As a decades-long fan of pro wrestling and RPGs, WrestleQuest is my dream premise. A game that distills the best traits of classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI and injects them with a hefty dose of sports entertainment? Sign me up. However, what begins as a great idea on paper falls apart thanks to a botched execution that sees the game stepping on rakes any time it tries to pick up momentum.
WrestleQuest unfolds in a living toy box inhabited by action figures. If you combine the whimsey of Toy Story and the wrestling-centric zaniness and world-building of shows like Ultimate Muscle, that’s a rough idea of WrestleQuest’s vibe. The presentational eye candy is my favorite element. The bright, colorful art direction, often silly character designs, and impressive animations give the game a fun personality, befitting the wacky sport it both celebrates and lampoons.
Copious references abound for enthusiasts, including appearances from real-life stars like Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Diamond Dallas Page, Jeff Jarrett, and even personalities like Conrad Thompson. As neat as it can be to see a familiar face, other cameos are strange and feel shoehorned. Running into YouTube star Angry Joe and filmmaker Adi Shankar feels out of place and included for the sake of having notable non-wrestling celebrities. In-game billboards promoting multiple real-life wrestling podcasts and platforms also come off more as pure advertisements than fun references, clashing with the otherwise fantastical atmosphere.
As Randy “Muchacho Man” Santos, essentially a Randy Savage tribute performer, you’re on a quest to become the biggest star in the toy box. Since he fully believes pro wrestling is legit (while everyone else knows it’s scripted), he also wants to stop a powerful promoter from turning it into pure entertainment. His journey takes him to various regions, many themed after a particular promotion or style. One region highlights ECW-style hardcore wrestling, while another parodies Canada’s Stampede Wrestling of yesteryear. Other locales, such as a futuristic sci-fi world, break this convention and feel generic and out of place as a result.
Along the way, you’ll recruit several allies, with parties regularly splitting off into their own separate stories. Expect to jump between Muchacho Man’s quest to a tale of a Hart Foundation-esque team’s climb to stardom to the story of a street-wise thug hoping to win the affection of a Transformer-style robot he just met, among other threads. Despite smiling at some references and nods, I didn’t find any of the characters interesting or engaging. The writing isn’t very funny, often relying on surface-level recognition of references. The overall narrative is not only flat but can be chaotic to follow since the game jumps between multiple stories so often. You’ll go from exploring a jungle with one group to searching for a wrestler’s lost item in a cemetery with another party to stealing cars in a crime-ridden city with yet another grouping. These jumps make for haphazard pacing and occur so often that it regularly cripples any narrative momentum a particular story thread may be building.
The turn-based gameplay borrows from the Mario RPG playbook, with players hitting timed button presses and other QTE-style mechanics to execute commands. Performing well builds a meter called Hype, which sways spectating fans on your side to bestow helpful bonuses like regenerating mana or damage buffs. Conversely, taking a beating swings Hype in your opponent’s favor, stacking the deck against you. Equipping managers can add additional perks, and various tag team maneuvers add a fun flair for a powerful punch. In a neat twist, downed enemy wrestlers must be pinned, with the familiar “stop the needle” pinfall minigame feeling more appropriate here than in a simulation game (though failing this revives foes with some HP)
These are cool ideas that incorporate the spirit of a wrestling match while rewarding skillful play and an evolving challenge – in theory, at least. While the gameplay is competent, the difficulty often feels all over the place. Sometimes, I’d breeze through battles only to suddenly hit rough patches where I’d barely survive a fight. The latter becomes a nightmare since you can’t flee battles (or quit/restart them), so you either have to win a fight you’re not ready for or die, reload a save, and potentially retrace quite a few steps due to the game’s questionable auto-checkpointing. You also can’t skip cutscenes, making replaying bigger encounters even more of a chore. These problems mean battles often unfold in one of two ways: as repetitive cakewalks or infuriating wars of attrition.
Some battles force you to complete a list of objectives, often to your intentional detriment. Taking a cue from wrestling’s scripted nature, sometimes you must let yourself get beat up, release foes from pinfalls, or lose Hype to “win” an encounter. However, this puts you at the mercy of the opponent, who doesn’t always hold their end of the bargain as promptly as you would like. Intentionally losing Hype is the worst since almost everything you do adds to the meter, and there’s no “pass” option, so simply playing works against you. The only way to complete a turn without gaining Hype is to use an item, then pray your opponent finishes you off before you needlessly consume all of your precious healing goods. I hated these types of battles because the game simply doesn’t allow you to throw fights as effortlessly as it needs to, and they just aren’t fun.
Party management feels antiquated since new allies join the group at Level 1 instead of scaling to the group’s average level. There’s also no shared experience gain, so you’ll have to throw a jobber alongside your main eventers to get them up to snuff, which basically turns them into fragile punching bags in battle. I often chose to stick with a core crew to avoid this headache, which worked most of the time. However, the game often forces you into unexpected situations where you’re stuck with a group of losers against a powerful foe, and you don’t always have the immediate freedom to prep beforehand.
Though you can see enemies in the field and actively sneak by them (with enemy awareness meters dictating success in that area), some tight areas force a fight. Prepping for tough bouts meant backtracking to town for supplies, but locating the right stores, or anything for that matter, is a hassle since there’s no readily accessible map. Signposts in town offer the only guidance besides a vague minimap that only displays compass waypoints and nothing else. As a result, it can be easy to get lost as you explore what you think is the right path, only to hit dead ends and have to backtrack. While more acceptable for a first trip in an area, backtracking is a chore. WrestleQuest admirably tries to mix up exploration with various puzzles, like locating missing children or collecting clues to solve a murder mystery, but these generally don’t make much impression.
Saving progress is also a problem since there are only three save slots. That’s not enough in a big RPG that regularly forces you into unfavorable party lineups and situations you may not be ready for. Saving yourself into a corner is frighteningly easy since you’re so boxed into hard battles that you’ll often want to save after even marginally difficult fights or lengthy segments between towns. Other times, you’ll be in situations where you can’t explore or grind and have to immediately enter a tough fight that, again, you weren’t anticipating and don’t have a save file set in a more explorable scenario.
I was ready to love WrestleQuest, and some enjoyment can be found for those with the patience and fandom to fireman carry them along. But the imaginative ideas die by a thousand cuts that hold Muchacho Man and his friends back from world title contention. The game has cool ideas; it just needs more refinement and a serious reexamination of certain systems before it’s ready for the big time