In Japan Inazuma Eleven is an institution — a multi-modal soccer sensation spanning several sequels and spin-offs, a wildly successful anime adaptation, and even a collectable card game; it's also enjoyed a number of releases in Europe. It's captured hearts from Kyoto to Cádiz, and now Level-5 is aiming to complete that circumnavigation with the series' first release in North America and Australasia (with mainland Europe also receiving this iteration, but not the UK): an eShop update of the 2008 DS original where it all began. A genre-bending game that combines a classic, Pokémon-style RPG with tactical, touch screen soccer action, Inazuma Eleven was absolutely worth the wait; this is a unique and utterly charming gem that deserves a place in the starting lineup of RPG and football fans alike.
Inazuma Eleven puts players in the confident cleats of eternally optimistic Mark Evans, keeper for Raimon Junior High's ragtag and soon-to-be-disbanded soccer club. As you might imagine, Mark's not about to let that happen if he can help it, so together with a colourful cast of classmates — including a mysterious new transfer student with a swift kick and a secret — you'll embark on a quest to save the club, win the Soccer Frontier tournament, and unravel a few mysteries along the way. The story's quick-moving, genuinely sweet, and gloriously over the top; you'll start out in a familiar schoolyard setting, but it's not long before the first opposing team shows up on an enormous battleship, like a pee-wee delegation from the Galactic Empire, and things only ramp up from there. It feels very much like playing an anime, with central themes of friendship, believing in oneself and doing one's best; while it's certainly aimed at a younger audience — Persona for the post-primary school set — the characters are so appealing that the young-at-heart will enjoy the after-school special storyline as well.
Aside from its anime aesthetic and feel-good foundations, Inazuma's claim to fame is its gameplay: a hybrid system that switches seamlessly from overhead, overworld RPG exploration to soccer-based battles and back again. It sounds jarring at first, but it works beautifully in practice; roaming Inazuma-town is classic RPG comfort-food, with intuitive, single-hand-friendly button controls, and the soccer — aside from being a commendably creative implementation of the sport — is some of the most fun we've ever had with RPG 'combat'.
Once you hit the pitch, everything's controlled with the stylus; your players will move intelligently on their own, but you can tap to speed them up, draw paths for them to follow, and point out exactly where you'd like them to kick the ball. You can also hit a "time-out" button at any time to freeze the clock and plan out moves in advance by drawing out paths and plays — an invaluable aid that allows for fine-grained control and deeply strategic soccer action. In addition, each time one of your players comes up against a rival - -say, for a tackle, when intercepting a pass, or to take a shot on goal — time stops as you decide which course of action to take. Each scenario will let you select from two moves — a regular vs. sliding tackle, fake out vs. charge, or straight ahead vs. chip shot, for example — where one is the safer bet, and the other a high-risk, higher-reward proposition. Characters' elemental affiliations come into play here as well; every player has a type, either Fire, Wood, Air, or Earth, and each element has an advantage over another, so while a wooden defender won't have much of a chance against a fiery forward, an earth-affiliated midfielder will stop him in his toasty tracks.
As your characters level up by winning matches, they'll also gain access to special moves. These screen-filling, show-stopping displays of fantastical football have a huge advantage over regular moves in both power and jaw-dropping extravagance, from flaming, dragon-propelled, shots-on-goal to rocket-fuelled sliding tackles and even the Hand of God providing divine goalkeeping intervention. Special moves expend Technical Points, so you won't be able to pull them off indefinitely, but most matches will see quite a few of them shot off before the whistle, and they're a blast to watch — while most of the time the action takes place on the bottom screen, these cinematic specials are rendered in stereoscopic 3D up top.
To help give your team a leg up in close calls, you can do some spot-training on the side by spending Prestige Points (Inazuma's merit-based currency of choice) at designated locations around town: dashing on the track to increase Speed stats, running the stairs to increase Stamina, or kicking bugs out of a tree to power-up punting. These training exercises are cutscenes, rather than playable sequences, but they're fun to watch in a Rocky-montage sort of way, and their quick clip lets you get back to the action as soon as possible.
With so much to keep track of, the soccer system certainly takes a bit of time to 'click', but once it does it's an absolute joy — regardless of whether you have any particular love of the actual sport. In fact, part of what makes Inazuma Eleven such a treat for RPG veterans is that it's one of the few games in the genre to really throw you for a loop, where you won't be instantly familiar with how 'combat' works before you even begin. It's a genuinely new experience, and it comes with a learning curve — even early-game skirmishes are engaging and tough — but mastering it is a reward in itself.
You'll have plenty of chances to perfect your game, as in addition to the full-length, eleven-man, story-advancing soccer showdowns, you'll also be challenged to random, four-man skirmishes by all manner of comically-named clubs as you make your way around Raimon and Inazuma. Instead of actual matches, these are quick skill-tests with a specific victory condition: get the ball off the opposing team, score the first goal, or keep possession until the clock runs out. They're a great way to hone your skills, as well as being fun in their own right, and in a nice change from the RPG-norm losing them won't send you back to the last inn, town, or Pokécenter you visited — you'll just carry on as you were, a few Prestige Points lighter but none the worse for the wear. That little detail makes a huge difference, helping to keep frustration levels low, encouraging exploration, and - in our experience - making the random encounters much more enjoyable; rather than worrying about being wiped out on your way back to the clubhouse, you can concentrate on improving with every encounter.
Losing a big match will send you back to the save-select screen, however, and that's where one of the game's few issues comes up: winning these isn't always as straightforward as you might expect, and some matches are more or less scripted for plot purposes. You'll still need to score more goals than the other team, of course, and you'll need all the stylus skills you can scrape up — but sometimes victory requires you to score with a particular player or a specific move, often at or after a certain point on the clock, all in service to the story.
Early on especially, when you're still learning how to handle the finer points of football, it can be difficult to juggle these dynamic win conditions while still playing well enough to actually win, and the constraints can feel a bit unfair. If you do lose a big game — as we did, repeatedly, in a certain early matchup — the sting of failure is compounded by having to sit through unskippable pre-match dialogue scenes every time. Still, objectives are easy enough to figure out if you've been paying attention to the dialogue, and we absolutely appreciate what these scripted setups bring to the narrative and character development.
Speaking of characters, there's certainly no shortage of them in Inazuma-town. True to the 'gotta catch 'em all' spirit of portable role-playing's best, Inazuma Eleven features over a thousand (!) different characters to scout and recruit, through the wholesome conceit of expanding your friend network and making personal connections. Each potential player is unique, and the wonderfully weird, Layton-esque character designs bear a distinct Level-5 hallmark. Unfortunately, not one of them is female; Raimon's soccer club doesn't seem to have discovered co-ed sports until the second game in the series. Once you've assembled your dream team, you can take them on the road over local wireless multiplayer, with friendly matches and player-trading evoking fond memories of Link Cable days.
Inazuma Eleven rests on a rock-solid gameplay foundation. It's got great pacing, enjoyable random encounters, and plenty to tinker with; between the strategic soccer battles, rock-paper-scissors type-advantages, and huge number of recruitable characters, it feels a bit like a friendlier Fire Emblem in football boots. And even with all that, the fact that it's so much fun to play comes down to the simple fact that it's absolutely packed with heart. With a glass-half-full hero and his infectious, unconditional love for the game, a fist-pumping anime intro and anthemic theme song, a lovely little world to explore, and an inspiring, can-do spirit that runs through the entire experience, Inazuma Eleven is an incredibly charming game from start to finish.
It's also a game that first came out almost six years ago on the Nintendo DS, but while it certainly sports some graphical relics from an earlier age — including plenty of jaggies and some particularly fuzzy sprites — it looks better than you might expect, with a colourful, cartoon style that's big on personality. It also features a few neat effects that make the most of its sprites-on-3D style, like the ability to rotate the overworld camera with the shoulder buttons for an appealingly isometric perspective. Most importantly, it feels like native 3DS software: the game fills the whole top screen, the anime cutscenes are sharp and crisp, and even though most of the action takes place on the touch screen, there's stereoscopic 3D throughout much of the game, from map screens to special move shots — though not in the random encounters, which seems like an odd oversight.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, has aged beautifully. The overworld is accompanied by a range of wistful, whimsical melodies, playful and pensive in turn, while a rollicking battle theme sets the tone each time you unsheathe the stylus. The voiceover — recast in American English for the game's New World début — is very well done, and always welcome when it kicks in for important scenes. Not everything in the game has been localised for its transatlantic trip, however, so unsuspecting Americans may spend a few extra minutes searching for a room on the wrong "first floor". Happily, Italian, French, and Spanish language options are also available, each fully voiced and of similarly high quality to the English dub.
If the phrase "soccer RPG" has you the least bit intrigued, lace up your cleats and grab your stylus — Inazuma Eleven's masterful mix of lighthearted storytelling and over-the-top soccer is fun, fresh, and surprisingly deep. But perhaps its greatest trick is that you don't need to love the sport to enjoy the experience; for RPG fans raised on a steady diet of turn-based combat and a strict future/fantasy dichotomy, Inazuma's soccer-based battles and schoolyard setting are a breath of fresh air unlike anything else in the genre. Football fan or not, if you're looking for a charming portable adventure packed with memorable characters and creative gameplay, Inazuma Eleven will bicycle kick its way right into your heart.