Before you even ask, the answer is yes. In Punch Quest you will get to punch things. You will get to punch a great many things – skeleton knights, flying skull-squids, bloodthirsty bats, trolls, fireball-spewing imps and hovering phantasms. The auto-running template hurls your medieval hero headlong in their direction and asks you to punch your way through their inhospitable ranks. These beasties certainly aren’t queuing up to shake your hand, after all.
The controls are simple and elegant, with no virtual buttons overlaid, mercifully: tap the left side of the screen to jump and the right side to punch. Punch Quest initially seems like a mindless button-masher released on the only platform that offers no tactile pleasure in compensation for said mashing. The latter point is in fact a legitimate strike against Punch Quest – jackhammering your right thumb against a hard piece of glass is a recipe for a numb digit – but the ‘mindless’ part couldn’t be further from the mark.
Playing Punch Quest, at least with any degree of skill, requires sharp reflexes and tactical thinking. After just a few minutes of play, you wake up to the fact that merely surviving doesn’t translate into high scores, as it does in, say, Jetpack Joyride. You must keep chains going, landing a punch – even if just a leaping jab at a torch on the wall – at appropriately short intervals. If a couple seconds pass without a punch landed, the chain resets and is automatically cashed in for points. Taking damage short-circuits your chain in the same fashion.
Once you start to realise the numerous tricks available to keep the chain flowing, the game becomes a juggling challenge. Jumping right as you collide with a grounded enemy will juggle it up into air where you can punch it ahead of you. As long as its tumbling body collides with an enemy farther down the line, it contributes to your chain. Punch a skeleton to bony splinters and a follow-up punch can send his skull bouncing like a cannonball across a 2D battlefield into the next enemy, again prolonging the chain. Miss a punch or jump clear over an enemy and you risk not closing the distance to your next enemy before your chain resets.
The act of punching isn’t just about retribution either. The game may be an auto-runner but adding variability to your character’s speed is a stroke of genius that multiplies gameplay possibilities. Hitting the punch button at slower, measured intervals causes the momentum created by each punch to gradually build your hero up to a full-bore sprint, while unleashing a flurry of rapid-fire jabs slams on the brakes. Punch Quest’s platforming challenges – spike strips, flammable booby traps, and columns ascending to hard-to-reach treasure – demands that you become adept at adjusting your momentum on the fly.
The controls are remarkably precise, with one notable exception. Occasionally you encounter an egg that can punched open to start one of two palate-cleansing minigames. One spawns a gnome that you send tumbling through beehives atop pedestals of various heights while clouds of wasps swarm toward you; in the other, your hero mounts a laser-shooting Velociraptor and rides him through a prehistoric sequence full of crashing magma balls. The raptor minigame would be one of the game’s highlights – and would be a stand-alone iOS treat in its own right – if its unforgiving platforming weren’t sabotaged by unresponsive jump controls. If you happen to be firing your lasers when you attempt to jump, the game ignores your input and you go tumbling into spikes, at which time you’re hurled back into the regular Punch Quest scenario. The gnome’s jumping behaviour and spin attack feel equally difficult to marshal effectively, and the score-chasing player will grimace each time the alternating minigame prepares to hatch a gnome.
There are a host of power upgrades and character customisations (ok, hats) to be purchased with Punchos, the game’s collectible currency. This allows the game to be free-to-play, as players can purchase additional Punchos to spend on loot, powers and boosts. Settling on which three powers you’ll add to your loadout will depend entirely on your preferred play style and stomach for risk. The game isn’t pushy about its IAPs and you never feel like you’re punching your way through a barrage of pop-ups asking you to drop cash on Punchos. Punch Quest isn’t just good for a free-to-play game. It’s good, full stop, infused with humour, depth and the most charming violence imaginable. Unless you’re a skeleton knight, in which case the violence is offensive, troubling and needlessly graphic.