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I've recently been in and out of an appreciation for wrestling. It's a 'funny' story. World War 3 was a trending term, as it tends to be, which led me to a wrestling review YouTube channel that I had forgotten. The group of crass Irish dudes throw in a litany of Simpsons and video game references, as they dismantle every segment they've ever watched. It's an insensitive, but entertaining viewing experience. Their video about the WWE pay-per-view with that trending name pushed me down another rabbit hole. Thank you, dystopian happenstance, I guess?
At the same time, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) released a new mobile game, called NJPW Strong Spirits. As I remember, Giant Bomb alum Alex Navarro was quite fond of this branch of wrestling that I personally know nothing about, so this seemed like the perfect blend of coincidence to dive into something new. The game is free to download, so there's no harm in checking, right?
Explaining what NJPW Strong Spirits is in an elevator pitch is a little awkward, but it's a gacha game at its core. Mobile games, ya know? There are slot reels where you acquire new wrestlers from the various factions in NJPW. There are tiers of rarity. Getting multiples will increase that person's rarity and stats. You can even buy a wrestler's very soul. That's their "shard" equivalent that you can hoard to push that character to a new tier, but it is hilariously presented. Other than that, you've seen this hook a dozen times. Now forget about this altogether, because the gacha element just gets in the way of the game.
The main gameplay of NJPW Strong Spirits happens in the Dojo, where the wrestler you train will participate in a season. Together with some selected training partners, your rising star will increase in one of five categories, boosting their stats. Each training session decreases health that needs to be replenished by resting. Low health will increase the percentage of failure, which does not increase potency and can result in injury. The game is adamant about pushing a good balance. There's a wholesomeness to NJPW Strong Spirits that is pretty endearing.
While this basic section of clicking buttons and numbers going up is fine, the best part comes from what happens between these moments. Every training partner you choose has a series of events that can trigger, presented in short visual novel segments. Depending on how you choose to resolve these stories, you'll receive a bonus or, rarely, get a negative consequence. You can't tell Sweets Makabe to wait on eating an ice cream and not expect that to be disastrous to their reputation. Technically, the stories are just choosing what stats to increase as well, but they're built in such a cute presentation. There is a fitting picture taken of every wrestler, as they record a guitar in a studio or have a lovely nap with their little dog. If you're just interested in the stats, you can skip the scenes, but that's robbing a lot of the magic in this game. For me, the visual novel elements are the best part of this release. I want Bushi to like me and ask me what kind of accessories they should pick to make an appearance.
As well as triggering random events, some training sessions can also teach your star new skills. Partners have a set of unique abilities that they can pass on, such as taking better bumps or specializing in a certain field. You'll need to allocate a set of limited points to unlock these skills, along with enhancing a moveset, to prevent you from just farming abilities. Instead, NJPW Strong Spirits focuses more on building a specific wrestler; one who will go to the top ropes any chance they get or just someone that will overwhelm opponents with combo strings.
You see, all that training is leading to your next match with your improved star. These sections, complete with some elaborate entrances, show matches in full motion video (FMV) sequences. If you do a flip off the ropes, you will see a clip of when that wrestler did that move on someone. It's not accurate to the people in the match, but there is an impressive amount of footage in this game. While watching repeat clips will get old fast, I do always watch every new opponent's moves. If there's one thing I learned about NJPW, it's that everyone there is as extra as they can be.
During the matches, wrestlers are building a gauge to unleash a finisher move. The goal is, still, to get that three count. This is the real test, to see if you've allocated your points correctly, as it is possible to survive a finisher, maybe even two of them. Getting there is, however, also the most frustrating element of NJPW Strong Spirits by far. Opponents are almost always at a small advantage and will kick out at something as infuriating as 2.99, only to pile drive your star into another existence. Progress in this game is incredibly hard to make, because losing a match also means not getting the bonus from winning, which carries over to the next bout in a snowball effect. This is where this otherwise quickly release breaks down.
At the end of your seasons, you will be tasked with winning the G1 Climax; the most prestigious event there is. Even with my best efforts, I've never made it, which means you'll have to repeat that same session and try again. In short, you'll go back to square one every time, which is where repetition sets in real bad. The end of a Dojo segment, which takes an hour, allows you to put your wrestler into a team that goes up against other players. Ultimately, that's what creating the unique wrestler is for: to create a build for player versus player (PvP) ranking. Sadly, that part of the game is as dry and barebones as matching with someone and seeing the result. Other than doing it for your daily objectives, there isn't a lot of drive to go head-to-head. The bonding and growing is where it's at. It's about the journey and not the destination, all that jazz.
NJPW Strong Spirits is silly; it's a very silly game. Having a wrestling game with dating sim elements and FMV segments is something to behold, for sure. This part is as endearing as it is entertaining. Unfortunately, the gacha element or, rather, the consequences of that system make the game too impenetrable to stick. Unless you're already dedicated to that branch of wrestling and their personalities, I don't see anyone pushing through this unique, but grind-heavy release, just to see more tidbits of powerbombs and top rope suplexes. That's likely why a lot of unlocks are geared towards fans, such as watching full matches by linking a NJPW account or collecting a gallery of pictures from official merchandise. I think this is what is considered being a mark. Even some of the progress is gated behind a paywall, so the limits of what's enjoyable for free are pretty visible upfront. NJPW Strong Spirits is, however, fun while it lasts. Everyone should try to get in the good graces of an annoying YouTube wrestler, who straight-up comes out with a chair that has a QR code on it, which links to their channel. Japanese wrestling is wild.
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