Review: Panda Punch

28 Dec 2022

Retro-style games are all the rage these days. And side scrolling platform games were one of the things retro systems were best at, right? I know I like them, at least. So it only makes sense that lots of these are still being made today. And just like the old days, there is a wide range of styles and quality with these games.

This time, let’s take a look at Panda Punch, one such retro 2-D platformer, published by Ratalaika Games and developed by Ninja Rabbit Studio for PC, PS4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Switch, the latter of which was played for this review. Are we going to be punching pandas, or a panda punching things? Let’s find out.

Fox? Punch

Well, to get that introduction question out of the way, the answer seems to be neither. While the game’s extremely brief introduction does describe the main character as a “little red panda,” it looks more like a fox with a raccoon tail. After starting the game, You see the main character, whose name is Zeep, get attacked by robots. He escapes and informs his father, saying his arm was injured. So naturally, the solution is to create a robot punching arm for him. After this, the game begins proper, with a map screen showing various different regions of a large island.

For the most part, that’s all the story there is. After defeating the bosses marked on the map you do get a few more tidbits, including that the robots you encounter are controlled by aliens. Whoa, deep stuff. But you have to play through 16 levels before you even find that out. Before that, you don’t really even know what your purpose beyond punching robots and… moving boxes.

To be fair, Super Mario Bros. didn’t really have a story, at least not that was given within the game. But I still think they could have given a bit more information up-front here. The aforementioned introduction available on the title screen just says you’re going to “explore cool locations” (such as a forest and jungle) and “become a hero and save the world.” Even in SMB, if you did read the story, you knew what your goal was right away, to defeat the king of the koopas and save Princess Peach (Though initially in the US release it was Princess Toadstool). Here you don’t even know that. It’s just robots controlled by aliens.

Move Box

As far as gameplay goes, it’s about as basic and generic as it comes. The game consists of a sequential series of levels. Despite the world map appearing to have some branching paths, it’s 100% linear and there are no choices to be made. The only option besides playing the next level or selecting a previous one to go back to is to visit the smith (who is Zeep’s father), who can take common and rare coins you’ve collected to increase your max health and damage.

Initially Zeep has a very limited move set. You can jump, punch your robot punching arm (which actually feels more like Simon Belmont’s whip in Castlevania), and push boxes. Later you’ll gain more abilities, like being able to pick the boxes up (Wow-ee!), but for a good long time, that’s all you can do. The levels themselves do start very simple and gradually get larger and a bit more complex, but don’t really offer much in the way of mechanics. You’ll mostly just walk around and push boxes onto buttons, which will remove bigger boxes and allow you to progress. It gets very boring very quickly, especially with the very sparse sprinkling of enemies. Your main enemy most of the time is actually spikes, rather than anything that actually moves.

If that wasn’t fun enough for you, the level design can get pretty frustrating in lpaces. Aside from the basic “put box on button” puzzles that won’t really strain your brain cells, the levels feature multiple bad game tropes, mainly the classic “Leap of Faith” and “Getting Over It.” The game often expects you to jump or fall down below what you can see on the screen, with very few clues as to what will be below you (the “leap of faith”), and often offers long sequences of annoying jumps where one wrong move will have you fall all the way down to the bottom of the level and have to do the entire thing over again (“getting over it” – a level style in some games where the platforming is difficult and errors will make you do large amounts of it over instead of killing you).

The game isn’t always like this, but it happens enough that I would drop my Switch down to the floor in frustration. The other level mechanics are as simple and basic as they come. Pitfall platforms that drop down a little bit and make you fall down before returning to their original position (Seriously, they just move down a little then go back up; it doesn’t look like you should fall through), elevator platforms that move up and down, and spikes on the walls and floors.

The only break from this gameplay is when you reach a boss level. The first boss is a small hovering robot that periodically shoots at you. The “boss” is barely larger than the player and doesn’t come across as particularly intimidating aside from requiring more punches to take down than the enemies you saw before. Defeating it will earn you a gem of some sort that Zeep’s father will use in a brief event scene to enhance your abilities, in this case unlocking the ability to pick boxes up instead of merely pushing them.

All in all, the gameplay manages to be as generic and boring as it could possibly be. It doesn’t have any of the charm, fluid control, anything like power-ups, or anything else interesting to give the game some personality. It’s really just lacking anything that makes you want to keep playing after the first few minutes.

Pixel Dirt

The graphics are… graphics. They are decent enough, seemingly taking some inspiration from games like Terraria, but still kind of lack inspiration. There isn’t really enough variation in the graphics to keep things interesting. You’ll stare at generic forest terrain for an hour or so, and when you reach the next area – the jungles – it looks basically the same except the boxes are damaged and the pitfall platforms look a bit different.

Key informative elements like signs pointing where to go tend to blend in with the surrounding terrain or background, often leading to the YOLO leap of faith moments I mentioned before. As you continue forward there is a bit more variation, but with the first two environments being so similar, it takes a really long time before you see anything different.

The audio experience doesn’t fare much better. The music is… again, not awful but not particularly good or interesting, either. The music loops are fairly short and you’ll get tired of them well before they change. They also don’t fit very well with the game’s scenario, in my opinion. As you slog through the forest, you’re listening to this very chill happy tune as you punch alien robots in a forest.
The sound effects barely exist. Your punches make this “doof” sound that seems as if it was ripped from an NES game… it sounds like the punch in Terminator 2. DOOF DOOF DOOF. And that’s about it, the only other sounds are a boing when you jump and a damage reaction sound.

Punch Me Now

What else is there to say? I guess the game works, with little to no bugs, which is good, at least that aspect is polished. But there’s little else good I can say about it. At best it’s a very boring platformer with no charm or substance, and at worst it’s throw-down-your-controller frustrating. The enemies are sparse and boring, and it takes too long before you gain new abilities that would give any depth whatsoever to the game. Unfortunately, I really find myself unable to come up with a reason to recommend this to anyone.

~ Final Score: 4/10 ~

Review copy provided by Ratalaika Games for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured imaged sourced from official Steam page.