Marketed as a boxing sim tycoon management game, Punch Club is the story of a fighter working his way to the top in order to avenge his father's death at the hands of a mysterious red-eyed man. It’s presented via endearing retro visuals, leaning heavily on nostalgia and pop culture references. There’s a coach called Mick, a girlfriend called Adrian, and everyone from Tyler Durden to Sub-Zero shows up wanting a piece of the action. It’s a shame this is by far the most interesting facet of Punch Club. The story and gameplay have little substance, with a disjointed second half that feels slapped together and highlights the lack of player interaction in its combat. Maybe you don't know what I'm talking about now, but you will when it's over. Believe me, you will when it's over.
Punch Club’s gameplay revolves around scheduling. A fighter needs to eat, sleep, and earn money to meet daily needs. After a quick intro cutscene and tutorial, players may explore a town map at their leisure. New locations are gradually unlocked and offer a few quests as well as repeatable side jobs to earn cash. The trade-off to side jobs is time. Every day that passes decreases attributes which need to be trained up again at the gym. Trying to earn a substantial amount of cash before commencing any training won’t work; the game has astute checks and balances to prevent power gaming such as muggers who will attack anyone that can afford a Happy Meal.
The three attributes are strength, stamina, and agility. Focusing on one area is highly recommended. Developing a fighter’s skills costs a separate currency earned from fights or sparring. Since the cost goes up for each successive skill purchased and there’s no reset button, it’s wise to plan ahead by browsing through skill trees carefully. Each type of fighter seems as valid as any other, and even the skill trees for a particular attribute can produce multiple variations. There’s a certain fascination imagining what a fighter can achieve at his full potential in any of these fields.
The combat system lets Punch Club down. Rather than directly control the fighter, the sole involvement on the player’s part is to manage a fighter’s skills depending on how the match is progressing. Or at least, that’s the theory. In reality nothing even approaching tactical thinking is required. As my character acquired more skills, I assumed I’d need to counter special abilities and create new strategies, but the combat never evolved to that level. About halfway through the story I realized it was never going to, and making in-fight changes proved to be unnecessary. Once a set of decent skills has been acquired, victory is determined by the attributes trained beforehand. My participation was limited to pressing the button that initiates the next round. It’s frustrating to have virtually no impact within an actual fight and realize the end result would be the same if I placed a drinking bird over the mouse and went for a coffee.
The halfway point is where the pacing takes a massive nosedive. Punch Club goes on a sudden rushed detour, locks you in a snowy log cabin, and says ‘you know that scene from Rocky IV? Well you have to do it without the montage!’ Oh joy. Upon returning home, the town map is basically abandoned and all daily requirements relocated to a single area (making an earlier walking skill bonus worthless). There are no more tasks beyond this point, no quests to break up the monotony; it’s a single continuous grind.
The plot suffers around the halfway mark too. Story beats are completely nonsensical because they lack context, offering a payoff without a setup. Hey remember that relative of yours? He’s back! Oh and he left. Probably should’ve mentioned that bit first. Honestly it’s as if Punch Club just runs out of game. The ending is so abrupt and unearned that you’d be forgiven for reloading a previous save to be sure the game hadn’t glitched.
Punch Club wears itself out like a fighter with a low stamina score. The love of fighting movies is plain to see in the numerous references, but for all its affection for the subject matter, the game is simply underdeveloped. There’s little management in this self-proclaimed boxing tycoon management game, and this issue is only intensified when Punch Club demolishes the supporting pillars of the well-balanced life sim aspects to put all the weight on its impotent combat.