A doctor, a derby girl, a beekeeper, and a boy with a slingshot walk into a bar, but they're not the setup for a tired joke. Instead, they're members of a squad of vigilantes who have come to the location for the express purpose of kicking butt. As swastika-bearing banners flutter in the background and candles burn on a birthday cake, the four heroes knock the wicked out of a group of thugs in Nazi uniforms. It's all part of a day's work in Fist Puncher.
Fist Puncher is a brawler in the same vein as Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, and others from this neglected genre. It offers the same sort of experience you enjoyed back in the day, but with just enough modern refinements--including a thumping soundtrack that should get you totally amped to punch or kick anything that moves--to delight a contemporary audience.
You begin the adventure by completing a simple introductory stage, where you're walked through the basics. Characters can punch, kick, grapple, block, jump, or execute special moves, and they're also able to pick up objects and fallen gangsters and toss them across the screen as makeshift projectile weapons. Every move is easily accessed and perfectly suited for a gamepad such as the Xbox 360 controller, which is actually recommended with a graphic that appears on the intro screen. One good reason you should use such a device is because Fist Puncher maps a defensive roll to the right analog stick. You can spam that move as your character dodges out of the way of any attack or bad situation that might come his or her way.
It's nearly impossible to overstate the importance of rolling, which lets you easily duck into and out of combat. However, when it's time to get physical, that's when you need "rage." This temporary power boost is earned by collecting the letters that spell out the word and causes your character to deal significant damage. It's too bad rage doesn't factor in more often since so many of the letters that you collect from your enemies are just duplicates.
Once you've had time to familiarize yourself with the moves at your disposal, you leave the island where the game begins and travel east to the city shore. There, a map offers multiple routes, which you can follow to find kidnapped beauty pageant winners who hail from a number of different countries. Your goal is to rescue each of these damsels in distress before finally reclaiming the terrorized city from the clutches of the Milkman, a well-coiffed man in an off-white tuxedo who controls the local crime syndicate. Eventually, you can access a total of 50 stages, and you're allowed to revisit areas you've already cleared as often as you like in order to seek out Easter eggs, collectible cards, unlockable characters, and so forth.
You might also opt to return to familiar areas because characters gain experience points by defeating the ne'er-do-wells and thugs who seem to make up the bulk of the city's population. Heroes level up individually, and you can assign points toward their attack strength, defensive power, speed, and so forth. Each character's special ability also requires some attention, since you must assign stat points and perks to make your chosen vigilante's ability more useful. Dr. Karate has a powerful dash kick that allows him to dart all over the screen like a man possessed, for instance, while the lovely Hella Fistgerald kisses enemies that she has grappled and might even persuade one of them at a time to join her cause and fight other goons. Because all of the heroes have unique abilities and are enhanced individually, you and as many as three other friends who might wish to play by your side have to sink a lot of time into the game if you want to grow comfortable and adept with each character available.
Prudent character upgrades are recommended, even though you're not likely to ever have to wait all that long to gain another level. There are multiple mission types, so spending all of your points on attack power might leave you in a lurch when, for example, you suddenly have to speed through a toxic subway car on your way to defeat a cultist before the surrounding fumes overcome you. Ignoring the meter that allows you to more quickly recharge your special attack gauge could also come back to bite you when you head into a stage where you are riding a motorcycle that you can use to ram gangsters (but only if there's energy left on your gauge). These differing stage objectives add some welcome variety to your progression, given that most of the time you just need to point your character toward the nearest thug and punch the stuffing out of him.
One of Fist Puncher's strengths is at the same time its most obvious flaw. Since you need to complete so many stages to reach the closing credits, you're going to be trading blows with an awful lot of goons. That's something that can't help but eventually feel repetitive, particularly since the best strategy when you're facing bosses without support from other players is to swoop in and punch or kick a few times, then quickly retreat so that you can lick your wounds (with assistance from a special healing ability that you unlock almost immediately) before returning to the fray. Over the course of several hours, you'll probably find that you spend far too much time rolling around to avoid attacks while you wait for your strength to return. Thankfully, the game keeps things interesting by leading you through a number of ridiculous locations that include a nude beach, a strip club with sex-starved nuns, a hospital operated by a maniacal nurse, and so forth. There's really no telling what you'll find next.
The variety of thugs that you face is quite impressive. As you explore the aforementioned environments, you battle flocks of angry birds, homicidal scientists, exploding suicide bombers, and much more. The only real disappointment is that boss characters do repeat a few times throughout the adventure, plus a lot of them just look like larger versions of the more vanilla foes you battle elsewhere. You still run into new adversaries even in the last few areas, though, so the repetition never becomes as noticeable as it so easily could have.
Thanks to a lengthy campaign, a team of 15 unique characters--each with unique special moves--and four-player local cooperative play, not to mention the slew of creative surprises along the way, the game is able to serve as a meaningful throwback to an era when brawling mayors and martial artists cleaned up the streets of ailing cities. There may be plenty to laugh at, but Fist Puncher is certainly no joke.'