Sylvester Stallone. Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bruce Lee. These former kings of the action shelf in your old video store cemented their places in pop culture history during the 70s and 80s. Punch Club seeks to pay homage to these titans of action but, is it worth playing?
The backstory for the game is your dad was killed in a fight when you were a kid and you grow up wanting to become a fighter like he was. You begin training to become better so you can one day track down your father’s killer and defeat him. Insert a thousand references to just about every Rocky movie and the 80s in general, a retro visual style, as well as a chiptune soundtrack to match, and you’ve got an indie hit in the making.
The problem is that everything about the game feels formulaic and by-the-numbers making it hard to really take much away from the game other than an overall feeling of mediocrity. The references start out entertaining with lots of character names, locations, and plot points serving as shout-outs to various movies and cartoons fitting the theme of fighting in the 80s. After about an hour of this however, it stops being entertaining and feels like the game just gave up trying to come up with its own ideas. Instead it resorts to the Dane Cook school of comedy by nudging the player every 10 seconds and saying “Hey, remember this thing? Wasn’t that great? Oh, look, here’s another thing from the 80s!”. It gets old fast and never lets up.
Unfortunately the gameplay follows in much the same way. You don’t directly control your character during his fights. Instead, you’re in charge of every aspect of his training. You need to decide how often to work out and choose the best exercise to boost certain attributes. Then you have to remember to keep sparring and entering fights so you can earn skill points that let you learn new fighting techniques and styles.
When you start balancing all of that while trying to earn money and keep yourself fed as well as managing your social connections, it starts to feel hectic and stressful but in an exciting way. Sort of the same kind of entertainment you get from trying to manage an entire family in The Sims. Stressful, but satisfying. Similar to the story, it only takes about an hour before you start to become quickly annoyed with the huge flaws of the system.
Certain skills and abilities don’t seem to work the way the game explains them and others just don’t work period. To top it off, all of your stats degrade at the end of each day. What this means is no matter how hard you train or how dedicated you are, you can only raise your skills by so much each day. If you happen to miss a day of training due to having to go earn money or rest, you’ll lose even more stat progress.
When it comes down to it, Punch Club’s biggest failing has to be the grinding. There’s a part in the story towards the later half of the game where you no longer need to worry about money and instead are just training all the time. As I stated above, even if all you do is train 24/7, there’s only so much you can raise your stats by before they degrade at the end of each day. However, near the end game, the skill points you use to learn new abilities and techniques become the main focus. So what does the game do? Make it so you can only have one fight every few days or so, at best. So you grind. Then wait, and grind some more. Wait, grind, rinse, repeat.
So, by the time you’re a few hours into the game, the jokes aren’t funny, the story quits trying to move forward, the gameplay isn’t fun, and the grind is long and unrewarding. About 15 minutes later, if you’re lucky to have got this much time out of it, you’ll be uninstalling the game and forgetting you ever even purchased it.
The only thing the game has going for it is the music. The soundtrack is on point, a great mashup of 80s pop culture vibes pumped through the speakers of an early 90s arcade cabinet. If there’s one thing to keep you going through the tedious and mind-numbing grind, it would be the music.
However, that’s simply not enough to make up for the rest of the game. Punch Club breaks out in a sprint at the starting line, only to forget that it’s running a marathon. A few hours in and it just collapses from exhaustion and gives up on even finishing the race. It’s just impossible to recommend purchasing a game that seems to get bored with itself almost as quickly as the player does.
It’s for all these reasons that my final score for Punch Club is a disappointing Rocky V out of 10.
Pros: Great Soundtrack, good early game, lots of awesome 80s references and “cameos”.
Cons: Lots of unnecessary forced grinding, game loses its identity early on, skills and abilities feel arbitrary and useless at times, gameplay becomes repetitive a few hours in.
Gaming for most of my life, writing for about half. Finally decided to smash the two together to create a wonderfully gory portrait of a gaming journalist. My opinions are usually long-winded, often misinformed, but I'd like to think at least well written.