Combining the regime management of Game Dev Story, the personal upkeep stress of The Sims and the Tamagotchi, and the pixel graphics and witty-but-kinda-hipstery pop-culture-reference-a-palooza of (and I’m just ball-parking here) probably around 92% of Steam’s indie gaming catalog is Punch Club, a game about...well, as far as the overall diegetic point of the game goes, I’ll just quote from the promotional material here: “Train hard, win, and find out who killed your father.”
I won’t lie by saying that this kind of tongue-in-cheekery wasn’t the primary reason for my purchasing of the game, because it was. As I soon found, this was the first of many fun-pokings directed squarely at the sports-drama genre of film: that oftentimes baffling mish-mash of violent drama, heartwarming training montages, and borderline-offensive ethnic stereotyping. It’s a game about fighting which will have you working a day job, courting a girl named Adrian, and sparring with a jovial-but-also-gritty-and-experienced trainer as you drag your body through legitimate competitions and copyright-line-toeing fight clubs alike. Punch Club sets the bar pretty high, and unlike other management sims, this one goes out of its way to create a narrative, which while funny at heart, is ultimately concrete.
Most of the parody-ing is more chuckle-inducing than thought-provokingly-satirical. While this might seem to lessen potential impact, it’s certainly fun spotting the odd poster for films like “Stoney” and “Sport Sport” or weapon racks containing hockey sticks and turtle shells without feeling the need to stop and think. It’ll get a laugh, and there’s not really much else to it, academically-speaking. Another example: Early in the game, you meet a guy named Tyler. He introduces you to a club wherein you’ll fight strangers in a search for inner meaning in world now-driven by emotionless materialism. Fight a couple of times for him, and he’ll send you to his Irish brother, Mickey, who lives in a caravan park and needs you to help him out with gangster problems. There’s no real intrinsic critique here: the game just wants you to lol at how it’s Brad Pitt from two different movies (Hahahaha!). This not-really-trying-that-hard approach is ultimately what makes Punch Club a successful parody: the core narrative and gameplay is concerned primarily with the arbitrary nature of the tropes of boxing/fighting movies (you get stat boosts if you’re in love, for example), whereas specific referencing and fun-poking is left to the odd background prop or character. This means you’re probably going to remember the game as a standalone piece as opposed to “that one game that made fun of Rocky.” Which is a very good thing, I think, and something that very few parodies manage to achieve.
As with any management sim, the first hour or two are a little rough, and given the prevalence of the main character’s happiness, hunger, and energy levels, they’re perhaps comparatively rougher than similar titles. You gotta win fights, which means you gotta train, which means you gotta eat, which means you gotta buy food, which means you gotta work, which means you gotta maintain happiness, which means you gotta win fights, etc etc. Thankfully, gaining xp and recharging status bars is a comparatively speedy process, but this is clearly only such because you’ve always got plenty on your to-do list. Complexifying matters is the steady wasting of your three core attributes - strength, agility, and endurance - over time. This is a smart move on the part of the developer: you can’t just plateau out and engage in a work/sleep/eat cycle until you have enough cash to break the game, because eventually, you’re going to be back at square one in terms of character development (and even if you do break something, there’s nothing like random muggings to strip you of your ill-gotten cash). While taking care of your Balboagotchi is at times full-on, nothing ever strictly doesn’t make sense and I’m never left feeling like the game is impossible. And, like Game Dev Story and The Sims, once you get over those first few hurdles (some steak in the fridge, some points in the skill tree, and a couple of wins under your belt), you’ll have yourself a steadily-improving personal economy.
What of the actual fighting though? The fights play out as kinda-RNG-based number battles where each round you can select what is essentially a “hand” of abilities. These might be attacks, such as a headbutt, defensive moves, such as a basic block, or a passive attribute, such as the ability to recharge energy at a faster rate. Once the round has started, the fight plays out in autopilot, with each fighter able to use only the selected abilities. Though unique, this mechanic doesn’t truly open up until a good two or three hours into the game, where you’ve got yourself a large catalog of abilities to choose from. But once you’ve hit that point, the underdog fights become puzzles, where all you’ve got are limited rounds, hit-points, and ability slots to figure out the best approach to take down your opponent. Luckily, the number of possible character builds opens up a wealth of options in battle: Do you go for a fast knockout while leaving yourself open to counter-attacks? Do you go for a flurry of jabs while doing your best to avoid their swings? Or do you pretend to be Homer and just stack on the defenses and wait for the other guy to fall over from fatigue? While there are a lot of approaches available at the start of the game, eventually you must choose a strength-, agility-, or endurance-based build given the nature of a tech tree which all-but locks you into a particular path. Still, the number of abilities garnered from single tech paths is still large enough to present a wealth of options in each fight.
Visually, however, Punch Club’s fights bring back (unwelcome and potentially traumatizing) memories of those classic Runescape battles which are pretty much the antithesis of the very concept of exhilaration. I mean look, it’s just two stoic dudes limp-wristedly hitting each other every couple of seconds while numbers sometimes pop up on the screen (or sometimes don’t!). And there’s very little to do during these number-offs other than twiddle your thumbs and hope that the RNG throws some high-damage combos your way (not that RNG has a giant role to play: I can confirm that the underdog victory is one of the few tropes not covered here). That said, the lackluster visuals don’t do too much damage given that there’s plenty else in the game to keep you entertained - most of which is visually above-par as far as retro-styled indie stuff goes (there’s even an optional retro mode which adds a visible pixel grid to the game) - but heck, it’s just surprising that in a game about fighting, the fighting bit is by far the least attractive. Either this is a missed opportunity from the developer, or great satire that I’m just straight up too dumb to understand.
So is it any fun?
When I play Punch Club (and any other management sim for that matter), the question of “why” is a specter that comes to hang above my head after a couple of hours of play. Why am I doing this? Why am I here? Why did I choose this path? Like most of its brethren, this sim sports a reciprocal level of difficulty - the more you play, the easier the game gets. We’ve leveled up all the things we need to level up, and soon the routine of train, eat, fight, sets in. This is a facet of Game Dev Story, Plague Inc, The Sims, and all their like: eventually, you establish a healthy economy, the difficulty level plummets, and suddenly you’ve been playing for seven hours with your brain on autopilot, achieving only incremental progress. And, for me, it’s not until I realize this that questions like “Am I having fun right now?”, “What am I doing with my life?”, and “If I look back on this moment thirty years from now, will it make me weep in anger and frustration towards my younger self who could have been doing so much more with his or her short time on this planet?” start popping into my head.
This isn’t a problem for most other games of the genre. Why? Because we live in a world of internet-enabled fridges, self-parking sex dolls and, importantly, dual monitors. As such, management games have recently found a perfect home on that second screen. They sit there, gestating, requiring only infrequent actions from a user who every few minutes needs a quick break from whatever it is they’re doing. But Punch Club is a game that belongs neither on that first or second monitor. It isn’t intensive or fun enough to deserve my full attention, but at the same time, it requires far more than one tenth of it. The game is so needy that you simply can’t make worthwhile progress with a couple of actions every ten minutes: between eating, sleeping, training, fighting, working, there’s rarely a point in the game where I’m not being asked to do something. And there are simply so many actions that must be taken before something of significance, like a fight, takes place. Punch Club therefore demands more than your second screen can offer you.
So I guess overall-rating-wise, I’ll say this: if you a) are the kind of person who can play Game Dev Story on full-screen with zero distractions, b) are familiar with stuff like Rocky, Fight Club, and the Ninja Turtles, and c) aren’t the kind of person who constantly questions if he or she is doing the right thing philosophically-speaking and/or wonder whether or not everything is in fact pointless and you’re just a doomed soul destined to be forgotten and left to an existence of eternal nothing, lemme tell you that you will have a blast with Punch Club. Buy it right now and don’t look back (because it just might depress you).