Man, the first month of 2016 just has me riled up. Death here, taxes there, website troubles up and down, and not a cake in sight. If only I had some way to relieve my angry tensions. Maybe some sort of social group built for that exact purpose and meeting in repeated, agreed-upon intervals. Like, I dunno. Some sort of club.
And hey, would you look at that! With almost eerie timing, Lazy Bear Games and tinyBuild deliver unto us Punch Club! A game that has about a 25% chance of being exactly what I need it to be; it could, after all, also be a game about non-alcoholic mixed-drink enthusiasts, about a stick of wood with a boxing glove, or about a magical wand that provides an endless amount of sugary drinks.
Only one way to find out which one it is.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
So, Punch Club is actually about…
I still don’t know! The title doesn’t actually clear away all of the confusion.
Punch Club‘s options are sparse, the better (I assume) to focus on the actual punching. Resolution, fullscreen, two styles of audio, and language options, that’s all you’re getting. The only odd duck in this list is ‘Retro Effect’, which adds unsightly — but retro — scan lines over the otherwise beautifully crisp background art.
And since there’s not a whole lot else to do here, save for staring at the credits…
Punch Club offers room for three dedicated punchers slash save files. I select one, and am prompted for a name.
All jokery aside, I do actually know that Punch Club is about fighting. Twitch played it, after all.
A dramatic cutscene starts. A shirtless man is doing WING CHUN? training exercises in a sparse room, while two kids play nearby. The trophies make evident that the man is clearly a trained fighter, and he’s addressing his sons in a lengthy monologue; lengthy enough, for me, to deduce that I’m probably not gonna be him.
Suddenly, dark clouds cross before the sun. The scene shifts. Dad-man is staring down a dark character in a shady alley, surrounded by bodies. The kids hiding behind the dumpster can’t do anything but…
Scene change again. One of the kids is back in dad’s darkened training yard. I… don’t know where the other one went? Or mom, for that matter? Both were clearly introduced earlier. And I know for a fact Other Kid as at the shooting… well, anyway. A police offer friend of dad’s extends to Single Remaining Child a helping hand of support.
And with that, one final scene-shift brings us to…
Well, hey! Look at mister eligible bachelor over here! Single-room apartment house, sleeping on the sofa… nice terrarium, though, I gotta give him that. So just who is this mysterious…
It’s me, isn’t it.
Before I have a chance to take in… well, anything, the phone rings. A big exclamation point and an arrow appear over the rotary phone hilariously placed next to my couch-bed — seriously, why isn’t that thing on the kitchen counter? — and I somehow intuit that I’m supposed to click on it.
On the other end of the phone line is… Frank, the beat cop father figure with a heart of gold. He admonishes me for sleeping in, seeing as though I’m technically a grown man at this point. But, have no fear: he’s left a newspaper on the table — How? Does Frank also live here? There are two pairs of shoes… Well, anyway: Frank left me a paper, so I can use that to look for some jobs.
Jobs, however, are not what’s currently on Hay Maker’s mind.
Hay Maker walks to the garage. Inside this ridiculously spacious garage is a single mat. And that mat, that mat, is the only place in the house Hay deigns to do pushups on. Listen, don’t… just don’t question it, okay.
Hay plops down on the mat and starts doing his ineffective pushups. And as he does, red, blue, and green orbs launch themselves from his body, and float towards to the top of the screen.
Ah! Okay, I see how this goes. I’m getting mild Game Dev Tycoon slash Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! flashbacks. These orbs represent training progress towards the three main PUNCH STATS, do they then? I mouse over them in turn to find out that red is Strength, blue is Agility, and green is Stamina. The story checks out. I wonder if the yellow magic stat is hidden in this game as well.
Suddenly, Hay gets up. What’s that, boy? From the low-fidelity thought bubble appearing over his head, I intuit that… he’s hungry? I guess?
To the left of the three Punch Stats are four Sims-like Life Bars. From top to bottom: Health, Food, Happiness, and Energy. Hay’s Food bar just went down too far, so now he’s feeling a mite too peckish to continue blasting his quads. To the living room fridge!
“OK,” proclaims Hay, mouth still full of frozen pizza since I don’t see any oven in this kitchen. “I’m ready to find a job. Let’s look at the newspaper…”
One stat screen later, I’m looking up travel times to a construction site across Central Park.
You know… Punch Club hasn’t really been very punchy so far. I’m getting more of a Lonely Bachelor Simulator vibe from this game than anything involving thrilling hand-to-hand. Sleeping in, breakfast, looking for jobs. I wonder when I can expect my first actua-
Wow. There is so much to unpack in this picture. Did Hay just… decide to jog to work in his sleeping shorts? During a rainstorm? At night? Even though it was very clearly a bright sunny morning when I made him leave the house? And these two goons are holding me up for… all the nothing I’m carrying? Guys: these boxers don’t have pockets. I don’t know what you want from me!
Do I RUN, FIGHT, or SURRENDER? I mean, that’s not really a choice, is it? I sure as hell didn’t sign up for Realistically Acceding To The Demands Of Muggers So You Won’t End Up In The Hospital With Broken Kneecaps Club. Bring it, tubbo. I’m the hero of this movie!
At this point, Stoned Clippie shows up to explain how fights work.
And by ‘explain how fights work’, I mean, ‘drop a one-page hint that doesn’t explain anything’. That thing you just saw? That was it. So how do I…
Okay, so I can select two skills. Up to a maximum of five later, but two for now. The skills are subdivided into a few poorly-explained categories, but that doesn’t matter much, since I only have two anyway: Punch, and Block. Regular fighting mastermind, me. I can also select one of my one fighting styles, so I guess I’m running with a ‘balanced approach’ for now.
This screen also lets me look at my prospective opponent, ‘Big Bo’. And it’s very useful for assessing that, holy shit I’m so boned.
Okay then. No sense in delaying the inevitable. I’ve selected my skills, such as it is. Now I’m hitting the Start button, and…
The screen switches to a Streets of Rage-style side view. On the top left, my health, ‘energy’, and skills. On the top right, Bo’s kit. In-between those, a round counter. Round one of twenty, gentlemen! Fight.
So how… how do I fight?
It turns out that I don’t.
Specifically, it turns out that I don’t. Punch Club appears to be pretty okay with just playing itself. Hay and Bo stand around for a while, doing nothing… then one of my blue skills flashes bright, and Hay throws a punch. Hit! One damage. Another punch. Miss! No damage. Then we stand still for a little bit again, as red and green energy symbols flash on-screen. Then Hay throws another punch. Hit! One damage! Second hit! Combo for two damage!
Then Bo swings his bat around.
I’ll save you the blow-by-blow: Bo beats me, and I lose. “I should train harder,” mumbles Hay, somehow, as the screen blacks out.
Miraculously, I’m not dead. Or even robbed. Even more miraculously, losing this fight unlocked some sort of vague achievement for me.
But most miraculously of all, my terrible failing non-fight was somehow spotted by a retired fighting trainer. And he was impressed, for some reason! I wonder if it was my headlong rush into certain danger and death? Or maybe the hollow sound my skull made when it hit the pavement?
Events progress at a rapid pace from here. Mick, because that’s the guy’s name, invites me into his office, a fancy collection of fighting paraphernalia and movie jokes (for some reason). He suggests I have potential, and he’ll ‘train’ me… if I can ‘prove my worth’ at the amateur fighting league in the local gym, run by a friend of his. And before I know it, I’m squaring off against the gym owner, Silver, in a test to see how I measure up.
I’m allowed to join Silver’s league. He also suggests that if I want to be competitive, I should train at least one of my stats up to level 5. Which is gonna take a lot of push-ups. But there’s an alternative: for just a small fee, I can train in Mick’s gym, using the focused machines there to more quickly prop up any given stat.
It takes a while to properly beef up, as training has its limits. I can only work on any given machine for so long until the gains start getting smaller — indicated by increasingly emptying colour circles. And while I can get around that by switching to different workouts, eventually, my food and energy bars start getting low. Which I can then circumvent by buying energy drinks and protein bars from the vending machine… but my limited non-robbed money only gets me that far. The life of a fighter, man. The life of a fighter.
And when I do let real life intervene — to buy groceries, to work at the pizza place, or just to take a nap — I find out that stats actually decrease over time! Specifically, they decrease every day. Getting tough isn’t just a matter of getting tough: it also means staying tough.
Finally, though, I make my goal. Five strength! And just in time, as my first Rookie fight is today! I’m matched against… ‘Song Mo’, another rookie. An entirely untrained rookie. Did I hilariously over-prepare for this? I’m starting to think that I did.
Wow! So that’s how it feels to be a winner, huh? It feels good, I gotta admit. Not only do I gain happiness from that fight, and ‘league score’, I also get three hexagonal skill points! I can use these to unlock skills in a massive, multi-tiered skill system, which involves active skills, passive skills, skill modifiers, perks, traits, and three optional martial arts styles for me to dip into.
I’ve got my first victory down, a league to fight in and a gym to train in, and my choice of menial labour jobs to afford my crippling pizza and couch naps habit. Plus I think I heard one guy in the gym talk about ‘ultimate street fighting’ Big cash prizes might be involved.
Is this… is this The American Dream? Because if so, baby, I am living this to the fullest. Be back right after I turn my simple punching skill into some sort of world-spanning media empire!