Not too many VR games for the PlayStation 4 take advantage of getting your body moving. Though a few are best played on your feet, physical activity is mostly limited to moving your arms and Move wands to simulate different activities, or operate game mechanics. Knockout League emulates the rigors of professional (well, professional-ish) boxing as you duck, dodge, and weave your way through punches, jabs, and uppercuts. Knockout League may not be the most technical recreation of boxing this side of EA’s Fight Night but it has heart, broad appeal, and is really great about getting your butt off the couch.
Knockout League takes after gaming’s most famous boxing series, Punch-Out!. Like Nintendo’s classic, you compete from the point of view of a rookie, affectionately known as “Youngblood”, who participates in the unconventional boxing competition, Knockout League. Participants have come from all over the world in search for glory, which is mostly a narrative justification for the diversity of the combatants. They include a warrior princess, a mad scientist with robot legs, and a giant octopus to name but a few. Just like in Punch-Out!, the gist of combat involves understanding a fighter’s tell and knowing how to avoid the attack, and go in for the kill when you see an opening.
All fighters are not created equal, which means every match is a challenge of trial and error, as you try to figure out how to respond to someone winding up their left arm, bringing a leg high up in the air, or crouch low on the ground. Some wind-up moves can be interrupted by watching for a visual cue, indicating an opportunity to pre-emptively strike and cancel out their attack as well as get in some free hits. Failing to avoid a punch will take away health from a meter displayed on the left side of the ring until its depleted, knocking you out. The same goes for your opponent. However, each knockout will cause the fighter to add new tricks to their move set, which is great for keeping you on your toes and prevents the fights from getting boring or too predictable.
Don’t expect to get into the ring and feeling like Rocky Balboa before taking on Ivan Drago. It’s a good idea to spend some time with the training and tutorials before anything else. Hitting the gym will give you a good starting point to know how Knockout League plays. The coolest part of the game is the controls. The PlayStation Move wands offer a 1:1 simulated boxing experience, meaning your in-game boxing gloves jab at the same speed and direction as your hands. You don’t even have to use the face buttons or triggers to do anything. The simplicity of Knockout League’s controls adds to the immersion and thrill of being in the ring.
I only wish there were more outright benefits of the training mini-games. Your coach passionately teaches the odd/even number patterns for pad work, challenges you to control punch rhythm on the speed bag, and maintain stamina by bringing together punching, dodging, and blocking. The thing is, these three extracurricular activities don’t have much an effect on the one-on-one fights in the Knockout League bouts. I had hoped that by putting time into these training bits might provide boons, like boosting glove damage or making it easier to avoid attacks. After all, learning to control your punches in training isn’t likely to stop you from flailing your arms in front of you like a crazy person when you’ve broken through your opponent’s defenses. That being said, if you mix up your attacks, switching from jabs, swings, and uppercuts, you’ll move closer to “the zone. It's a special mode, indicated by the glowing of your gloves, giving you a limited amount of time to throw powerful and unblockable attacks.
What makes Knockout League kind of special is its inclination to get people up and off the couch. Because I'm so horribly out of shape, my first post-Knockout League afternoon was filled with sore arms and legs. Many VR games don’t require a whole lot of body activity to play, and I don’t have to tell you that this hobby easily promotes a sedentary lifestyle. I myself am guilty on multiple occasions of using load screens and cutscenes as a chance to double fist chips and soda. And even though the training mini-games have a tenuous connection to the main game, a calorie counter keeps the track of how much you’ve burned over the course of the session. The game does leave me and my VR headset a sweaty mess, but I sure do feel good about getting some decent cardio in my day. Knockout League is by no means a replacement for a full cardio workout but it’s a darn good reason to squeeze a little more movement in your day. The PSVR could stand to have a lot more fitness-minded games like this in its library.
For all its attention to the sport of boxing and encouragement of healthier living, the game has a lot of good-natured charm. It never takes itself seriously, which is probably why an octopus and pirate fill out the roster of challengers. Each character is designed to showcase their personality and unique fighting styles, be it the mad scientists’ robot legs that make him more of an MMA or Muay Thai fighter than a traditional boxer, or the warrior princess whose moves can sometimes be difficult to predict because of her theatrics. It does often look like the developers spent more time designing the characters than much else, given the unexciting design of the arena and its gathering of patrons. On the other hand, you’re going to be far too focused on the fight to notice anything else, so it's not that big of a problem.
Grab Games has done a great job of marrying the winning formula of Punch-Out! with virtual reality. Learning how to handle each fighter’s repertoire of attacks takes patience and memorization but on the plus side, you’ll get a great workout along the way. It’d be cool if the mini-games offered more advantages to the player but that’s no reason to ignore this fun and energetic sports game.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.