Billed as a “time management simulation” with the catchy look of a tap-happy strategy game, Punch Club is well decorated. Animation touches are splendid, carrying a sentimental pixel aesthetic. Beat boxers jam outside of the family-owned grocery. Gym treadmills are coveted by certain workout fiends. Even areas covered by the interface hide small touches. Stapled together with pop culture—color-coded ninja crocodiles, mini Cobra/Kickboxer movie posters—the world feels lived in. It’s lively, yet set a rotten ghetto with few alternatives to fighting.
Punch Club casts players in the role of a young fighter whose one room home barely has essentials. A sagging couch serves as a bed in front of the living room window. A bulky, wood-grained, barely used TV sits in the room’s center, situated near a worn chair. Thrift stores wouldn’t accept any of the furniture if donated. There’s a fridge opposite the couch on the same wall, but there are dings and scrapes on its face. If any food is inside, it’s luck. Paychecks and expenditures added up to a positive number that day.
The local gym is unsightly. $10 per visit is extravagant yet necessary to increase muscle; the home gym is only a makeshift push up rug in the garage. Forget in-ring hand pad training with a professional coach. That’s too expensive. Even then, the ring made of dirty burlap and lazy stitching is on the verge of collapse. A job delivering pizza earns a pithy paycheck of $30. While walking to work (bus fares are pricey), living in a high crime area means a chance of being mugged. Food is accessible from a corner mart. They stock meat, frozen pizza, soda, or energy drinks. There’s a name for that: a “food desert.”
Punch Club becomes a trap of seemingly inescapable poverty. Fighting earns limited income—a tattered ring and 15 or so odd spectators won’t pay bills. There’s no money in scrub leagues and no way to become a pro without ranking up. Pizza delivery pays better, but siphons happiness. It’s a miserable existence. Punch Club rapidly becomes a cycle of eat to work and work to eat. Anything in between is luxury.
The escapes from financial strain are all illegal. Sleazy bars host back alley brawls and a creaky abandoned warehouse allows unsanctioned tournaments funded by the mob. The latter fights pay. Earn hundreds fighting for the criminals, or eek out an existence delivering specialty pizzas—whose spices may also be illegal.
DUCK AND COVER
I can’t help but read Punch Club as social commentary on America. Maybe it’s the social distance of Russian development team Lazy Bear Games. The wackadoo narrative about mythical medallions, dead fathers and revenge chips away its effectiveness. A pinch of Terminator and Rocky IV references merely cause an inoffensive, negligible smile.
No matter the surrounding circumstances, the draining rut of training, working, and sleeping—for hundreds of in-game days—while resting on couch cushions is never glamorous. The parable is inseparable. Warning screens shout, “You can’t work anymore because you’re too tired or hungry.” It’s too real. Entering tournaments only to be knocked out because there never appears to be enough time, money, or efficiency to become stronger is infuriating. Punch Club’s point is made—whether it wanted one or not.
Certainly, there are ways to succeed. Climbing out from single digit bank accounts and into fame is a break. Then, additional challenges rush onto the shoulders of a young brawler. There are commitments to fame and relationships while a poofy gray-haired fight manager turns a profit on the easily manipulated lead. Work begins to pay, yet is siphoned into the reignited cycle of training, sleeping, and eating. Money solves nothing. Luxury proves the same.
As a game, Punch Club borrows the charms of Chinese mobile developer Kairosoft, whose inescapable Game Dev Story (and other business simulation darlings) latches on and won’t let go. Kairosoft games are slathered in attractive colors—usually neon pinks, yellows, and greens—and take place in white collar careers.
Punch Club’s denizens are lucky to have shirts, let alone collars, and at times they don’t even wear shirts. Punch Club proves clever even if it appears unwilling to go all in on the expressive symbolism, drawing people in with promises of an imitated fortune before steamrolling their dreams in debt.
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