We felt baited. The panda in Panda Punch was clearly not a panda, and we were ready to write a sharply worded letter to the Daily Mail. But of course it’s a RED panda, looking suspiciously like a fox, so we got sheepish, put away our scented stationery and got on with playing the thing.
Aside from the taxonomy confusion, you know where you are with Panda Punch. It’s a Ratalaika Games platform-puzzler, which means a reasonably short playtime, a tiny hit on your wallet, 1000G within an hour, a single gimmick, and entertainment that lands somewhere between mild and rather-good-really. Panda Punch duly obliges on all counts.
You play a red panda, caught in an explosion which mangles your bamboo-eating paw (do red pandas eat bamboo?). So, you head back to daddy, who happens to be a whizz with an anvil. You are now a bionic red panda, packing heat with an arm that acts like those comedy boxing gloves on a spring. It’s time to get revenge, and that means platforming action and a series of bosses.
Panda Punch presents rather well. We’re in pixel-land again, which is to be expected at the £4.99 price, but these are some lovely pixels. The main character has plenty of charm, and the levels are sufficiently colourful and varied, particularly as you wander to a new biome. While the first boss feels like it’s been tossed out in an afternoon, the others are impressive and screen-filling. And then there’s the soundtrack, which is as catchy and kinetic as you’d hope.
The platforming is pretty decent, too. We’d have taken a slightly longer and taller arc to the jump, so it didn’t feel so stubby, but the precision and collision detection are all on point. If you mistime a jump it’s your fault, particularly as Panda Punch goes out of its way to be generous: snag a paw on some spikes and the game will look the other way.
It’s the combat that lets the side down. Panda Punch, as you’d probably guess from the title and the bionic arm by your side, is a brawler. You punch your enemies rather than shoot them. But not once did the combat feel satisfying, and there’s a few reasons for that. The first is that the developers Ninja Rabbit Studios can’t figure out an enemy that would make the fisticuffs interesting. Either an enemy is a punching bag, walking up to you and being easily dispatched with a spam of the attack button, or they fly about and generally act like a pain-in-the-arse. There’s nothing inbetween.
There’s no enemy diversity either. Oh, Panda Punch pretends there is, occasionally updating the sprite sheet and making a robot into a different shaped robot, but the mechanics underneath are the same. So, shooty-turret, walking enemy and flying enemy are the order of the day here, and Panda Punch is crying out for a larger cast.
The kicker (puncher?) is that enemies occasionally feel like they cheat. Spamming an enemy with attacks will, on occasion, leave a small window for the enemy to attack. We’re not sure what creates this window – spamming the button harder seems to work, until it doesn’t – but when you have three hearts and rare checkpoints, an unfair ‘hit’ can be painful.
The levels in Panda Punch are simple enough. You need to reach an electric transmitter-thing that looks like a pager from the ‘90s. There’s a punch token hidden in the level too, should you want to go on a collectible hunt (although we didn’t find a use for them, outside of the odd achievement). More useful is the cash strewn about the level, which can be taken to your dad back in home-camp to buy some life and power upgrades.
Well, we say buy some upgrades, but perhaps it should be singular. Panda Punch is the most mean and stingy of all games in terms of shop purchases. We completed the game and managed to buy just one of each upgrade. We’re not entirely sure why: either Panda Punch wants you to grind away at levels for yonks, or it didn’t have that many upgrades to offer. Regardless, we didn’t exactly have many levels to benefit from these purchases. We’d have preferred it if the shop hadn’t bothered.
We’re indifferent-to-negative on the levels. Very occasionally, a level will spark some interest: a sequence of switches gets us backtracking around the level, finding out what they unlock, perhaps. But most of the time, they’re blank and uninspired, using the same tricks. Blocks need to be punched, dropped or carried onto switches, which unlocks a part of the level that you may or may not have recognised in the glitchy flyover that follows. Platforms move, fall away or phase in and out of existence. And enemies are dotted around the map.
Unfortunately, much of Panda Punch feels like the rest of Panda Punch. While the biomes are a welcome change of background, they don’t add much to the pot. The enemies change their coats, and the obstacles remain the same. There’s the neat addition of some story-based upgrades, but they either make minor differences to how you play, or are a key to a new lock. The first upgrade allows you to carry blocks that you could originally punch anyway, and a punch-jump and roll-dash are just a means of reaching unreachable places. They don’t really shift up how Panda Punch plays.
One last quibble. There’s something amiss with the level design. It just doesn’t feel right, like they have been randomly generated and then touched up afterwards by a human being. There are large stretches where nothing happens at all. You have to wait an age for moving platforms to reach you, to the point that you can miss that they exist at all. Some areas require you to make leaps of faith, but then scatter spikes on the destination platform, making it a panda-based game of Russian roulette. We just can’t imagine a human making the layouts.
Panda Punch is fine, we suppose. If you have a fiver in your pocket, and a love of (red) pandas in your heart, then it will tickle you for the hour it takes to gain its Gamerscore, or the three hours it takes to fully complete. But it’s one of Ratalaika’s more mediocre offerings, as it eats, shoots and leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
You can buy Panda Punch from the Xbox Store