Punch Club sentences its players to a potentially longer grind than most modern, reasonable RPGs. That “potentially” is no slip of the tongue, either. Punch Club is all about grooming your fighter for hands-off brawls, from back alley ambushes to big league pay-per-views, like a buff Tamagotchi. You dictate when he sleeps, what he eats, how he trains, and whether he throws parties or mixes it up with menial labor jobs and movie deals. Becoming the best is never easy, predominantly when your success is calculated by a random number generator.
As I said, the punching part of Punch Club is out of the player’s hands. You are your character’s guardian, but every fight is won by his knuckles and roundhouse kicks, not yours. Before every battle, you choose a set of skills from the ones currently unlocked. Knee strikes that cripple an opponent’s agility and stamina, blocks that deplete the aggressor’s health when executed, and punches that deal strength-dependent damage form the backbone of the game’s rags-to-riches story. Whoever hits the mat hardest goes home with the gashes and shattered pride to match.
And I did feel pride in my fighter (you can call him Beef). Punch Club sparks a classic tale of a boy’s thirst for justice, where his father’s murder ignited a fire to grow stronger. Upon coming of age, your character begins the hunt for his dad’s killer in earnest, a journey that leads to martial arts encounter after encounter, sanctioned or not. My champion-to-be prospered in the combat style I thought he was best suited for, though your regimen might vary. Three statistics govern your brawler’s well-being, deciding what workout plan and kung fu path you should follow.
Strength determines striking power, agility increases your evasion and accuracy, and stamina boosts energy regeneration, the resource that fuels your handful of skills in a scuffle. I offer this advice as someone who nearly undermined his own warrior, too: choose one trait ‒ two at the most ‒ and concentrate on the exercises that benefit that stat. Seeking to min-mix all three will leave your fighter with more wounds than wins, even in the late game. Punch Club is not your playground for willy-nilly experimentation ‒ the sim aspects do not allow it.
Skipping leg day aside, Punch Club subjected me to the mundane activities of getting in shape, and I loved almost every bit of it. Like The Sims, Punch Club allowed me to mold a fighter representative of my real-life habits. Each character must eat, catch some Zs, and periodically show up to work to support his gym visits. Part of the fun also stems from accomplishing those tasks according to a somewhat daily routine. Every minute spent lifting weights, walking around town, or dozing will waste seconds on the in-game clock. Once 24 hours pass, you confront the biggest Punch Club flaw: stat decay.
Every 24 hours, players lose chunks of their strength, stamina, and agility. I understand that the developers needed to balance the stat progression somehow, to implement consequences for neglecting the squat racks and treadmill for too long. Punch Club, however, contains conflicting messages. NPCs told me to find a medium, then to mix things up, even though committing to strength and stamina for my glass cannon build proved to be equally arduous. Actual, physical muscle mass would never deteriorate in one afternoon. Punch Club could use an easy mode at least, or a dedicated tutorial that imparts the basics of cultivating a character’s physique.
The stat decay becomes too severe by Punch Club’s final third. You must unlock passive perks that lock strength, for example, at certain levels or improve the effectiveness of your exercises. Again, heed this suggestion and focus on one primary trait. Trying to craft a well-rounded hero may not cause problems at first. But in challenging nimble Bruce Lee wannabes, lying on your back in the ring serves as a cold reminder of training missteps, of the grind you will undergo to bring your boy back to fighting fit. Punch Club includes an unspoken fail state, in which you lack the energy to perform minimal wage jobs, to fund meals, to fuel each workout. You then cheat your stats and secondary meters back to normal, or restart from scratch.
In such bleak moments, Punch Club channels Dark Souls. Starting from nothing provides better insight should you ever hit the wall, like fixating on the areas you dismissed before. It is not uncommon for new players to waste the first in-game month attempting to juggle too many skills or too many quests. In the end, I brushed off my pizza delivery duties because of the measly paycheck, just as I gave up on the romantic pursuit of a friend’s sister. In replicating my life too well, I substituted energy drinks for sleep to keep my fighter stimulated, and allotted more free time to Beef’s biceps than anything glutes related.
I became a well-oiled machine, using a local trip to the gym to both lift and spar, doing contract work for the construction site to purchase a couple frozen pizzas at the convenience store, and sleeping off bruises just long enough to regain my energy and repeat the cycle. My progress remained incremental, but I counted any progress in Punch Club as good progress since ‒ to recap the topic of the fights momentarily ‒ the battles take RNG to an untrodden extreme.
As I already mentioned, you pick abilities prior to a fight, and you unlock those skills with points earned from sparring or winning matches. The thing is: abilities become costly, and you must commit to one of the three warrior paths ‒ one for each stat ‒ because each technique offers additional skills and perks. After analyzing an upcoming enemy to the T, however, Punch Club might swing the win in his favor still. The player character has the horrible habit of burning his energy rapidly, and suffering a blow without stamina will throw your fighter to the floor. It is a vicious cycle; regardless of my pleas and shouts, Beef stayed oblivious to my ferocity-infused encouragement.
If your hero does not exhaust himself in the first round ‒ spending time on his feet, not picking teeth off the floor ‒ luck may smile upon you. Your champion can wreck opponents with stats a few levels higher than his. I crushed Hulk Hogan’s doppelganger on my first go-round; a friend struggled to whittle his life down for two hours. Identical character builds, unforgivably sporadic results. My victory did not rest with what moves I selected prior to the bell ‒ not entirely anyhow. My character just happened to connect on the strikes that wore down my rival’s stamina.
There is no consistency between fights.
Inevitable grinding aside, too, Punch Club cobbles together a parody-filled paradise that took the sting out of my losses. Developer Lazy Bear Games ensures every inch of the world earns the word “homage” ‒ Rocky’s montages, Terminator 2 quotes, and character spoofs from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fight Club, and Mortal Kombat shepherd the story forward. The stunning number of references Punch Club crams into one place without buckling is worthy of applause, whether or not you also love its detailed pixel graphics and peppy chiptune soundtrack.
I may as well have won the lottery when I finished Punch Club. For nine hours, I succumbed to the highest highs and lowest lows of virtual mixed martial arts. I audibly cheered when Beef delivered debilitating KOs to Ryu and Ken knockoffs in the second round of each match, putting himself to the prestige of World Champions. I also wished unfathomable curses on Beef whenever an evening of rest ‒ and therefore, stat decay ‒ set me back another day of lifting. I enjoyed setting a tried and true schedule, more so once Beef stuck to it and bore the fruits of muscular labors. But watching him flail hopelessly in the ring, I often considered throwing in the towel, too.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided.
Punch Club provides a parody-filled look at one man ‒ your man ‒ and his rise to martial arts stardom. Managing his hunger, training regimen, and social life contains all the appeal of The Sims franchise, but punishing stat decay and RNG-heavy fights cripple Punch Club’s lasting shot at fame.