When it comes to video games based on combat sports, boxing is perhaps the most neglected out of them all, and this is quite surprising. There have been a few notable boxing video games, from Punch-Out! on the NES to the highly underrated Ready 2 Rumble Boxing on Dreamcast, and a few modest releases in the last couple of decades like Don King Presents: Prizefighter on Xbox 360 and even Rocky Balboa, which was a commendable video game compilation of all the films. MMA and pro wrestling have gotten consistent video game treatment, but as of now boxing remains neglected even as the sport itself has regained some of its glamour from yesteryear. We might not see a brand new 4K powered boxing sim anytime soon, but in the meantime, you can embark on an adventure as a boxing duck in Pato Box. Imagine if the classic Nintendo arcade game Punch-Out! was rebooted as a surrealist adventure; that’s basically what Pato Box feels like.
Pato Box takes place in a surrealist world where a champion boxing duck finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy involving a powerful crime organisation and a cast of colourful villains who aren’t necessarily professional boxers. The flat-beaked slugger faces the most unorthodox line-up of opponents ever seen in a boxing video game. The story is told in a black/white comic book presentation, heavy on noir themes and character designs.
The game world in Pato Box is vividly interesting and alive, especially during dialogue where the player is able to view the thoughts of other characters that the protagonist himself isn’t able to see. It’s a rather unique style of fourth-wall breaking which works quite well. As to why the hero is a humanised duck, it’s part of the existential surrealism that Pato Box uses throughout the narrative, and if you’re into manga, it is very similar to the style Inio Asano uses in his Goodnight Punpun series. The hero could very well be a boxing duck, perhaps he is simply perceived that way in his world, or perhaps deep down he simply identifies as a duck… any interpretation is possible really.
The writing is consistently engaging with dialogue expertly delivered in comic book fashion, with an offbeat cast of non-playable characters and bosses to interact with. The storyline has intrigue where it is unusual enough but doesn’t steer too far from crime fiction seen in pop culture, where boxing serves as the main premise and plot device.
Unique premise and presentation aside, Pato Box sports an impressive visual style which brings the noir graphic novel aesthetic to life thanks to smooth animations and crisp graphics. It may not technically be the most graphicly intensive game, but the black/white visuals are put to great use to animate a graphic novel to life, where players can interact with the environments and boss characters quite seamlessly. It’s one of those cases where the visual style of the graphics engine creates a powerful illusion of graphical fidelity without relying on framerates and polygon density.
As a video game Pato Box takes after Punch-Out!, right down to the simple mechanics: light punches, heavy punches, dodges, and blocking. Armed with these basics (and a few tricks along the way) the core gameplay itself is pretty simple, but is situated in a rather ambitious and complicated fighting game design, which is where Pato Box stands out as an overall experience; but not without some cumbersome moments. The main crux of Pato Box are of course the boss fights, who are not always other boxers but rather foes which bring rather outlandish fighting styles and attack patterns, and for the most part you will also be dealing with obstacles and projectiles within the fight area.
From the very first fight Pato Box tests your mastery of its simple combat mechanics where timing is everything. This involves painstakingly learning the attack patterns of the opponent and getting the timing down just right, as the game will mercilessly punish players for even the smallest slipup. Dodge or block even a nano-second too early and you can expect to get knocked down by a flurry of combination attacks. This is both great and infuriating at the same time, and not dissimilar to games of yesteryear where controls were dead simple but their execution within the demanding design pushed players to their absolute limits. If you’re among of the esteemed few who have defeated Mike Tyson on their NES then you’re more than ready for Pato Box.
The boss battles are of course rewarding in their presentation, design, and challenge. Each boss goes through multiple phases where their attacks become increasingly aggressive, and much like some of the notorious battles in Nintendo’s Punch-Out! these battles can feel a little on the long side, and if you get knocked during any phase then you have to start over at the beginning of the fight. Of course, checkpoints within a battle are commonplace in gaming now, but back in the golden age the very idea of it was pure heresy. Depending on what era you grew up playing video games in, you will either love or hate the checkpoint system in Pato Box. Even if you can live without mid-fight checkpoints it is still cumbersome that, if you decide to exit the game before facing the boss, the game forces you to replay a large portion of the adventure segment again.
While the boxing battles are the core of Pato Box, the adventure aspect is a large part of the game’s story mode, serving more than just a walking simulator where you engage in dialogue with NPCs. It’s a bit like playing a classic ‘90s FPS in third-person mode where you navigate mazes, traps, and puzzles. These aren’t relaxing breaks from the main boxing, as the navigation and timing of the traps can be very testing and demanding. That being said, these segments do spice up the gameplay variety and offer a different style of challenge to the main fights.
The music in Pato Box is perhaps the most underwhelming aspect of the whole experience, and while the musical style is consistent with the surrealist vibes, it still feels out of place during exploration and especially during fights. The tracks get boring and repetitive very quickly; they sound like something you would hear in an elevator or when you’re on the line with customer support.
Yet while the music is drab, the sound design is actually quite strong and plays a huge role in the game design. As mentioned, Pato Box is all about strict timing and execution, and so to truly conquer the enemy attack patterns, the fundamental thing to master is not so much seeing attacks coming but rather hearing them. When you react based on sound rather than sight, you’re able to react at the precise moment during each of the demanding fights. It’s very rare to see sound play an important part in the gameplay design of a video game, and Pato Box does this quite well, making you feel like you’re training for a real boxing match.
Pato Box on Xbox One is a refreshing and welcome boxing video game in a genre that has been starved for quite a few years now. The noir aesthetic is strong, the graphic novel presentation is fully realised, and the gameplay design is as challenging as it is inventive. An existentially vague boxing duck facing a criminal conspiracy sounds pretty crazy on paper, but Pato Box brings together a range of unlikely elements to create a memorable and challenging boxing adventure.