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Monday, September 3, 2018

Review: Punch Line (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

"See panties twice, cause the apocalypse." It's like a perverse flip of that old tagline from the TV series, Heroes: "save the cheerleader, save the world." More importantly, if there is a more out there tagline for an anime property, I've never heard it. Now, I've never actually seen the Punch Line anime (and actually didn't even know it existed), so I went into this game fresh, and came out of it with a healthy respect for just how clever it all is under that ridiculous tagline.

Across the entertainment industry, anime is well known for perpetuating what can only be called a fetish for women's underwear. If someone mentions "anime fan service" than your mind will generally jump to one of a couple of things; for "nicer" anime it means bikinis and beach scenes (in which case the focus is more on the boobs), or for the "seedier" edge it means short skirts and breezes or other mishaps that give you a good eyeful of what's underneath. We could have a week-long discussion pulling apart the implications of this fetishisation, but think what you will of it, it's there. It's also silly and ridiculous enough that it inspires much humour and parody.

But before we get to the fanservicey stuff; Punch Line tells the story of a boy who has had his spirit forced out of his body by another, and he's left to haunt his old apartment building. Unable to be seen by or communicate with his exclusively-female neighbours (aside from a ghost cat that acts as both helper and sounding board), and left with only the most rudimentary ability to manipulate his environment, our job as players is to find ways of "tricking" the neighbours into helping get our fellow's spirit back into his body. Along the way you'll also help each of the building's tenants with their own problems, and, in the end, save the world from a cataclysm.


The catch is, because the hero is able to move freely through walls and floors, and no one else can see him when he's around, you'll also have to work hard to make sure the hero doesn't end up looking at a girl's crotch as she bends down or stretches out, because, remember, see panties and end the world.

Punch Line is a parody of the upskirts and underwear fetish in anime, and it achieves that parody through the most extreme hyperbole possible. So powerful is a flash of panties that if our hapless hero sees one, he explodes in a truly spectacular nosebleed eruption (the anime code for "virgin loser overwhelmed by the sight"). So powerful is the effect that it knocks him out and, a few days later, a meteor hits the world and kills everyone. If that doesn't make much sense, in terms of causality, don't worry, because Punch Line doesn't bother explaining it for the longest time either. It's just something that you're meant to take in stride because it's extreme and surreal, and it works. It's fundamentally funny.

Clearly, it's is a none-to-subtle dig at how "exciting" a quick glance at underwear is treated in other anime - where in most fanservice it's the great "reward" or highlight, in Punch Line it's the opposite - it's so exciting that it causes a nuclear response and a game over. So, despite our hero having the kind of abilities (invisibility and walking through walls) that a normal fanservice anime would use as a carte blanche opportunity to turn itself into a museum for panties-in-action, in Punch Line it's a punishment.


It's not the only anime trope that the narrative takes a dig at. One of the neighbours is an idol character who also happens to be a magical girl, complete with a transformation sequence (where the magical girl loses her normal clothes and dons her "superhero outfit") straight out of Sailor Moon. The only twist is, each time this transformation sequence occurs, a little window pops up in the bottom corner of the screen showing the girl dancing around her room like an idiot before getting changed into her costume as a normal person would.

Every second scene is filled with something genuinely surreal in tone. Whether it's a character putting on a pigeon mask and doing a dance to try and cheer up one of the other characters (only for that character to interpret the mask and dance as a ritual that would allow her to speak to spirits), or another character trying to conceal a bear cub in her room pet by imitating its actions, to the point of eating a raw fish off the floor when one of the other characters questions her on why it's there, Punch Line rolls the jokes, puns, and wackiness in one beat after another, in a rhythm that becomes really quite intoxicating.

And yet, for all the humour, there are plenty of moments that are genuinely touching as well. As with the best comedy, Punch Line understands that the more you empathise with the characters, the more amusing their antics will be, so plenty of screentime is reserved for giving these characters human emotions and frailties, too. Coupled with the fact that you're spending much of the time deliberately trying not to look at underwear, and Punch Line ends up being nothing like what you might immediately assume from screenshots and the game's overview.


Punch Line is one of those visual novels that has extended bits of gameplay, like Danganronpa with its court scenes, or Utawarerumono with its tactics moments. In this one, you'll frequently need to string together a number of ghostly "tricks" (small actions such as manipulating power buttons or knocking objects onto the floor), that will, once combined, have the effect of causing each of the characters to behave in a set way. Clearly the creators of this series had spent a lot of time watching the classic Patrick Swazye and Demi Moore film, Ghost, because it plays much like that. I've I've learned anything from that film and this game, it is that it must be frustrating being a friendly ghost, and wanting to help out, but being barely able to make a pen fall off the table.

The puzzles of Punch Line are certainly not difficult; the Ghost Trick game from a few years ago this is not (oh what we wouldn't give for a new Ghost Trick title). Indeed, Punch Line is typically explicitly clear in what you need to do, and how to do it, and even if you are a little unsure, the room to make errors is incredibly limited. For example, in theory you're only able to manipulate a certain number of objects at a time, but this is a bit of an arbitrary restriction when the total number of things that can be manipulated is almost the same. For the most part Punch Line's puzzles are there as a illusion to convince you that this is something more than an end-to-end visual novel, which is a pity because there's a lot of room for them to become something really interesting. In the end, this is a visual novel and behaves like one, so it's best taken in that spirit.

The only real complaint I have is with how ugly Punch Line is. It is a truly, dismally unattractive game, with 3D models that look cheap and blocky, and environments that are small, cramped and lacking in points of interest. In a way it helps reinforce the game's subversion of fanservice tropes (i.e. they're not panties you'd want to see in the first place, so it's all the more amusing when a wayward glance at them sends the hero into an apocalyptic coma), but the otherwise excellent writing is let down by the weak presentation.


Punch Line is a effective as a satire and parody. It's obviously only going to appeal to people that are that immersed in Japanese culture that their sense of hyperbole comes across as amusing and surreal, rather than just silly, but then this is very much an insider's parody of a type of anime that only the most dedicated (and therefore, likely aware) fans of anime in the first place. For that niche Punch Line is pitch-perfect.



- Matt S.
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Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: Punch Line (Sony PlayStation 4)
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