Despite any lack of knowledge about human biology on my part, indie game studio Tomatotrap’s small-world beat-em-up Plasma Puncher has crafted an unrelenting but entertaining time sink. Delightfully punchy and enduringly challenging, this colorful quest to fight off an impending force of doom and destruction was lovingly built over the course of two years by founder Eder Cardoso and programmer Fred Lima, while João Victor Barrosa provides the head-bobbing soundtrack.
A Lone Cell on A Mission
You play as the last white blood cell standing, a dreadlocked, red bandanna-wearing, Rambo-looking tough guy, defending your host body against an onslaught of little virus critters, brought on by a googly-eyed monster nucleus, aptly named “Mother-Microbe.” The opening cutscene was cute, yet energized enough to provide just enough background to get me pumped to pummel. It was up to me to save whichever body I was in from succumbing to sickness or biological ruin.
As you fight wave after wave of ground enemies, like Squidy’s and Jumpy’s, and dodge airborne shooters, like Dropy’s and Wingy’s, you save up Golden Particles to spend on health and upgrades, while also collecting Bluish Particles to charge your ultimate attack, the “Super Ultra Hyperbolic Attack,” or SUHA, for short. After breaking through Mother-Microbe’s outer layer, an inner level ramps up the difficulty with tougher enemies and less opportunities for power-ups. The close quarters of Mother-Microbe’s inner level can definitely be felt, almost to the point of claustrophobia. New enemies exclusive to this level leave little room to maneuver or err, and less chances for health and temporary special weapon drops.
Enemies act as individual puzzles, each with their own respective timings and weaknesses; crowd a few different kinds in one spot and strategizing becomes a must. The difference between a timed jump or dash could very well be the difference between reaping high rewards or losing a few lives in quick succession. Touching an enemy while it stands around won’t hurt, but the only way to evade is by dashing through them. Otherwise, the collision physics prevent you from walking or jumping through enemies, making it easy to get overrun. But as stressful as those moments are, the heat of battle and making it through or not was enjoyable enough for me to not mind dying every so often. I learned, I adapted — I might’ve bought an upgrade or two — and I fought better onwards. It’s honestly been a while since a game has beat me down for me to improve at it. And that’s playing on Normal! Extra game modes include HardCore, with no saving between waves; and Time Trial.
Picking Up Power-Ups
New upgrades make dealing with said enemies easier, but only if you have the foresight and skill to collect and spend for the right upgrades and combos. Unlockable skills include the ability to airdash, stomp, and throw enemies, culminating in a Hyper Combo. Upgrades for more health and longer special weapon durations are also available.
Story progression took some getting used to; instead of having each wave be a step closer towards the goal, each wave completion served more as an auto-save point. Instead, the plot progressed each time SUHA was used, depleting Mother-Microbes health by one each time. That being said, any upgrades bought were only saved after starting the next wave. If you happened to buy an upgrade soon after, then die, you would have to rebuy the same upgrade. Sometimes, the chance to try out new upgrades was welcomed, allowing for experimentation and testing of certain combos or special movies. On the other hand, buying an upgrade, then dying right before the current wave finished was more frustrating. Fun, but still Fus-Ro-Dah inducing. Chalk it up to having to redo an entire wave of progress.
Incidentally, the wave countdown was simply marked off by a progress bar with no numbers to provide an accurate count. The only indication outside of the progress bar growing was the bar flashing when it was nearing completion. Up until that point, there was a general feel of “beat up as many as you can” until the wave finishes. Easily overlooked in the heat of battle while embroiled and overrun by all the bacteria, but almost tedious when on the last life or two and not wanting to lose all your progress. At the very least, clearing waves earned you hats and different hairdos. A nice added bonus to make sure your hard work didn’t go uncompensated.
The world of Plasma Punch is dark, yet vibrant. Everything, from the backgrounds to the enemies, to even the protagonist, all starkly contrasts with everything else: it’s easy to keep an eye on things. There’s something to be said about how the protagonist shines brightly against all of the enemies and hazards on the field. As for the field, the injuries that the googly-eyed Mother-Microbe sustains every time the protagonist uses his SUHA special are funnily cute enough. A bandage here and there turns into a few black eyes and some stitches across fissures, all of it a macabre reminder of how strong you are. Of course, the Mother-Microbe is taking over, so it could be getting what’s coming to it and it’s army. A matter of perspective, perhaps.
Speaking of perspective, players prone to motion-sickness might find the level design somewhat dizzying. Going back-and-forth constantly shakes the screen, and the effect is compounded during the inner level, with only a smaller surface to walk across. Something to watch out for as I had to stop and take breaks every now and again to keep myself from getting sick. Take it easy when playing and get used to the circular level design before really going for it.
The soundtrack is solidly groovy. Though I was skimming through the background music in the game menus, I was fond of the sound design: each punch gives off a satisfying thwack, thump, or bang. Enemies ‘poof’ with more of a ‘squish’ as they explode into green splashes and disappear. Rockets, drills, and other special weapons go off with an actual satisfying explosion or drilling sound. It’s small details like these that tie a world together, and the sound direction here cements it all.
While it doesn’t revolutionize the genre by much, the circular beat-em-up Plasma Puncher is guaranteed to provide some cartoon violence goodness through solid gameplay and mechanics. Fighting through wave after wave of enemies may prove challenging, but the thrill of slowly beating down the big bad opposing force while doing away with its cronies is satisfying enough. To top it all off, it’s all wrapped together nice and tight through its characteristically stylized art style and sound design.