approach. It took some time to learn that you really want to focus more or less on a single stat, as it’s near impossible to keep them all level.

The reason for this is the skill trees that tend to favor a specific type of fighting style/stat. If you want to be a hard puncher you’ll want to train strength obviously, which plays into the 'Way of the Bear' skills, which requires high strength to use specific moves. The same goes for the other two stats, with their own corresponding 'Ways' with skill sets and moves.

You can only train for so long before you become tired or hungry, which starts the cycle of needing to rest, work, etc. It is addictive once you figure out the proper ‘formula’ to being efficient with your time, money, and training, but it does start to become like a mundane grind after triple digit days.

Just like life, you’re constantly struggling to keep everything balanced, and while I applaud how many choices there are, and things to do, none of it is explained very well aside from a quick tip or blurb here and there. If you venture off the efficient path of training, working, sleeping, eating and fighting, it can feel like a struggle to get back on track. I ventured off to try one of the side missions, only to fall behind on training and having my stats decay to a point where I felt discouraged from experimenting and enjoying, as all my hard work was gone so quick.

What surprised me the most about Punch Club was that you don’t even participate in the fights you sign up for either. You have a specific amount of fighting moves and ability slots that you choose to set however you see fit, then once you start the fight you sit and watch it as it unfolds randomly in front of you without any sort of input. This is where your training comes in, as you will do far better if you focus on a specific path and stat, yet not completing and ignoring the others as well.

My first few fights did not go so well, but eventually I was able to unlock some new abilities and moves, making my way up the rankings, but that’s when I decided to pursue a relationship in the game, which in turn took time away from training, bringing more losses to my record. As you fight though, and in between rounds, you can swap moves with others if you think there’s a better strategy or balance, but with a small and limited amount of slots to use, it’s hard to strategize and usually feels more like luck than anything else.

I do wish there was some sort of mini-game during the fight that would allow me to help sway it in my favor. Watching the first dozen or so fights is fun as you watch how your fighter wins or loses, but eventually I would start the fight and just ignore it until it was done as it needed no input from me whatsoever. If you enjoy simulation management then this will be right up your alley, just don’t expect a fighting game with some sim elements thrown in, as it’s not that at all.

The retro 90’s graphics suit the game well, especially with the constant pop culture references. I still smile whenever my virtual fighter goes to work out in his garage and see that he drives the A-Team van. On the other side of the coin though, the music can be a little repetitive over time and all of the dialogue is done via speech bubbles. Oddly enough, I think some cheesy voice acting would have been a great fit for this title and fitting for the setting.

At first I was hooked on the slow progression once I figured out how to balance my daily duties, but the progression eventually slows down, almost to a halt, and if you’re not constantly on top of what you need to do something will always suffer. I lost multiple points in my main stat then become broke when I tried venturing off my proven treadmill of progression. Upgrades eventually become incredibly expensive to purchase, which requires more fight wins, which in turn requires more training, etc. Even after getting one of the upgrades I had been eyeing for quite some time in my 'Way of the Tiger' tree, it didn’t feel like it made a big difference at all, which was kind of discouraging.

To the developer’s credit, there is essentially an easy mode that stops stat degradation if you simply want to focus on winning and story elements, but achievements are disabled in this mode too, which is why I skipped playing it. Punch Club can be addictive, and if you’re a sim-management fan you’ll feel right at home with tons of things to balance and do, weighing the pros and cons of every choice. In the end I think that Punch Club Manager would have probably been a more fitting title for this game.

Overall: 6.5 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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