November 23, 2023
A retro-inspired, quirky absurdist RPG from Melbourne-based developer Andy Brophy, Knuckle Sandwich is a little bit turn-based, a little bit bullet-hell, and a lot of weird and wacky fun. We’ve been spoiled this year with excellent role-playing games, including the recent Earthbound-like In Stars and Time, but Knuckle Sandwich feels almost like an anti-RPG.
The game is chock full of minigames, its combat system rewards reflexes rather than levelling, and it subverts narrative tropes in unexpected ways – even subverting its own subversions. What we’re left with is a game with the flavour of a SNES-era role-playing game, but the texture of something wholly its own.
Knuckle Sandwich begins with the friendly Busdriver taking you into the Job Centre of the utopian Bright City, setting you up with an equally bright future. Things take a turn when the centre struggles to find you a suitable role, and you end up working (for free) at a rundown burger joint. Events get… weird… and you end up teaming up with a gang of housemates to take down a bunch of miscreants and ultimately save the people of Bright City.
The first thing I noticed about Knuckle Sandwich was its distinct Australian flavour. Bus stops in Bright City are marked by an orange PTV sign, magpies warble happily in the trees, and character dialogue is peppered with “mate” in such a natural way that it never veers into cultural cringe. There’s even an enemy inspired by the world’s most cursed ice cream, the Bubble O’Bill. It’s delightful to explore an RPG world set in such a familiar urban environment, albeit a quirky and fantastical one.
As the story progresses, you’ll be able to access more of Bright City and meet its extremely large cast of characters. They’re all wonderfully weird and hit just the right levels of humour in their dialogue. I particularly enjoyed a pair of arguing lemon-headed pals whose disagreement escalates into changing the font-style of their dialogue box. Much of the storytelling throughout this twelve-ish hour adventure is told with character facial expressions – particularly strong here is the player character, who looks woebegone and exhausted with much of Bright City’s silly shenanigans and goings-on.
Combat in Knuckle Sandwich is turn-based, but like most modern turn-based RPGs, there’s an active element to each attack. Regular attacks present you with one of a few kinds of combat bar with a reticule that moves along it. You’ll need to stop your reticule in the danger zone to land the attack, while hitting a smaller highlighted zone will cause a critical hit.
Status effects such as Sick or Weird don’t just damage you or lower your stats, but affect your ability to play the microgames. You might notice the combat bar suddenly warping, or your reticule jumping back and forth, making it more difficult to land attacks in a more tactile way than just telling you “your attack missed”.
Enemies’ regular attacks can also be Dodged with correct timing, but it’s the implementation of “Skills” that lends Knuckle Sandwich much of its identity. Similarly to Undertale, when you or an enemy casts a Skill, you’ll trigger a popup window and be launched into a WarioWare-style microgame. If you cast the skill, success in the game will deal more damage to the enemy. If your enemy has cast the skill, you’ll need to succeed to avoid taking damage yourself. These microgames cover a broad spectrum of gaming experiences: shoot-em-ups, memory games, top-down racers, and a tonne of other styles of play get a look in, all with their own distinct oddball flavour.
Achieving a “Perfect!” rating during an enemy’s Skill microgame not only negates their attack, but reflects the damage back onto them. This becomes absolutely crucial as the game progresses, since its levelling curve is a little unpredictable. By the midgame, my strongest critical hits were doing barely any damage to bosses with hefty health bars. Even accounting for party member Dolus and his massive Attack stat, applying buffs, and performing decently well in the timing challenges on the combat bar, I was spending ages on each boss encounter.
The bosses themselves are wonderfully creative with their own unique attacks, but dying in one hit if I missed a single Dodge made the novelty wear off after a while. It feels like the gameplay balance swings a little too heavily into bullet-hell endurance at the expense of its RPG mechanics.
There are a heap of nifty accessibility settings available that help mitigate some of the pain points in combat, but unfortunately, the only one that increases its pace is the option that skips encounters entirely. It would be nice if there was a way to scale down health bars to speed things along – hopefully this can be addressed in a balance patch at some point, though the restrictive inventory system may be more difficult to resolve.
Scattered across Bright City are little item capsules that hold consumables that heal, restore your status, apply stat buffs in combat, or deal damage to foes. Additionally, hidden items abound with various degrees of utility – you might find an accessory that enhances stat growth, a new weapon, or a rock.
While there is plenty to find, you’re only able to hold a very small number of items at once, which includes your equipped weapons and accessories as well as any key items you might need to progress. There’s a PC system a la Pokémon that expands your possible collection somewhat, but for most of the game, you’ll be coping with just ten slots (plus those from temporary party members).
There’s obviously an intended design decision behind Knuckle Sandwich’s restrictive inventory system, and I spent much of my time with the game grappling with what it is trying to achieve. An NPC in the first chapter prompts you to just not worry about tossing items and embrace “letting things go”, which on its own is a wonderfully anti-RPG sentiment – a genre infamous for its player base hoarding powerful consumables well beyond their expected use case.
In practice, having such limited space for items made me lose curiosity about the in-game environments. Aside from potentially unearthing a funny line of dialogue, there seemed little point in exploring each area to the fullest since most of them only held consumables that were worse than what I was already holding. It also took away from some of the enthusiastic delight that was initially driving me to check every tree and rubbish bin for goodies, and stopped me from hanging on to unique, kickass-sounding items like “A Cool Rock” in case they were never used and just took up a valuable slot.
Despite its gameplay quirks, Knuckle Sandwich is worth playing for the soundtrack alone. A bunch of musicians have come together to provide an eclectic symphony of chiptune, synthwave, and glitchcore tunes that work wonders to build the game’s atmosphere. You’ll also notice impeccable attention to detail in sound effects, such as the Animal Crossing-style mumbling in character dialogue or the chirping of crickets under a streetlight. Combined with its varied mix of lo-fi art styles and emotive animations, Knuckle Sandwich is presented absolutely gorgeously.
What Andy Brophy and the team have created is a game that feels absurd but not whimsical – it’s at times poetic and down-to-earth within its chaos, and nails a contemporary Australian brand of humour without being self-conscious. It feels like a Cheez TV cartoon made for adults, or an Aunty Donna sketch with the volume turned down. Once it’s had some further playtesting and tweaking with the games’ balance and systems, I can see Knuckle Sandwich joining the ranks of Frog Detective and Untitled Goose Game as an iconic Australian indie hit.
- Quirky and nostalgic RPG gameplay and worldbuilding
- Surprising, eclectic glitchcore presentation
- Tonnes of genuinely funny dry Australian humour
- Inventory system gets in the way of enjoying exploration
- Combat lacks balance, leading to overly long boss fights
Knuckle Sandwich is a charmingly absurd and lovingly crafted RPG adventure that delights in surprise. Its wonderfully nostalgic, SNES-like glitchcore visual and audio design constantly shifts style, and its rollercoaster of a plot happily sets up player expectations, subverts them, and then subverts them again. Unfortunately, the game is let down by a frustratingly restrictive inventory and some game balance issues leading to lengthy, repetitive boss encounters. However, Knuckle Sandwich’s charm and dry humour shines through at every step and is sure to leave you chuckling.