Release Date: 02/13/2014
I was excited when the news of Inazuma Eleven coming to the States was first leaked back in January, but it was quickly taken off Nintendo’s release calendar and not another word was said, at least until the February 13 Nintendo Direct, when it was announced that not only were we getting the game, but we were getting it that day. I’d previously reviewed the EU version of this game for the DS on another site and had thought the game to be pretty decent, with a lot of potential, but then time got away from me and I was never able to play any of the sequels. One would hope that Level-5 will bring us those as well, in time, but that likely depends on many factors, including the sale of this game. Still, I was excited to receive this game and had a blast going through it again on the 3DS.
In case you didn’t know, Inazuma Eleven is a sports RPG that focuses on middle schooler Mark Evans, goalkeeper of Raimon Eleven, his school’s soccer team. It’s everything he’s ever dreamed of… that is, other than the fact that no one else on the team ever wants to practice. Mark doesn’t even have enough players to have a full team (the minimum requirement is 11, assuming you have no substitutes, which is… rough). In fact, the soccer team is the laughing stock of the school, by all indications: the rugby team teases the soccer players, no one takes the team seriously, and there are even rumors of the club being disbanded by the administration. Still, Mark is the eternal optimist, and he practices every day, usually by himself, but sometimes accompanied by the team’s manager, Silvia Woods. Then, one day, Nelly, the school chairman’s daughter and student council president, who somehow has some legitimate power at this school, sets them up to play against Royal Academy, one of the best teams out there, knowing full well he doesn’t even have a team and that they never practice. She also sets it up so that random people will want to play soccer against Mark and the others, because she’s nice like that. Winning these matches will get you Friendship (used to recruit players) and Prestige (used to buy items and heal the team) Points, but losing or drawing will lose you those points. (As an aside, it’s weird you would lose points in a draw, as soccer doesn’t generally operate that way. Considering a draw a loss is a pretty American way of thinking, though I guess for the way the game is set up, this is fine.)
Mark cheerfully accepts the match and goes about his business, eventually running into star striker Axel Blaze, who, despite Mark’s desperate pleas, won’t join the team for a reason he can’t talk about. Of course, Axel does eventually join your team, which sets in motion quite a few interesting turns of events. Like any sports team, there will be drama between your players and between players and other people, everyone has different motivations to play the game, and you’ll definitely see some middle-to-high-school level humor in here. In this regard, the game is as true to life as any game with middle schoolers who know how to do magic, physics-defying soccer tricks can be. However, some of the other plot points are difficult to accept as they are if you don’t realize that it’s a game that follows a lot of anime tropes, specifically those revolving around sports-themed anime. In other words, if you’re at all familiar with anime, the plot probably won’t bother you, but I could imagine people not familiar with anime asking why these people care so much about a bunch of middle schoolers playing soccer.
The main plot of the story is ten chapters, though there are other things you can do. There’s Connect Mode, which is basically multiplayer (over local wireless), plus the ability to trade players and download items. Starting in chapter three, you can also talk to Silvia to have rematches against teams you’ve already played. For additional training, you’ll also gain access to an area called the Flash Training Facility about halfway through the game, as well as spots on the map that will let you train specific things. Once you’ve beaten the game, you can also talk to the school chairman in order to play in one of two competition routes. Completing each route will get you a surprise. If you’re into galleries, one opens up post-game, and you’ll be able to rewatch any of twenty-two scenes that play throughout the plot.
I’m surprised (but ultimately happy) they went with the Japanese opening for this release, as the English intro is awful. The rest of the game, sound-wise, is pretty good. The background music isn’t distracting or obtrusive; in fact, I quite enjoy it. It tends to fit the situation well and the sound effects enhance the soccer matches. The voice acting is good, and the sound effects make sense and add to the overall atmosphere. Graphically, the game looks a bit aged, but it still looks nice, and I think Level-5 did a good job updating the graphics for the 3DS. I’m a little disappointed they put all the anime cutscenes, including the intro, on the bottom screen, as I think those would have looked great in 3D. The character designs are fun, interesting, and sometimes rather punny. If you’re familiar with the anime, you can expect all your favorite characters to be involved. There are, however, a few glitches: I know Jack walked right through me during one cutscene, and when starting the game, it seemed like there was something wrong with the intro (the cutscenes were out of order or something, it was jarring). Other than that, however, the game worked without a hitch.
The game controls are pretty standard for an RPG. You use the directional pad to move, A and B to select/cancel actions, and X to open the menu. You can also use the touch screen for all of this. I’m not sure if they changed anything with regard to how the touch screen works, but I don’t feel like I had as many issues with using it to move as I did on the DS version. Either way, you’ll use the touch screen the most during the actual soccer matches. You can get players to pass the ball to one another by tapping where you want the ball to go, and direct players to go along a specific path by drawing a line from the character to where you want them to go. After a certain point in the game, you can hold down L + R in order to activate Fired Up!, which is a mode that will make your shots more powerful, increase your odds of winning, and reduce TP usage to half. It only works for a short period of time, however, so you will need to use your best judgement for timing. Players have FP (Fitness Points, think of it like HP) and TP (Technique Points, think of it like MP) that wear down while you play. There are items you can use to heal your players, but you can’t use them during the gameplay portion of matches. (Which makes sense, if you think about it. No one eats a rice ball while playing soccer.) You will also need to take into account each player’s element (air, wood, fire, earth), as elements are strong and weak against one another. For example, air beats earth, but loses to wood, and is neutral to fire.
The AI can be a bit wonky, though it’s not as wonky as I remember it being. Playing with a full team isn’t bad, but when you’re limited to four players in the random encounters, it can be difficult to get them to do what they need to. The biggest offender of this is during the random battles where your players are supposed to try to get the ball off of the other team. The player designated as the goalkeeper (usually Mark) will stay back, which would make sense if there was a goal. Even if you make the player move up to where the action is, sometimes they’ll start running back to goal. Again, this is what goalkeepers are supposed to do, but it’s a little hard to defend a goal that is literally not there.
There are also times when your players will clump together, which is actually fairly normal for a real-life soccer match. Soccer is a fluid, constantly moving game, so while I appreciate that you can make characters run in a particular line, the fact that they stick strictly to the line and don’t adjust to the circumstances of the game makes for a weird experience. For example, if you want a character to run left in order to cut a player off, you’ll draw a line left and watch him run along that line. However, if the other player switches direction, your player will still run along that line for no reason. The same goes for when you want to pass the ball; the player will run along that line, and then run toward the ball. It’s not a particularly effective way to play soccer. You can pause the gameplay by tapping the red hand on the top left of the screen, but it has a cooldown, so if you’ve recently used the hand, you may end up either waiting out an errant line runner or frantically trying to change that character’s direction. I wouldn’t say this negatively affects the game experience too much, and one could even argue that you would see a lot of this in a real soccer match, which would be a fair point. It’s just a little frustrating as a player sometimes.
There is definitely a lot of content in this game. As I said earlier, there are ten chapters in the game, and it’ll take you anywhere between one to three hours on average per chapter (depending on how much training and recruiting you do) in order to beat the story. More impressive, however, is the chance to recruit over a thousand players to your team. You can talk to Celia in order to get information on potential recruits. You can recruit based off of four criteria: the club they’re currently in, their position, their ability (a personal characteristic, like cleverness), and their element. You can also search by name or look at the connection map, which is a huge kind of social network map that has certain areas you can unlock as you progress through the game.
Inazuma Eleven does a wonderful job of combining sports game and RPG elements, and makes the experience memorable. While the game does feel slightly dated, it is still just as fun as when I played it in the DS days, and I hope that this title being brought to North America means the other Inazuma Eleven titles will make their way over here as well. If you’re looking for a fun, lighthearted sports RPG and don’t mind a bit of grinding, this is a title well worth picking up.
Short Attention Span Summary
Inazuma Eleven is a lighthearted title that captures the essence of friendship and sports. It’s well-crafted artistically and gives you plenty to do, both during and after the main storyline. While the game does have a few minor flaws, I can pretty confidently say this game is a should-have for fans of soccer and RPGs.