Indie Wonderland: Punch Club

A few hours in

Okay, so that didn’t happen.

A lot of punching *was* involved, but…

I didn’t sit still, obviously. I fought my way through the rookie league, up and down multiple ways, until I finally got a chance to beat Old Man What’s-His-Face. I fought in the ultimate league too, ‘accidentally’ cracking my fair share of legs and only hardly getting my own legs cracked in return. I built a home gym, fixed a car, made a friend, and fell in love. And I even got my revenge on that bat-swinging, street-robbing asshole.

Of course he lives in a run-down trailer hole.

Oh, and I also watched the narrative plot take a sharp turn on the corner of fifth and kooky. But that’s neither here nor there.

Trust me when I say that this makes no sense.

For real though: I have no idea where this story is going. And I’ll probably never find out! Because, coming from a relative good start, my interest in Punch Club has been waning slowly (but surely). While it’s charming and cute and funny, the incredibly repetitive gameplay mechanics are constantly sapping my will to continue. Who knew a game about training to become the ultimate fighter champion would involve so much careful grinding?

(Don’t answer that.)

Anyway. Let’s start this review with the good bit: Punch Club is a very nice game. Aesthetically, I mean. It looks great! It has a lovely art style, very bright and colourful, and evoking retro sensibilities while side-stepping retro limitations. It’s a good example of modern pixel art done right. And like I’ve shown before, if you do like those retro limitations, the game has a setting for that.

In case you have beef with your own eyeballs, I guess.

Punch Club is charming, too, in the sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. ‘Becoming the greatest fighter’ and ‘avenge the back-alley murder of your dear old dad’ sounds like a plot crossroads just south of Batman on the grimness scale, but Punch Club handles the whole matter fairly lightheartedly. At first, at least; I have no idea if the plot takes a GrimDive in the third act or whatever. But even then, it can’t get all grim: Punch Club is packed with a mess of goofy stuff, jokes and references and downright nonsense, intended to lighten the mood and trip players up.

I can’t explain to you how this scene fits into the larger Punch Club narrative, because as far as I can tell it *doesn’t*.

Finally, Punch Club‘s simple gameplay makes the game feel very effort-light and accessible. No twitch-timing skills and 720 no-scopes are required to be good at this game; you just send your guy to do things. It’s almost like one of those day-planning visual novels, except you have more fine-grained control over what you do when. ‘Halfway between a novel and The Sims’; I like that idea, I think.

You’re free to do whatever you like in Punch Club. There’s very little time pressure, and almost no mandatory deadlines… and even the deadlines that are mandatory don’t punish you overmuch. And what’s more, the game is packed with generous failsafes, which allow you to continue playing even if you’re flat out of money, food, and energy — though you probably shouldn’t let it come to that. You can run everywhere if you don’t have bus fare, Mick offers to feed you if you’re broke, and you can fish rotten hamburgers out of the dumpster. No matter how deep you fall, you can always crawl back up. One dumpster-burger at a time.

Seriously, though, *really* don’t let it come to that.

So Punch Club feels very ‘casual’ at first. You wanna have some fun punching adventures, it asks? Go ahead, enjoy yourself! This bright colourful world is always happy to accommodate you!

This is a lie.

Punch Club is not an easy game. Punch Club is hard to succeed at. Punch Club isn’t a leisurely stroll through the park, it’s a grueling uphill marathon during a thunderstorm. Punch Club is a procedural roadblock engine that’s more than happy to stimy all your progress time and time and time again.

Let me see if I can explain why.

The difficulty deception starts at the start, when the game asks you to ‘pick’ your stats. While you’re never locked into any choice — there’s that nice casual atmosphere again — Punch Club strongly suggests you’ll want to stick to one core stat, and one side stat. Do you want to be a strong slugger, with high Strength and medium Stamina, KO-ing enemies before they KO you? Or an agile dodger, with high Agility and medium Stamina to allow you to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee? Or maybe you want to be endurance-based duration fighter, using high Stamina and medium Strength to stay in the game while your enemies tire themselves out? There’s no real sense in training every stat: stats drain over time, every day, and keeping all stats high takes tremendous time and effort. And remember: you also need to eat.

So you pick an idea, and you start training stats. And at first, it works! The first fights go alright, because you’re initially much tougher than your low-stat opponents. And you feel good! And then you start hitting opponents at your own weight class, and…

Well, I can’t speak for everyone, obviously. But my victory rate tanked.

Partially, I think this is intentional: your losses lead to the introduction of a guy who sells ‘magical performance potions’ that are most assuredly not illegal drugs. But partially, it was also due to me misunderstanding the system in a crucial way.

You’ll quickly learn, when playing Punch Club, that stats don’t really matter as much as you’d think. The game itself actually emphasizes this in your Fighting Manual. Rather, it’s skills that count. And your current same-stat opponents become too strong for you because they have access to powerful skills and perks that you don’t. Easy how that seems to work, huh?

So, how do skills work? The basis of it is a massive skill tree, a four-branched hierarchical monstrosity. It’s the kind of thing that will make Diablo II fans pretty happy. You start out on the basic, generalized-fighting tree; the three other trees, which you can unlock, correspond to the three main specialized fighting styles.

Authorial intent is quickly clear: you’re expected to pick one of the three specialized trees, and dive deeply into that. And so you do! The first time you get your hands on some skill points, you buy some skills. The first skill costs 1 skill point! Nice. The second skill costs 2 skill points. The third skill costs 3 skill points. The fourth skill costs 4 skill points. The fifth skill… well, you get where I’m going with this.

What I’m saying is that skills get real pricey, real fast.

Skill points are gained through specialized (expensive-ish) training, and, through fighting. Wins always get you some skill points, losses sometimes do. I’m not sure what determines this.

Example: I got 8 points for this impressive sewer-side victory.

So what can you expect? You gain 2 or 3 skill points for training, 2 or 3 points for losing a fight, and 7 or 8 points for winning a fight.

These amounts never seem to change.

I’m sure you can see the issue with this. The effect of flat rewards, increasing costs, is a sense of enforced focus. Early on, you feel like you can experiment. But pretty soon into the game, you have to be working towards a goal. Every new skill stops being a casual buy, and starts representing days of training and grinding and fighting. You better know what you’re doing!

In fact, you better know what you’re doing from the start. Because every ‘wrong’ skill you buy early will cost you in the long run. If, like me, you picked up an early ‘cheap’ skill that turned out useless for your chosen focus, you’re paying for that — both immediately, and in the price increase you’ll feel for every new skill later.

Still, it’s not all bad: getting fancy new skills (and perks, and skill slots, and skill modifiers, and skill upgrades) can be fun. It really feels like you’re training up to something great! It’s a nice bit of thematic-mechanical overlap. And eventually you’ll have your cool moves, and you’ll have your four of five action slots, and you’ll have your chosen combat style down. And then you take yourself into combat…

…and you’ll likely still lose a lot. Even with a good, tough skill complement, I still generally ended up losing like a good half of my fights.

Pictured: me, getting my ass kicked.

So why is that? Why do I still lose so much? I’ve devised three possible reasons, which I’ll describe here — in increasing order of game-blaming pettiness.

Option number one is that I’m just not very good at Punch Club.

Don’t look at me like that! There are so many skills to look through. Even within any one special tree, there are dozens of skills and upgrades. There are skills for straight damage, debuffing effects, high accuracy, low accuracy, high energy usage, low energy usage… and that’s not even getting into the many skill modifiers. There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying.

And it’s tough to get an ‘optimal’ five-skill build out of this set. There’s a lot of info to take in. It took me way long to understand (for instance) that the ‘low kick’ move, which does relatively low damage, might be a very useful debuffing move for tackling high-Stamina opponents. And there’s still half a dozen moves that ‘seem’ useless to me… which probably only means I haven’t figured out in which way they can be useful.

Same for this uppercut move. It’s not just good because it punches!

And as the previous paragraph hints at, it’s not even just a matter of getting the ‘best’ moves. You’ll need to optimize your skill set for different enemies. Strength-based enemies who punch slow and hard require different approaches from damage-tanking Stamina-based enemies, or Agility-based opponents who dodge into small attacks. And when you also start taking their secondary stats into account…

It’s a lot of mental legwork, is what I’m saying. Maybe I’m bad at this! I’m probably bad at this.

Options number two is that I made the wrong choice at the start.

Alright, we’re getting into petty territory now, but: having played Punch Club for a few hours, I can’t help but get the gut feeling that not all stats and builds are equal. Specifically, I can’t help but feel that agility builds are the ‘best’ builds.

See, Punch Club‘s battle systems work a little like this. Characters throw attacks at each other. Attacks have a chance to hit, and they cost energy from a limited, slowly-regenerating pool. And in theory, these systems interact with different stat-style characters in different ways. Strength-characters miss often and get tired quickly, but they hit hard. Stamina-characters miss often and they hit softly, but they can keep going forever. And Agility-characters hit softly and get tired quickly, but they hardly ever miss. Maybe this is intended as a Rock-Paper-Scissors-type trinity? It feels like it might be.

The issue is that characters don’t just have a chance to hit, they also have a chance to dodge. Given that they bring a dodging skill. Unlike blocking, which reduces damage, dodging just avoids damage outright. And the Agility tree, Way of the Tiger, is strongly focused on this, sporting good dodging modifiers and the best active dodging skill in the game.

THIS motherfucking move.

And you can’t beat an enemy if you can’t hit them, now can you?

In theory, the stats are probably balanced. In practice, systemic interaction effects seem to tip the balance towards Agility builds. The Strength stat increases energy drain on moves, and hit chance is calculated by Agility as compared to Strength and Stamina. The result of this is that non-Agility characters miss more often, both from low accuracy and from dodging, and get exhausted quickly with no benefit. Then the Agility characters nickle-and-dime back for tiny bits of damage, which add up over time and often knock enemies to the ground (which happens if you don’t have the energy to take a hit). Agility characters just whittle their opponents to death, essentially. Which is fine in that it’s the fighting style they’re meant to embody. But I just don’t know how to deal with this.

Again: this might just be me! It’s still on the table that I just suck at this. But from my fighting experience, it sure feels like Agility characters are incredibly hard to beat. Particularly if they also sport a little Stamina, it’s damn hard to hit them and near-impossible to tire them out.

Not *impossible*, but…

And even if this is the result of a Rock-Paper-Scissors system — if I lose so much to Agility because Strength>Agility>Stamina>Strength — then that still doesn’t help me. The incrementing costs of skills, and the various perks that lock your stats at certain values, means it’s impossible for me to change into a ‘new build’ anyway. I can’t pivot in this.

I mean, what I think is that every tree is supposed to be able to counter every other tree. Through careful skill selection. My experience so far is that it doesn’t really seem to work that way, but for the third and final time: this might just be me.

But then again, there’s always option number three: I keep losing because fight outcomes are more or less random.

Even with the ‘right’ skills, and with many skill points and high stats, I still lose really very often. And here’s the thing: when I then ragequit and reload — Punch Club uses an ironman-style autosave, but that’s nothing that Task Manager can’t get around, and no I am not embarrassed about abusing this — and then try the very same fight again, changing nothing, I’ll often suddenly win!

Punch Club‘s combat has a very strong random element. Which skills your fighter activates, when, in which sequence — all of this lies outside player control. You have absolutely no influence over this. Not even so much as a suggestion.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: when stats and skills strongly diverge, the odds tip toward or away from you, as appropriate. It is definitely easier to beat a scrub when you are a veteran, then when you are a scrub. But then again… I once lost an ‘easy’ fight because my guy didn’t seem to want to throw any punches. He just… stood there. Stoically taking hits and doing very little of anything. Throwing a token punch once every other minute. And then falling over.

It’s especially infuriating if this happens in one of the game’s many double-fights. Because in that case, even if you ‘win’ the first match by the skin of your teeth…

So, to summarize: the reasons I lose often are either ‘I suck’, ‘the game is unbalanced and I chose poorly’, or ‘random bad luck’.

Luckily, all these things can be overcome! …With time. Stats too low to throw a good punch? Just grind some more! Not enough skills points to get the skills you want? With enough time and effort, you can get everything, if you want! You lost the playoffs to a random fluke! That’s okay, little babby: you get to try again with no penalties. In three days.

Three days of grinding stats. Three days of doing the same skills training over and over. Three days of making sure my guy eats, and sleeps, and has enough money to buy slabs of raw meat and frozen pizzas to shovel into his muscle gullet. And three days of watching bars go up and down, and coloured orbs fly to and fro, for no better reason than to make sure you’re in optimal shape for your second shot at the prize.

And then the game randomly matches you not against the league champion, but against some random schmuck you can knock out with one hand behind your back. Because that can *happen*.

That’s, er… I’ll be honest. That’s not *my* idea of a good time.

Final thoughts

Yeah, this hasn’t gotten any better with my last plays. As far as I can tell, honestly, the only way to progress is to just keep going: increase my stats, hope I intuit the correct skills, hope I don’t get set up against Agility opponents, and… grind. Grind, over and over, for everything.

And I’d rather not. The website and the storyline suggest cool changes in gameplay and great comedic potential, but I just can’t stand this endless grind for much longer.

I’d rather hang out with my ‘girlfriend’ and her brother.

Punch Club looks really good, feels really nice, and it definitely has an interesting theme. So if you’re more grind-resistant than me, or just better at fighting, you’ll probably get more fun out of it. In this case, ten Steam bucks is honestly not an unfair asking price. I feel that you can get much of the same experience by playing Karate Kid on the background while you’re baking a casserole, but your mileage may vary.

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Jarenth was never a fan of putting wax on, and wax off. That just seems wasteful. Talk wax conservation tips with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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