Inazuma Eleven - Review  

by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ A unique concept.
+ Soccer gameplay is engaging and fun.
+ Silly, over-the-top storyline.
- Recruitment system seems superfluous.
- Random battles are annoying and pointless.
- Lots of missed opportunities.
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   Finally! Can I just say that real quick? Finally!

   It was 2008 when the quirky, over-the-top soccer RPG Inazuma Eleven was first introduced to Japan, and it was another three years before an English version was released in Europe. Now, finally, after six years of waiting and a plethora of already-made sequels and spin-offs, the first Inazuma Eleven game has made its way to North America as a Nintendo 3DS eShop download. The game has been completely relocalized and redubbed for the trip, and it was well worth the wait.

   Inazuma Eleven tells the story of the Raimon Jr. High Soccer Club and its soccer-obsessed captain/goalkeeper Mark Evans. The club has seen better days, lacking enough members to even field a proper team. What few they have are lackadaisical about the game, until the threat of disbandment looms overhead. With the fate of their club resting on the outcome of a practice match with the reigning national champs, Mark has to rally his teammates and keep their dream of going to the Frontier League National Tournament alive. Unfortunately for him, middle school soccer is a dangerous sport (no, really!) and an underground kabal of soccer-playing ne'er-do-wells will stop at nothing to ensure their victory, including espionage, bribery, blatant cheating, and even attempted murder.

   The game's story is about as dumb as it could possibly be, but it's a good kind of dumb — the sort of dumb that made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles popular in the nineties. It's over the top and cheesy, but the writing is charming and fun, bringing with it an air of the Pokémon series, particularly the plot-heavy Pokémon Ranger spin-offs. The characters are all adorably loyal and painfully naive, but that's just part of what makes it so much fun. The story does sometimes take a rather roundabout way of getting from point A to point B, but this is a minor complaint.

   As one might expect from a game about a soccer club, players can expect to engage in a lot of soccering over the course of the game's twenty hour duration. Everything is soccer at Raimon Junior High. Students from Raimon's other clubs will challenge Mark to random soccer battles, wherein he and three of his teammates must score the first goal, or take the ball from the other team, or prevent the other team from taking the ball, or even simply prevent the other team from scoring. If he encounters a group of thugs during the course of the story, the encounter will be settled with more soccer. And of course, the Raimon Soccer Club will also play in a number of full-fledged soccer matches, eleven vs. eleven and complete with a full sixty minute duration (actually more like six minutes), half-time, and typical soccer rules like offsides, fouls, and overtime if necessary.

The myth, the man, the legend... The myth, the man, the legend...

   All this soccer-playing is accomplished via a surprisingly intuitive and easy-to-learn touch-based system of gameplay. Players can direct their teammates to move around the field by a drawing a line from them to their destination. Passing and shooting the ball is as simple as tapping the screen, assuming Raimon has possession of the ball. Whenever a teammate meets an opposing player on the field, a mini-battle takes place. Players can select from two basic techniques or choose from one of their special skills, and the winner of the encounter gains or maintains possession of the ball, while the loser becomes momentarily incapacitated. Multiple teammates can work together during these encounters, improving the odds of success. For added tactical decision-making, players can pause the action and survey the field before performing their next move, but there is a cooldown on how often this technique can be used.

   There are some other useful tricks and nuances to the game, including an elemental affinity system, but for the most part, winning in Inazuma Eleven comes down to successfully utilizing passes and special skills to bring the ball downfield and into scoring position. Once there, players can use special shots to score impressive goals. The special skills are one of the aspects of the game that make Inazuma's style of soccer different from, say, FIFA's. All of them are over the top and often mystical in nature, and some involve players blatantly cheating. Members of the ninja team can use cloning and after-image techniques to get past defenders, and members of the occult team can draw upon shadows to halt their opponents in their tracks, but the Raimon team has tricks of its own. Some skills require the use of multiple characters, and can even include the goalkeeper; it's really amusing to see Mark rush downfield in order to assist with a devastating shot.

   Despite a surprising amount of tactical depth to the core of the game, not everything is as good as it could be. The random soccer battles, for instance, generally seem like a pointless distraction. They would normally be painfully easy, especially as the player gains access to more skills, but skills cost TP, and players probably won't want to waste it on these battles. However, as the game progresses, the opponents in the random battles also start using special skills, which can make them all the more annoying. The amount of experience they offer is pitiful, and playing full matches is a much better and more reliable way of training up one's team either way. Heal points, which are needed to restore the team's TP between matches, are poorly distributed, which makes the random battles even more of a nuisance, and are missing from seemingly obvious areas, like the Flash Training Ground, one of the better places for the club to level up. There's also the issue of the game's difficulty. For the most part, the game is extremely easy, and players will find themselves dominating matches with five-nothing victories. However, there are a few occasions where it ramps up considerably, and this is mostly due to forced constraints on the game. The most egregious of these is a match against a team whose goalie can only be beaten with a specific shot. This shot can only be learned by one character, who happens to be a midfielder and who can't be moved into the forward line. The entire match relies on getting him the ball and moving him into scoring position, which is easier said than done. Luckily, Mark's amazing goaltending skills generally makes it easy to keep the other team scoreless. There are also occasional issues with the controls not doing what one wants them to, especially when trying to shoot the ball. A number of times when I tried to make a shot at the net, the game instead chose to pass the ball there, wasting a perfectly good set-up.

   Besides playing soccer, Mark and his teammates will spend their time running around Raimon Junior High and the surrounding Inazuma Town, advancing the story and recruiting new teammates. According to the game, there are over a thousand characters to recruit, but Mark can only have thirty-two members in the club at any given time, and the game strongly encourages using the story characters anyway, since they're the ones that learn the special story-based skills. It's entirely possible to play through the whole game without ever recruiting a new character beyond the required initial trio, which makes the whole thing seem kind of superfluous. Moreover, because the story focuses so heavily on camaraderie and friendship, it seems like a giant missed opportunity to include social sim aspects, which would have felt right at home.

Oh, they Oh, they're ALL cool.

   Players can also use Prestige points earned during matches and battles to purchase new equipment, healing items, and even extra special skills at the various shops scattered throughout the city. Each character is capable of equipping shoes and an accessory, though for some reason two accessory slots are given to every character. Only the character Axel has an item that can be equipped in the second slot, and aside from story-significance, the item confers no bonuses of any kind, making it kind of superfluous. Mark and other goalkeepers have an additional equipment slot for gloves, which generally improve their guard skill, making it easier to save incoming shots.

   While having such an expansive area to explore is neat, the game's lack of any form of quick travel, repeated trips to the same areas, and the needless random encounters are a drain on time and patience that players will quickly get sick of. On the plus side, the world itself is bright and colorful, and despite a fairly minimalistic aesthetic approach, it has a surprising level of detail to it. This is even more true when players are performing special skills, as the animations change from sprites to full-on character models, which is impressive given how many different characters there are in the game. The music is also surprisingly excellent, featuring a number of catchy tunes that stick in your head. The game features a minimal amount of voicework, redone for the North American release, which is decent though not extraordinary.

   While it's been a monumental pleasure to finally be able to play Inazuma Eleven in North America, the game reeks of missed potential. The core of something amazing is here, but it still needs some fleshing out — too many of its concepts are contradictory or unnecessary, and until those wrinkles are ironed out, it's hard to call it a truly great game. That said, Inazuma Eleven is still a lot of fun and well worth your time. The story of Raimon Jr. High Soccer Club's rise to greatness is both fun and engaging, and the gameplay has just enough depth to keep an older audience interested. With a little luck, the next chapter in the Inazuma Eleven saga will improve on the formula and make its way here soon.

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