While the poor presentation is hard to ignore, Fire Pro Wrestling World has the heart (and gameplay) of a champion.
Like a plucky underdog against a dominating monster, Fire Pro Wrestling World is rough around every edge relating to presentation and usability, but if you’re able to get past all of that, there is championship gold hidden beneath the surface.
One of the biggest strengths of Fire Pro Wrestling World is its character creation system. It’s simple enough that anyone can start to go in and create themselves, their original characters, or duplicate real-life people or fictional characters, while providing the more experienced character creators with enough details and nuance to fine-tune the wrestlers to nearly identical facsimiles. You can even set up the AI for the wrestlers to try and set up matches the way that you want them to, although that particular aspect is incredibly intimidating to me.
The creation suite, at least on PS4, does get quite sluggish occasionally, especially when opening sub menus with lots of options. The insane number of head options for your create a wrestler, or assigning an attack that has a lot of possible moves, such as heavy strikes or grapples are the worst offenders. Additionally, a few options, like copying and pasting colors or rearranging clothing layers aren’t readily apparent, meaning I had to spend some time looking up how to navigate some things on the internet. (Triangle on the color to select the Copy/Paste, and holding X on a layer to move it up or down, for the record.)
Luckily, if you don’t want to have to deal with that, you can just look at characters other users have created. Similar to the Steam Workshop support on the PC version, there’s a website run by the publisher that users link their PSN accounts to. While there, you can search for created wrestlers, ring mats, and referees, which then get installed to the PS4 version after a relaunch. Admittedly, once you have them downloaded, you have to assign them to a wrestling league and a stable before you can use them in game.
The gameplay, though not without its flaws, is pretty fun. Grappling with the enemy is simple enough, just walk up to someone to tie up. Then, as soon as the hands meet for the tie-up, press a light, medium, or heavy grapple. If you succeed, then you perform a move. Fail, and get countered. It’s very simple, but can lead to some real intense back-and-forth fights simulating wrestling matches. It’s quite easy to go on a tear, getting a bunch of offense in, then get popped by a lucky counter as your opponent starts to come back.
Striking, on the other hand, is a bit of a crapshoot. Your wrestler has to be standing in just the right position to land any of their standing or running strikes, and it’s often not clear how or why something has missed. Dropkicks are some of the biggest offenders, where the sprites seem to clip into each other, but the dropkick performer has landed flat on the ground, and the intended dropkick receiver is standing unharmed. Even top rope moves aren’t immune to this effect, as while the game will try to magnetize the trajectory if the opponent is close enough to the turnbuckle, the line between success and failure is pixels wide.
A lot of these smaller issues held up in the UI and gameplay just seem like they're there to make it difficult for newcomers to jump in. Why it takes multiple menus to get other people's created wrestlers ready for use is a bizarrely large amount of effort for something that seems like it should be much easier. It just feels like a holdover from the game's early-access roots, just burned to a disc and being sold in actual stores.
The big addition to the PS4 version of Fire Pro Wrestling World is the Fighting Road story mode, coming to PC at a later date. Officially licensed by New Japan Pro Wrestling, it’s a fairly straight-forward retelling of NJPW’s 2017 year, hitting the high points like the return of Minoru Suzuki and Suzuki-gun, Tomoaki Honma’s spine injury, and the ongoing saga of Bullet Club’s Kenny Omega and CHAOS’s Kazuchika Okada, but inserting a wide-eyed rookie player character into the mix.
The recreation isn’t perfect, due to the fact that anyone who isn’t exclusive to New Japan’s roster does not appear. This locks out most of the Bullet Club Elite sub-faction, as well as just under half the competitors in the 2017 World Tag League. It also makes for some weird swaps and substitutions, as the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles are held by Zack Sabre Jr. and Takashi Iizuka when fought in the story, as opposed to the Killer Elite Squad. Even wrestlers who are in the game aren’t immune to substitutions, as Takashi Iizuka takes the place of Zack Sabre Jr. in the G1 Climax tournament, and pre-Flamboyant Juice Robinson is more often than not replaced by one of the older New Japan legends.
In between matches you have the chance to boost your character’s stats, tweak your appearance, and change up your moveset. Your character learns new moves over the course of the story, so you can set your wrestler up how you want, be it as a heavy striker, agile luchador, or anywhere in between.
The story seems rather linear, or at least I couldn’t figure out how to branch it significantly. My first time through the story I seemed funneled into joining the “Main Unit”, or the faction for people who don’t have a faction. After going through the requisite Young Lion training and foreign excursion system that New Japan follows, I returned and started teaming with people like Togi Makabe, Ryusuke Taguchi, and the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi. Your match ratings over the course of the story presumably dictate your final bout, but again, it’s rather unclear what does and does not matter through the story.
I assume something has to dictate how your story ends, because after spending the entire story chasing after the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, held during the story by The Rainmaker Kazuchika Okada, and gobbling up every single other heavyweight belt in New Japan, my final bout was defending the IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Tetsuya Naito. Once you complete the story once, you can restart, being given the option to skip the training and jump straight into joining one of the other major factions in NJPW, except, and most glaringly, Bullet Club.
Most of the Bullet Club isn’t the only thing missing from the story mode, as the sheer number of typos, completely misspoken dialog, and other simple grammatical errors seem to indicate a proofreader was also missing. Names seem to be the biggest problem, as tournament graphics and dialog boxes that reference characters like “Tomohiro Isii”, “Michael Elgan”, and “’King of Darknes’ EVIL” abound throughout the story mode. At one point, IWGP officials indicated that I would be defending my Tag Team championship against Kota Ibushi. It took three matches, up to the point of the actual 1-on-1 tag match for the game to catch up and realize it meant Intercontinental Championship.
It’s these tiny problems that add up to the appearance of being rushed to capitalize on New Japan Pro Wrestling's newfound international successes. It’s unfortunate, because with a little more time, a little better UI, and a few more localization passes, this could easily be the best modern wrestling game available. And yet, even with all that, it still seemingly is the best modern wrestling game available. It just doesn’t do much more past that.