If you want to make an auspicious debut, set out a challenge. That's what developer Lazy Bear Games did with its fighting tycoon simulator "Punch Club." The team promised to release the game before its Jan. 25 launch if players could finish a version modified for play by the Twitch audience. It took fans 36 hours to complete it.
But is "Punch Club" worth playing? That's a more complicated question. It easily hits the notes of other job simulator games such as "Game Dev Story." The indie title is fiendishly addictive as it puts players in the role of a young fighter who, as a boy, witnessed his father's murder. Now he's a novice boxer, and the player is following in his footsteps.
That involves tons of time at the gym as players train and boost their stats in three categories: strength, agility and stamina. By focusing on a particular trait, players can customize the hero's fighting style. They can win by making a boxer who can knock out rivals with brute force. Or, they can design a defensive fighter who can absorb blows, tire opponents and knock them out. Lastly, they can create an agile fighter who is capable of delivering quick combinations and dodging punches.
The ability to choose tactics and moves gives "Punch Club" depth. Unfortunately, players won't be able to control the protagonist during a match. The fight ends up being a spectator sport as the computer calculates who wins the brawl.
All of this would be part of a decent boxing sim, but what makes "Punch Club" infinitely compelling is that it follows the fighter's life outside the ring. Players earn money through battling in the squared circle, but that cash has to go toward buying exercise equipment or food. Much of the game is spent grinding out money in construction work or pizza delivery so that players can afford time to train, eat and rest.
The formula has a way of landing its hooks into players as they want to see their hero climb the ranks and succeed. For the most part, the gameplay works well until players hit a wall, in which they face a fighter they can't defeat. And as the slow process of improving a fighter becomes a cycle of drudgery, "Punch Club" turns into a bore. The other problem is that the interface can be clunky and the game's response sluggish. The delay when switching between activities is frustrating, especially in a title where time is at a premium. Elsewhere, the lack of helpful information such as food in the fridge or available power-ups leads to unnecessary trips that makes the early part of "Punch Club" a chore.
Lazy Bear Games tries to smooth over the rough edges with humor and nice visual touches. Players will notice references to "Pulp Fiction," "Under Siege," "Clerks" and other pop culture flicks. There are even some laugh-out-loud moments when players run into certain ninja reptiles.
More effective than these quirky flourishes is "Punch Club's" plot. It's another clever twist to the job simulator format. Players advance a narrative where the fighter is trying to move up the ranks, win back a magical amulet and solve his father's murder. The journey will take players to places that "Rocky" fans will remember, but it's more fascinating to see how the gameplay changes as the hero becomes more successful and ends up a bigger name.
The game and story evolve together as players deal with success and try to avoid the pitfalls of failure.
With its constant grind, "Punch Club" is far from perfect. But even with its flaws, it has a way of latching onto players with its weird story and humorous slant on the fighting scene.
* * ½