Review: Punch Club deserves a fighting chance

Punch Club may look like a classic fighting game from the Double Dragon era, but it actually has more in common with The Sims than its retro-styled fighting game aesthetic would suggest.

 Your father was a fighter that crossed a mysterious man with a red eye, a black wardrobe, and (most importantly) a drawn gun and about 15 feet of space. The dark, mysterious man guns down your father when you’re just a child, and you are (as tropes dictate) raised by a cop.
Sparring sessions help you train up your skills.
Admittedly, it’s not entirely clear why you’re adopted by a cop because your mother is clearly mentioned in the opening scene. But I digress. It’s not like a gaping plot hole ever stopped a good fight story from happening…
Powered by an old-school 16-bit graphics style with accompanying 16-bit era soundtrack, Punch Club riffs on classic fighting games and genre films such as Rocky (any/all of them), Fight Club, and Blood Sport—and probably just about any movie that ever starred Jean Claude Van Damme.
You’ll meet plenty of characters clearly drawn from popular games and movies, including fight trainer Mick (Rocky), fighter (and sidekick) Roy Jackson (Blood Sport), and the mysterious Tyler (Fight Club). Roy even has a sister named…wait for it… Adrian.
Later in the game there’s even talk of your mystical amulet, and (of course) organized crime rears its ugly head, because what is a fighter without criminals to work for/beat up?
Will you stay on the straight and narrow, jackhammering your way to meager funds and earn a living as an honest but struggling fighter? Or will you take a darker path, juicing up with illicit potions, delivering “special” pizza for the shady pizzeria owner, and doing business with “The Don”? The choice is yours.
Visitng an old friend can help you stay afloat in hard times.

Not a fighting game

Punch Club isn’t a fighting game; rather, it’s a time-management and strategy game about fighting that divides your time between the fights themselves and living, training, working, and struggling to improve your fighting skills so you can climb the ranks of the various fight leagues in the game. Along the way there is a main story line and various side quests you can undertake as well.
Fights are more about your overall strategy and skills. No button mashing required here.
Each game day you must decide how to spend your time in between your fights. You need to earn money to feed yourself, get enough rest, and keep your emotional level high to maximize your training efforts. Ideally, you want to maintain maximum health, emotional happiness, and energy while training your skills and attributes.
And being a fighter you’re not long on actual job skills. You can work an honest job jack-hammering stuff, or you can deliver pizza. Both jobs have their advantages and disadvantages. You can earn a little money from your fights as well.
Regardless of how you make a living, money is usually tight—and if you walk around town flush with cash you run the risk of getting mugged, which is Punch Club’s equivalent to a ‘wandering monster’ encounter. It can be good or bad depending on the outcome; if your health is high you’ll likely deliver a beatdown and gain some skill points. Otherwise you might take a beating and lose half your cash (I guess the thugs are a little considerate) and health in the process.
Save up your money and you can buy fitness equipment for your home.

All aboard the train

Of course, staying happy and well fed is just half the battle. In order to climb the ranks of various fight leagues/clubs, you must train to build your physical attributes (Strength, Agility, and Stamina) and your fighting skills.
There are a huge number of fighting skills in the game divided amongst 4 ‘trees’. The first tree is general, and the remaining 3 represent a style of fighting keyed to one of the main attributes: Way of the Tiger (Agility), Way of the Bear (Strength), and Way of the Turtle (Stamina, which is essentially defense, in case you’re curious as to why a Turtle would be tied to Stamina).
The skill tree is deep and allows for a variety of fighting styles and options. You will need to specialize — you can’t “do it all”.
Agility moves tend to favor accuracy and avoiding strikes. Strength moves require a lot of energy and inflict high damage. Stamina focuses on resisting/absorbing punishment while you dish out your own.
You’ll definitely need to specialize because of the skill system is tiered. Every skill you acquire increases the cost of the next skill (regardless of which tree it is located in). Although you could (theoretically) grind your way to become an unstoppable machine, it would probably take longer to do that than it would to just finish the game’s story and its side quests.
Over time, you’ll also want to save enough money to purchase gym equipment for your home gym. This will save money on gym costs as well as the time spent traveling to and from the gym itself. (I’m still wondering why you can’t just sell the sweet van in your garage to fund your home gym…)

Live to fight. Fight to live.

Your basic fighting manual. Hardly a Dragon Scroll.
Living, training, and improving are definitely a tricky balancing act. Building up your fighter is a struggle to gain a daily net increase in Strength, Agility, and Stamina. Every day your stats drop slightly, so you must train enough to overcome that and increase them. There are also certain skills you can buy that prevent an attribute from dropping below a certain value.
The goal is to maximize your stats and skills along with your emotional and physical health on the day of your next fight. The stronger you are going into the match, the better your chances of winning. There’s no simple, repeatable formula you can use to achieve this, so you have to change up your routines regularly. Punch Club keeps you on your toes.
Fights play out in rounds, in which your fighter will fight using a selection of 3-5 abilities you have selected for him to use in that round. In between rounds, you can change out the abilities, choosing between strikes, defenses, and special ‘perks’ that provide various benefits. You might pick a simple block maneuver, a punch, and a kick in the early game, but after you acquire a larger arsenal of moves, you can craft different strategies for each round.
The streets can be tough. Taking a bus is safer and faster than walking, but costs a little of your precious money.
For example, I used a Low Kick to debilitate and drain energy from my opponents (reducing their ability to strike back), in conjunction with abilities designed to increase my own energy and continue attacking when the opponent was too tired. (A sort of ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy if you will.) This worked well for many matches—but not always—and I sometimes had to change tactics in the second or third round.
The huge array of skills and abilities in the game provide considerable room to experiment with different ‘builds’ and tactics. And you can use each of the game’s 3 save slots to start careers and experiment with different paths through the game.
Regardless of how you play, you’ll still come up against opponents that will challenge you and force you to change tactics and/or just train harder (i.e. improve your fighter) in order to win. You’ll lose a lot of matches, but you always gain skill points in your quest to become The Greatest/The Dragon Warrior/The Chosen One. (Take your pick—Punch Club scrambles its inspirations pretty freely.)

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Overall: 7/10 – Recommended

I was truly surprised at just how addictive Punch Club is, and I’ve already plowed 7+ very entertaining hours into the Steam version with no end in sight. (I confess Punch Club may hold special appeal for me for its video game/movie nostalgia and because I’m also a lifelong martial arts student who understands all too well the challenges of balancing training with life.)
An iOS version of Punch Club is also available, which is hardly surprising because Punch Club is the perfect format for a mobile title. I just wish I could transfer my PC progress to an Android version…

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