Flame Amateur? Nah, I'm a FIRE PRO
In the modern video game landscape, the representation of pro wrestling in the market has been essentially dominated by the WWE 2K series. I've felt myself becoming a little jaded with the series in recent instalments, not becoming as heavily invested and almost buying out of necessity to get my grapplin' game fix. However, an alternative has appeared in the market and has quickly found a dear place in my heart. 2018 saw the return of the Fire Pro series with Fire Pro Wrestling World releasing on PC and PS4, and it is the most fun I've had with a wrestling game in a good long time.
The major draw for me was the game's partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, included as DLC on Steam and packaged with the PS4 version. The past couple of years has seen my New Japan fandom grow exponentially, rivalled only by my blooming love for Tomohiro Ishii. As such, having nearly the entire roster has been an absolute treat to play with. Whilst the WWE 2K series has a plethora of talented creators sharing their custom wrestlers with the world, I've always felt that they feel a bit out of place when trying to implement them into the Universe Mode, and their appearance feels slightly incongruous when placed with the rest of the roster. Being able to play as Kazuchika Okada with his signature theme playing, with a spot on likeness in both his face and intricate attires, just feels so incredibly satisfying.
Whilst the creations of the 2K series stand out for me, Fire Pro's blend much more seamlessly into the game. With the retro looks of the game, your custom wrestlers, and in particular those from the skilled creators in the Fire Pro community, fit much better into the existing rosters. Having Kota Ibushi battle a created Seth Rollins feels natural, especially with the game’s logic system. In short, the logic system allows players to influence how custom wrestlers perform, allowing them to programme the fighting style, along with signature combinations just like you see in real life.
Linking to this, Fire Pro Wrestling World very much promotes a calculated approach to playing a wrestling match. Whereas in the 2K series it feels like you can perform any number of moves you like from the off, in Fire Pro you are equipped with Small, Medium and Big attacks, with the idea being to eventually escalate your moves as you progress, much like the ideology behind the ‘King’s Road’ style of wrestling from Pro Wrestling NOAH from the early 2000s. Your heavier attacks will most likely fail if you try them within the early goings, but if you build up to them, you are have better odds of success. However, if you feel like going adventurous, there is still a small percentage chance that your big moves will land, and could pull out an ‘outta nowhere’ finisher, forcing you to debate the risk-reward of your tactics. One aspect of the game I especially enjoy is learning a wrestler’s moveset. For as long as I can remember, in the WWE games I know for sure that pressing a certain button will hit my signature/finisher after building up so much momentum, it’s just a matter of finding the right position, which is never too hard a task. In Fire Pro however, finishers and signatures are assigned to existing slots in the move-set rather than being separate. As I’ve found, it almost encourages a player experience similar to Super Smash Bros., with learning how your characters play and ‘maining’ them.
As you might have been able to pick up, there is quick a learning curve when it comes to Fire Pro. The game provides a mission mode that teaches the basic controls to get any player started. Moves are based on timing, with lock ups being decided by whoever inputs their command at the right time, and strikes needing to be thrown within a precise range. One minor critique is that this training mode focuses on the offensive aspect of matches, and doesn’t off much for defensive. Reversals aren’t really explained anywhere, and it took some looking up to figure them out. As far as I can tell, some reversals are automatic - sometimes for blocking strikes or if your opponent is too ambitious with going for a powerful move - and some are manual, needing to time them, but without an on-screen prompt. In regards to submissions, you can ‘crawl’ your character towards the ropes, but I mainly use button-mashing to escape.
That being said, once you’ve got your bearings with how to handle yourself to the ring, the actual gameplay is super satisfying. Every move in the game is made with a strong sense of impact to them, assisted with the audio and just how brutal some of them look. For example, to me, a lot of the slams and throws seem to have a sort of a floaty nature, with say a suplex seemingly having the same impact as something like a hip toss. But, with Fire Pro, I feel like I’ve dealt a lot more damage when delivering something like a German suplex, watching the sprites crumple onto the mat as they land.
So, what exactly is there to do in Fire Pro Wrestling World? The freeplay part of the game allows for pretty much all your traditional match types, as well as throwing in some zany Japanese classics in there too, namely Landmine and Barbed Wire Deathmatches. For those looking to expand their combat horizons, Fire Pro also has a couple of MMA-style modes. ‘SWA Rules’ acts much like what you’d see in the old Pancrase and PRIDE shows of Japan, with victory being decided by KO or ten-count in a traditional wrestling ring. ‘Gruesome Fighting’ puts players inside a dodecahedron cage akin to the UFC, with 3 minute rounds contested under MMA rules. ‘Mission Mode’ puts players in pre-set matches with specific goals, such as ‘Win via submission’ or ‘Achieve ___ match rating’, with each attempt giving a rank for you to go back and try to better yourself. On top of this there is an online aspect to the game, but I haven’t really dabbled in that, and from what I’ve gathered the PS4 version doesn’t have the best matchmaking.
I didn’t know whether I was playing a wrestling game or a dating sim, and I truly hoped it was both.
The NJPW partnership also gives Fire Pro it’s ‘Fighting Road’ game mode, where you play your career starting off as a Young Lion in the New Japan dojo. With each match you progress, training to boost your stats and constantly learning new moves to expand your arsenal from basic beginnings, with your victories moving you up the ladder within the company, and opening up opportunities to join one of its many factions. It’s here that you truly appreciate just how Japanese this game is. In between your matches, the story is pretty much a text-based JRPG, with you being able to select responses to conversations to influence your relationships with other members of the New Japan roster. Your character is in absolute awe of every wrestler they meet, leading to some truly bizarre encounters that it’s hard to find anything else but hilarity in. Before my character was about to fly off on excursion to the United States, I was stopped in the airport by Hiroshi Tanahashi, who came all the way just to wish me luck. I didn’t know whether I was playing a wrestling game or a dating sim, and I truly hoped it was both.
In short, I would say this has been the most fun wrestling game I’ve played in a good long time. The deep combat system makes every match engaging, and with the ability to scale up the CPU difficulty, there’s always a challenge to be had. Whilst I can appreciate that some players might be turned off by the more technical and demanding play style, if you’re able to stick with it long enough to hold your own, you’re bound to have a fun time. I’d say that if anyone out there is feeling jaded by the annual releases of the 2K series, Fire Pro is definitely a greatly enjoyable alternative. I’m having masses of fun playing local co-op with my brother, who has held not one, but two reigns of terror with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship as Haku. What’s more is that there is more DLC scheduled to release this year, with a ‘Fighting Road’ more for junior heavyweights, and adding more juniors from the New Japan roster, as well as ‘Fire Promoter’, where you get to book your own promotion. Again, I strongly suggest picking this game up if you’re looking for something different, I’m sure it won’t disappoint!