Ever wonder what it's like to be a fighter? If you'd like to experience the life, Punch Club thinks it's the game for you. Let's find out if this fighting strategy/simulation is worth lacing up the gloves for.
Your life in Punch Club starts out with a brief cutscene showing your father, who was himself a fighter. After he's inexplicably murdered, you're dropped into the present day where you're a carefree fighter who doesn't have much of a life for himself. After some waltzing around town you'll soon join a rookie fighting league, make some friends, and work to unravel the mystery of your dad's murder.
Because Punch Club is a management simulator, you don't actually play out the fights yourself in, say, Street Fighter style. Instead, your input controls everything outside the ring, where you need to set yourself up for success. You control your player using the Circle Pad and use the touch screen to interact with the game's menus. Aside from moving around town, you can also check your fight registration, review your skills, or see your progress on the game's branching objectives.
You're a no-name chump, so you'll have to work your way to the top the hard way. You're weak when you start off and have no money and few abilities. Three main fighting statistics — Strength, Agility, and Stamina — dictate your abilities in the ring. High Strength means you deal a lot of damage but use up a lot of energy with your moves. A high Agility stat means you're accurate with your hits and dodge a lot of enemy attacks, while Stamina represents your ability to take a lot of damage from foes.
During fights you'll watch your player and opponent duke it out. After every round (which last a few seconds each), you can choose to swap out existing moves for others, which is the extent of your interaction. Thus, the fighting segments are actually rather boring, akin to watching two computer players face off in Super Smash Bros.
As you win fights you gain tokens that are used to learn new moves. Aside from the vanilla Balanced moves, there are three other fighter paths that each correspond to one of the fighting stats. The game advises you to choose one of these and work to level it up, rather than trying to be a jack of all trades.
In addition to the fighting stats you must manage several other statistics to keep your life in balance. Health, happiness, hunger, and energy are all affected by your actions, and keeping them juggled isn't easy. For example, you can sleep to gain energy, but this drains your hunger meter. When it's time to train you can level up slowly using your home gym or pay to train at a better facility. In the midst of this, you have to keep track of what day your next fight is on, and deal with random events like thugs robbing a store when you walk into it.
Punch Club lets you choose your own story path to an extent. As you become a better fighter, you choose if you want to do things by the book or take a seedier path. Once you meet friends and start a relationship, spending time with your girlfriend can cut into your workout time. Though this all makes for a good simulation experience, some may find that it starts feeling tedious rather quickly.
Everything is cyclical in this game. You have to work at your job because you need money to buy food because you can't work out if you're hungry, but if you don't work out you can't win fights. It's a constant process of seeing which stat is low — I'm out of energy. Better go home and rest. Oh, I can't rest because I'm hungry. But I don't have any money for food. I could go work for money, but I don't have energy; you have to deal with these conflicts. At its worst this cycle could trap you, forcing you to restart the game.
What makes this an issue is that your stats decay at the end of each in-game day. This means that even if you've worked up enough cash, food and energy to train at the gym, those stats you just spent all that time earning drift away. Because time passes when you move between areas (the alternative is spending money on the bus, and since cash is at a premium that's not an option) this decay happens regularly.
On the positive side, we can't say enough good things about the aesthetics. There's no 3D present, but the sprite work is top-notch and looks like it'd be right at home on the SNES. The music is phenomenal and features some of the best chiptune tracks you'll hear on the eShop. Punch Club features campy humour and lots of classic references to complement this retro feel, which are decent, but combined with the modest writing keep the game from having its own strong identity.
Before 3DS, Punch Club released on Steam as well as mobile platforms. To address the stat decay issue, the developer updated the game on PC to include an Easy mode that removes all decay. The fact that this wasn't included in the 3DS version months later is a notable oversight, as it would improve the game for more casual players.
Punch Club has a fantastic soundtrack, great 16-bit art, and a good amount of content going for it. We can't help but state, however, that this game quickly evolves into a grind, and thus we only recommend it to committed fans of this genre. You'll spend a good amount of time tediously raising your fighting stats and tending to individual meters instead of feeling like you're making choices for your player's life. This isn't too bad in short bursts, but it makes the game feel more like a chore than fun at times, and the lack of Easy mode means stat gains are never permanent. The fights themselves are also rather dull and slow, especially early on.
There's something glimmering in Punch Club, and it's a shame that it's not more fun for general audiences. Hardcore management fans should have a great time here, but we'd caution casual players to stay away unless they enjoy the tedium of everyday life.