It’s been almost three years since the first All Elite Wrestling video game was officially announced. Many performers within the company itself have long extolled the virtues of 90’s wrestling video game royalty – and in particular, WWF No Mercy – even going so far as to position AEW: Fight Forever as something of an award. But with the game finally hitting store shelves, is the grappling sim everything fans were promised?
First, we need to talk about the wrestlers themselves. Outside of their instantly recognizable costumes, they are strange, slow action figures with strange, exaggerated features. This approach isn’t inherently a negative thing given the obvious inspiration of the game, but any personal appreciation must end in the performer’s face. Instead of sticking to cartoonish stylization across the board, a real scan of the roster’s faces is haphazardly slapped on models with varying degrees of success, and it looks cheap. CM Punk, for example, appears to have his facial hair slightly bifurcated at his mouth, while Sammy Guevara bears a passing resemblance to a fan who may have once shared an elevator with Sammy Guevara.
AEW: Fight Forever will never hold a candle to the performance of its big-budget contemporary WWE 2K23, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare the two. However, there are a few instances where we can’t quite believe the wrestlers’ looks; ironically bearing more of a passing resemblance to the custom creations from grappling powerhouse 2K than anything close to the source material.
Thankfully, the moves look great, with an arcade-like fluidity to the animations that has long been missing from the wrestling game scene, and an exceptional job has been done capturing some of the more unique performers on the AEW roster . Orange Cassidy, for example, can stick her hands in her pockets, using her Sloth Style mannerisms as she’s prone to doing IRL — we just wish we could see more of her little entrance.
We’re really not sure why this decision was made – more so, again, wanting to remake No Mercy – but the wrestlers’ entrances are only a few seconds long, and they only strike a pose on stage before fading to black. What’s frustrating is that in crowd matches where new entrants enter when another has already been eliminated, you’ll see the new entrant make his way to the ring, proving that full entrances are entirely possible. There seems to be a stubborn desire not to repeat Fight Forever’s apparent muse, and so we assume it makes sense that the gameplay also feels a bit out of time.
In its defense, the grappling itself is easy to pick up, and overall, simpler than it appears in WWE 2K23. Triangle is a kick, Square is a punch, and Cross is a grapple. Additional controls are available to taunt, run, Irish Whip (throw your opponent over the ring), and interact with objects, but if chucked in the deep end without preparation, new players can expect to button the mash and get some offense. However, the need for more complex controls and a lackluster tutorial will eventually leave both newcomers hanging. Yes, you can punch someone in the face over and over again until you pin them after being prompted to do so, but how do you block and reverse the endless punches you receive in return?
Using L1 and R1 to block grapples and strikes respectively, and triggering before an attack to reverse, Fight Forever makes the interesting decision not to prompt you to counter offense, instead leaving it up to the player. Some will laud this as a way to increase immersion and encourage skill development, but we can tell you for a fact that it’s definitely not a fun system to learn, and that’s when it really works.
There were several situations where we found ourselves on the receiving end of unrelenting guilt, either because we couldn’t get the reversal time right, or it didn’t register. In fact, on the whole, we’d describe Fight Forever’s gameplay as non-cooperative. In one-on-one matches, it’s simple enough: you attack your opponent with a variety of offensive moves until you fill up your momentum meter, then hit a signature or finisher, turn- pin or submit them, and move on. Adding additional performers makes things more complicated, with punches and kicks being thrown with reckless abandon, and often not really connecting with anyone. Couple that with no clear indication on a wrestler’s health screen, no way to see how close someone is to escaping a submission/tap out, and no knowing when you’ll get back up after being knocked down, and matches can prove an exercise in frustration.
We spent a particularly annoying hardcore match desperately trying to make contact with a table that only our opponent seemed to be able to move, eventually being placed on the same table and pinned moments later. When you lose because the game actively resists your wishes to make the most of its toolset, then something is clearly not right.
Fortunately, an accessible, albeit very limited, creation tool is available, allowing players to build a custom wrestler, team, or arena. Few preset faces, hair, and clothing items are offered, but entrance names, move sets, and ring announce names can be set. It’s not nearly deep enough to allow the creation of one of the many, many missing roster members (including multiple current champions), nor can you share any creations online, but if you want to play through the race of the Fight Forever equivalent mode with your own unique little monster, though that’s a possibility.
Road To Elite is the main attraction of Fight Forever. Taking place over four sets of four weeks, you start by choosing a performer (either male, female, custom wrestler, or real) and signing a contract with AEW. From there, players have four turns each week before their match and must manage their momentum, energy, and general well-being between matches, and this can be done in a variety of ways.
Exercising will drain your energy but reward you with skill points that can be spent on upgrading your basic stats, or buying active or passive skills – but only for a custom character. As far as we can tell, they cost nothing to play as a solid star. To recover any lost energy, you visit a restaurant and consume the local delicacy, with a fact card telling you about the miraculous properties of poutine, for example. Sightseeing can be done, talk shows attended, and minigames played, all for money, skill points, and to recover some spent energy.
Beyond a set of minigames that truly run the gamut of quality and fun, none of these excursions are interactive; you’ll just watch the same scenes over and over again every week. You’ll occasionally run into another member of the roster at these locations, but the interactions are, frankly, really weird, and usually end with the two of you posing for a selfie to add to a album. We found the concept of time management to be very appealing, but it was really weird to see Pénta El Zero M eating pizza and then taking a picture with Riho after a quiet conversation about how fast he eats of toast. Yes really.
A new storyline will play out in each four-week block, with a big Pay-Per-View blow-off ending the proceedings. While Road To Elite started the same way every time we played the mode, we were happy to see some variation in the stories we were presented with. From challenging for the World and Tag Team Championships to trying to take over the company, you’ll have the option to decline or accept invitations to join stables as you go, adding some variety to your experience. Unfortunately, the budget-loving Fight Forever is here to rear its head again.
With no voice acting or commentary across the board – save for some exposition by an almost unconscious-sounding Jim Ross – be prepared to read the dialogue for yourself. While this allows the game to randomly insert wrestlers into certain storyline roles, that’s not a silver lining when those storylines make no canonical sense. For example, in one playthrough we won the World Championship in our first block of weeks, but it wasn’t mentioned until the end of the last block where it was suggested that we challenging for it and not defense this. Additionally, after winning the Tag Team championships, we faced our tag partner in a one-on-one competition just one week later and our team was never mentioned again.
With a little polish and extra attention, Road To Elite could be something really special. Currently, it’s a collection of interesting ideas done differently, and there seems to be a lack of care applied to ensure the experience is consistent throughout.
If punching strangers on the internet is more your bag, however, Fight Forever includes an online mode where you can do just that. If so inclined, players can perform ranked matches to truly test themselves and earn profile card-based rewards. Although we got disconnected a few times trying to join a lobby, we were pleasantly surprised to find that match-ups ran smoothly and there weren’t any bad lag or performance issues.
While playing in either the online or offline modes, you can often complete the game’s large set of challenges. From lifetime goals like winning a certain number of matches to daily and weekly tasks that call for a certain number of wins as a certain wrestler, these challenges will earn you AEW Cash. Along with anything you earn from any other modes, you can spend it in the game store. Fortunately, nothing too devastating is locked in, with only a few pieces of clothing for custom performers, a set of entrance music, and taunts on offer. On the other hand, and beyond the premium price tag for unlocking Cody Rhodes, the store is a bit redundant at the moment, as after just one playthrough of Road To Elite we bought everything we thought looks interesting Our hope is that the shop will update with new items, but right now players tend to accumulate a lot of Cash and there is little to entice them to spend it.
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