Punch Club is a training simulator that follows a boxer on his way to the world championship and beyond. On the road to that championship you’ll face the harsh reality of training, working, eating, and sleeping. Balancing your needs and sacrificing your wants for your dream is what it’s all about. Will you spend that hard-earned money on groceries or a trip to the gym? Is the frozen pizza you’re eating decent enough or should you upgrade to steak? Now that you’re out of money will you waste time working a job or take your chances in the underground fighting club to earn some cash? These types of decisions are frequent in Punch Club and while they seem novel at first they lose their luster, like a boxer that runs out of steam in the late rounds.
Punch Club is one-part life simulation and one-part RPG. Training your fighter and making sure they get the right amount of food, sleep, and money is just one half of the game. The other half dives into training your fighter, learning new moves, winning fights to progress and so on. This becomes a rhythmic feeling of work, train, sleep, fight (or whatever process you use) and that feels oddly satisfying. It’s like getting a grip on life and understanding how important a routine is to your success. That is, until you run out of money or need food or break an arm. These little moments, while interesting in their own right, feel more forced than anything. The excitement of a new event or a problem to solve is greeted with a sigh rather than a smile as their tedious nature becomes overwhelming.
Speaking of tedious, let’s talk about the fighting in Punch Club. For a game that is focused on fighting, the fighting is boring. Fights boil down to picking the moves your fighter will use in the fight and watching them swing away while taking or dodging hits. In between rounds you can switch out moves to change up your strategy but that’s about all the control you have. On top of that, the fights seem to be sporadic in nature. Just because your stats are better than another fighter’s doesn’t mean you’ll win. Now look, I enjoy MMA and I understand that an underdog can win with a good strike or a lucky kick, but this feels different. Spending all of your time to pump your character up to see them lose to a pipsqueak feels like you’ve been cheated. Even when I had the opposite happen and beat an opponent that was much stronger than me, I felt like I won in a dirty, shameful way. The fights didn’t feel like an underdog winning. Instead, it made me feel like the stats didn’t really matter.
What kept me coming back, at least at first, is great look of Punch Club. The pixel art and chiptune music do a lot to make you feel like your back in the 90s playing a SNES classic. That look and feel seems like a good fit as the game is oozing with references to pop culture from that time. While a reference or two can be funny, Punch Club comes across as a game that relies on its references to be funny in any way. Ninja turtles, pizza delivery jobs that involve Casey Jones, obvious Rocky references, a shopkeeper named Abu, and character that acts just like Tyler Durden are just a few references you’ll run into whether you want to or not. At first I found myself smiling at the references, then I found them irksome, then I started to look for them in every little thing I saw, and finally I found myself ignoring everything in the hopes of making it just go away.
In a nutshell, Punch Club acted like a stamina-fueled boxer and wore me down. Over time I found myself loathing the training process I originally felt happy progressing in. What started as a fun progression from nobody to star became a tedious task of increasing numbers that may or may not affect the outcome of a fight. I found myself performing the same tasks to get the same results and then watched those results not pan out how I expected. Stats also degrade over time if you don’t work on the same stats in the gym. There are upgrades that stop degradation but their cost makes them hard to warrant as other purchases seem like better investments like a home gym or better food. Is this simulation realistic? Sure, the game had me wondering if I should build a better diet or waste money on the equivalent of steroids and just go for it. Is that fun to actually play? No, not really.