Fire Pro Wrestling Avatar Review (Xbox 360)
The Fire Pro Wrestling franchise has been around for a couple of decades now, and it has always provided something different than the usual crop of North American wrestling games. There's been a depth of modes and creation features unparalleled in comparable games, and the simplicity of the presentation has imbued the series with a retro charm that provides a great deal of replay value. Add to that a gameplay engine that is full of depth, thanks to its progression-based moves and grappling, and you've got a game that's been tailor-made for wrestling fans.
This legacy makes it all the more unfortunate that the Xbox Live Arcade release bearing the same name is such a disappointment. You would think that adding avatar support, online play, leaderboards, 3D visuals and some exaggerated charm would build upon what came before for the Fire Pro brand, but the developers at Spike Chunsoft have actually watered down the experience so much that it loses a great deal of its depth and caters poorly to any potential audience — casual, hardcore or otherwise.
Right off the bat, it's important to clarify that this Fire Pro game uses avatars and avatar-looking characters in this game, and you'll quickly outfit your avatar in order to fight in matches. This is an important decision the developers made, as the action is very floaty and cartoonish because of it. Potentially, this could have been an interesting direction, but the systems at play are ultimately what make the wrestling in this downloadable title so bland.
The greatness of Fire Pro Wrestling gameplay in the past has been derived from the absolutely insane amount of moves you could execute and customize, and the fact that these moves would progress organically throughout a match.
For the uninitiated, Japanese wrestling has a much different cadence to that of wrestling in North America. Matches in Japan typically start slowly and methodically, with basic strikes and rest holds. Both performers are essentially telling the “story” of the fight (working a leg or an arm, for instance). Eventually, matches escalate into bigger moves (suplexes, piledrivers, powerbombs), and then they finally get into crazy town with aerial attacks, top-rope spots and power moves. Finishes come out of nowhere, too, making matches totally kinetic and unpredictable near the end.
The Fire Pro games of the past have all had this progression in the moves, and there was a distinct linkage to correctly managing your stamina and taunting at the right time. You couldn't execute moves until you had built up enough momentum and weakened an opponent in the right way.
Unfortunately, this XBLA release opts to simplify things immensely, resulting in an experience that is a shell of the aforementioned legacy, with a dash of the AKI engine games from the Nintendo 64 era (No Mercy, etc.). This simplicity means you have very few options when attacking your opponent, with just a handful of grapple moves, a couple of back grapple options and some basic strikes. The way you execute moves is also more like the AKI engine, in that you have to press a button to initiate a grapple, but the emphasis is on picking a move and hoping the other player doesn't “guess” that move to counter it, unlike the timing-based grapples of previous Fire Pro Wrestling games.
The problem is that none of this grappling really feels that satisfying. You'll see the same few moves and reversals repeated over and over, and the strikes just end up being a boring spam of kicks and slaps. It's undoubtedly funny to see your avatar flying all over the ring (especially in some of the exaggerated finishers and double-team moves), but the choice to go with avatars has taken away a lot of the impact on a powerbomb or top-rope move. The lack of weapons, match modifiers and match types is also a big problem, as you'll be limited to single, tag, 2-on-1, 2-on-2 and four-way matches. There are no gimmick matches or cool variations to really experiment with, so everything just degenerates into the same slog for each match.
This isn't to say that the gameplay is particularly bad, but after the "casualization" of the combat system, you're left with a wrestling product that just kind of plods around the ring without much variety in how scenarios play out. By not going totally wacky, the developers have split the difference — and not in a very satisfying way.
The focus on avatars means the overall presentation of Fire Pro Wrestling is going to be fairly simple, but nothing is too egregiously bad. The animations definitely don't look great, as the limited moveset and floaty avatars probably hamstrung the developers into presenting the action in some very specific and simple ways. The environmental detail is also lacking, with basic crowds and match venues, of which there just aren't very many of them to begin with. Entrances provide some flash and sizzle, but the inability to edit them is another diss to the games that came before in this franchise. There are some fun jams for the menus and entrance music, adding a bit of humor, but the sound effects during the match — taunts, strikes, slams — have very little variety and don't carry much impact.
Other than the exhibition mode, you can take on several different “ladder” modes where you complete one match after another. The match types in these ladders rotate between the few available modes, and you'll be able to level up your wrestler and unlock new moves and costumes (you can do this in any mode, though). It's really a shame that there aren't more match types or venues, as things start to repeat quite often. On top of this, your adversaries, while somewhat different each time, never feel all that different, which lends to the staleness of most of the wrestling on offer.
Online play is present and account for, but the action is limited to the basic modes found in the offline space. I was actually able to find several matches to play in, demonstrating that there is some community gathering around the game. Then again, the matches that I played all suffered from considerable lag, particular when the player count went above two players. Admittedly, I did have some fun playing in tag matches with higher-level players, as I was able to hold my own against a level 100 player (max rank) with my level 14 and then get the hot tag to my high-ranked teammate who proceeded to clean house. So there was a bit of fun there, but with the latency and blatant lack of match options (online Royal Rumble, anyone?), there's just not very much going for the online play.
It's hard to know what Fire Pro Wrestling was really hoping to accomplish. It's limply evoking the heritage of its predecessors, yet it wants to be a casual game, too. The problem is that the depth of the past has been removed, and the casual coat of paint confuses the focus of the game.
Learning Curve: The tutorials are well made, and you'll quickly understand the mechanics and upgrades relatively quickly.
Control Scheme: The controls have been simplified and presented in a much clearer way than previous games in the series, and the timing grapples of the past are replaced with a simpler user-input system.
Visuals: The game has some charm and color in its presentation, but the avatar-centric focus results in some poor animations. Lacking in environmental variety as well.
Audio: The entrance music and menu themes are generally inoffensive, but the effects and goofy taunts seem unfinished and lacking in variety.
Value: There's a decent amount to play, including solo ladders and online play, but none of it really beckons for extended play sessions.
Score: 4 (Below Average)