(Reviewed on iPad)
Do you like puppets? Do you like punching? Most importantly, do you like punching puppets repeatedly until they shatter into pieces? If the answer to these three questions is a firm yes, then you might well want to give Puppet Punch a look; it’s a free-to-play iOS game by developer Mech Mocha which is out now on the Apple App Store.
However, while Puppet Punch has satisfying mechanics and inspired art style which are interesting and intriguing at first, unfortunately, the game is let down by repetitive shallow gameplay loops, continuous advert interruptions and a design which, in my opinion, relies a little too heavily on microtransaction support. It’s a solid game, but one that’s let down by questionable design choices and, crucially, one that lacks that vital addictive gameplay left-hook to keep you wanting to punch on.
Pablo: First Wood
Puppet Punch is styled as a cartoony puppet theatre-themed action game; our puppet-punching pugilistic protagonist Pablo has to beat down all manner of cartoonishly demonic puppets swooping down and chucking things at him from the theatre’s roof and wings. The aim of the game is simple – batter whatever’s dropping down onto Pablo’s head by tapping on the screen to control Pablo’s flying fists of fury.
Puppet Punch’s touchscreen controls feel particularly tight and well designed – which for a game based around the concept of punching rapidly descending wooden assailants, is certainly a good thing. Punching attacks feel fast, accurate and snappy; tap anywhere on the screen and Pablo will send one of his elastic boxing glove-clad limbs hurtling towards the spot immediately with no discernable lag or delay. The onscreen action is cartoonish and satisfying, and the punch effects and that ever-so satisfying wooden crunch that accompanies your fist smashing through another fragile puppet body is always very pleasing.
There’s also some basic but slightly more involved tweaks on the basic punching formula introduced early on as well; punching enemies with a spiky shield will damage you, and you have to wait for these to disappear first before hurtling your fists of fury at them. In addition, various power ups will rain down from time to time – punching these will temporarily grant Pablo special abilities, such as invulnerable golden gloves or score multiplying ones, or trigger extra money bags to whirl around the screen for a brief period.
Although the satisfying control and feedback of the punch attacks are absolutely the game’s strength, Puppet Punch’s art direction is also worthy of mention. The art style and character animations all have a great deal of charm to them, and this simplistic visual aesthetic definitely sets it apart from Puppet Punch’s peers despite feeling a bit on the twee side at times.
The game’s essentially an endless puncher – there are no levels per se, but instead each round is themed around a different cultural identity and theme. Each round has a backdrop which is themed to a different region – Europe, Japan or India. These backdrops present various scenes of castles and landscapes from Japan, India and Europe, and each backdrop comes with its own corresponding set of puppets to bash – i.e. you fight Punch and Judy puppets on the European rounds, whilst Asian dragons and demons make up your attackers on the Japanese ones etc.
As a nice end of round climax, a boss puppet will appear for you to engage in gentlemanly fisticuffs with. These are particularly cool looking, and again themed to each stage’s geographical theme. The two I’ve seen are either a multi-headed Hydra-like dragon, or a spider/octopus hybrid, each having their own slightly different attack patterns and move telegraphs to learn.
Punching Below Its Weight
Cool, so the punching mechanic is well tuned, and the game looks nice too, the enemies and backdrops are interestingly themed, and there’s frequent boss battles to break up each round. What’s not to like?
Well, although the game is definitely fun, it’s simple design means that you will get tired of it quite quickly. It’s a solid physical action take on the endless runner genre – an endless puncher if you will – but it crucially lacks that addictive ‘just one more go’ quality that make games such as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride so moreish. Within only a few minutes of play, I personally felt that I’d seen pretty much all the game had to offer, and after several hours of playing, there still just wasn’t enough here to hook me and keep me coming back for another go.
Perhaps the reason for that was because the game doesn’t particularly convey how you’re progressing very well, and when you do get to grips with the progression system, it feels really unsatisfying, and largely slanted towards making microtransaction payments to progress.
What at first looks like a numbered level or world map is actually just the upgrade/ranking tree, and unfortunately it operates in a frustrating way. Here’s how it works; when playing Puppet Punch, you will earn XP, coins (the in-game currency) and, very rarely, ‘Mechs’ (the game’s hard to come by secondary currency, which is more or less only obtainable by paying real world cash, or watching a plethora of ads).
You earn XP naturally as you play, but unfortunately no matter how much you earn it feels rather meaningless, as the problem is that even if you hit the required XP cap, you can’t level up without first completing three specific mission objectives. These are usually something like ‘destroy X number of puppets with Y’ or ‘use power up X on boss Y, Z number of times’. However, unlike say Temple Run, or Jetpack Joyride, where the mission objectives function as bonus incentives for the player to aim for as supplementary rewards, the missions in Puppet Punch are essential to levelling up and making progress, which makes them feel like chores.
Plus, what’s more, unlike other titles, these can only be skipped by using Mechs/real cash, which can leave you totally ground to a halt if you don’t want to open your wallet to progress. Frustrating to say the least.
When you actually have got all the required XP and completed the rank missions, that should be it right? Wrong. You actually just unlock the opportunity to buy the upgrade, which after what can be quite a long slog feels incredibly disappointing. These upgrades nearly always seem to require a hefty number of Mechs to unlock, so unless you’re willing to fork out some real world moolah, then you actually can’t access those previous rewards you’ve been working towards.
What’s incredible is that even if you’re lucky enough to win a power up’s constituent parts on the dodgy wheel of fortune, then you still have to buy the power up – even though you have all the parts! There’s this constant feeling that the game is always changing the goalposts while you’re playing, which just feels unfair, and it quickly eroded any determination I had to keep chasing further mission rewards.
While you can earn more Mechs by completing achievements and chain-watching advertisements, the payout is usually paltry in comparison to the effort and time required to complete the usually ridiculously long-term achievement requirements, and sitting through ad after ad to get a single Mech each time, it just feels unbearably dull. In other words, if you aren’t inclined to open your wallet to Puppet Punch, it’s going to quickly start feeling like you’re not going anywhere…fast.
What’s more, when you do go up a rank, earn the ability to unlock upgrade power up and, finally, purchase it with your hard-earned Mechs, you discover that they are all pretty much one-off temporary boosts. While these boosts are undeniably helpful – such as flame shields to protect Pablo from all attacks for a limited period of time, and blasts which clear all current enemies offscreen – as they are in limited supply and tied directly into the game’s microtransaction system, they just feel like unsatisfying add-ons. You never really earn anything permanent or get new abilities which offer an interesting new spin on the standard punching gameplay.
Having said that, there is one exception to this; you can unlock a special gun hat power up – known as a Bullet Bamm – which adds some new swipe-gestured controlled projectile attacks to Pablo’s standard punching repertoire. In fact, these swipe controls are so much more comfortable on your hands in comparison to having to repeatedly hammer on the screen with your fingers to punch, that it’s a shame that shooting the puppets isn’t the main gameplay mechanic. Nevertheless, even though the Bullet Bamm changes up the formula somewhat, it doesn’t really invigorate things to a massive degree.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game is the fact that although the various puppet enemies are interesting visually and nicely themed to each stage, as they are all just reskins of the same core enemy types you’re essentially just punching away at the same enemies each and every round. The Indian puppets have the same attacks, moves and telegraphs as the European and Japanese ones. With only a couple of different basic enemy types in each round, they quickly become a bit of a blur after a short while.
It’s the same situation with the boss puppets. Likewise with the standard puppets, there’s not much strategy to fighting these bosses – you just need to rapidly punch them as fast as possible when their shields are down. Over multiple plays, they quickly become more of an irritating nuisance to have to deal with rather than being a fun challenge. Like with the standard enemies, you’ll grow tired of the boss characters just as rapidly.
Unless you’re exceptionally good at the game, or you have deep enough pockets to keep shelling out for more Mechs to buy another continue, then it’s hard to make it past the early rounds without having to resort to spending Mechs and real world cash. Pablo has five heart bars that represent his health, and although you do earn back a heart for every round successfully completed, and your first continue is free (providing you watch yet another advertisement) I personally found it hard to make it past the first few rounds before getting a game over.
Speaking of deaths and game overs, you have to watch an advert if you want to continue after dying, and then after that you have to pay Mechs to keep going.
You have to watch so many ads if you want to keep playing without spending money that it quickly becomes tedious, intrusive and detrimental to the experience. You’re essentially just playing the same stages and fighting the same enemies over and over again for as long as you (or your wallet) can bear.
Looking up at the distant upper echelons of the upgrade progression tree, it’s possible to unlock new backdrops to play on, but from the game’s slow rate of progress, it looks like it would take forever to unlock them without paying cold hard cash, and even though the backdrops are nicely designed, I doubt it’s worth toiling away for them. You just keep going until you die, but as the game feels pretty much the same whether you’re on the first round or the third, there doesn’t feel like much point to continuing after a while.
Puppet Punch has some really cool things going for it, unfortunately, it’s severely hampered by some pretty big problems. Perhaps if there was less of a focus on microtransactions and pop-up advertisements, and more variety to the levels, enemies and gameplay, then this could have been much more special and unique. It’s a shame, because for all its cheery colourful charm and tight controls, it ends up feeling like just another pay-to-win grindfest. It’s fun, but either your time and patience will take a battering on the ropes whilst you play, or your wallet – you decide which.