The Inazuma Eleven football / soccer RPG franchise is a major success in Japan, so much so that spin-offs and new releases are — at a minimum — arriving on an annual basis. Localisation to Europe has been a slower burn, and unfortunately non-existent in North America, so the arrival of Inazuma Eleven 3, the third title in the ‘main’ series, is certainly welcome. It’s the 3DS version of the original DS title that arrives, but on its own rather than as part of the trilogy set that graced Level-5’s homeland, and perhaps faces a tough challenge with the perception that, in theory, this should be a progression in the franchise.
To those that see the 3DS cartridge and expect a generational leap, understanding the context of the release is important. This is, to all intent and purposes, a DS title with a sprinkling of 3DS novelty; some action footage briefly appears in 3D on the top screen, a StreetPass option is bolted in and the various animated cut-scenes and voice samples have clearer quality; all superficial and adding little. This continues on from its predecessors in style and substance, though that isn’t exactly a major negative.
Following on from the world-saving heroics of Inazuma Eleven 2, much of the storyline this time around is less fantastical, with the Raimon team actually making way for a national setup that incorporates some former foes. The crux is that the Japan side is qualifying and then trying to win the equivalent of a World Cup, though in typical style there are subplots and twists to retain interest, which naturally involve demons. Various backstories of team members and the coach also swirl around, and like the bonkers special moves that defy nature the plot doesn’t always make sense. That’s absolutely fine, however, and is an important part of the series’ charm.
The storyline is almost, but not quite, as dense as the game and its mechanics. Although different in many ways, this title taps into a Pokémon vibe of complexity married with clarity and simplicity; young gamers are likely, as always, to lap it up. The basics of running around the environment to checkpoints are obvious enough, but there’s an underlying eco-system that’s dizzying in scope.
Naturally, as an RPG, the world is littered with items and upgrades to find, win, buy and sell. There are items to recharge health (FP - Fitness Points) and TP (Technical Points), the latter of which are fundamentally important for executing special moves, which are pivotal for winning matches. Succeeding in battles will also boost your Prestige and Friendship points, which play a role in improving your player’s statistics and recruiting some players, respectively. Add to that Capsule Machines in which you redeem tokens to try and unlock even more players, as well as multiple options for scouting via challenge matches and finding players, and there’s impressive depth on offer.
What we have, in this case, is a minor expansion of the already impressive range of its predecessors, which is well-structured and clear enough for most gamers to easily lose a number of hours. As is also standard for the franchise, it’s almost entirely optional. Stocking up on replenishing items is a valuable exercise, yet we found little need to buy many items or mine the recruitment options — which include tournaments and side-missions to defeat new teams or re-battle those already encountered — as drops and chests scattered around the world, as well as our default team lineup, served our purposes just fine.
Beyond manoeuvring from area to area and investing a chosen amount of effort into the eco-system, the football matches themselves continue the same control scheme as before. This once again betrays this title’s origins on the DS, with all of the main action — in and out of matches — taking place on the touch screen, with the top screen simply used to show a map or special moves. For the ‘Touch Generation’ it’s actually possible to control the whole game with a stylus — though we preferred the d-pad in the overworld — while matches themselves can only be played with touch controls.
Football matches are broken into extremely brief four player battles, with objectives such as scoring the first goal or gaining possession, and much longer story-driven 11-a-side matches. The small battles are random encounters, and useful for levelling up — all active match squad players are upgraded, not just those playing — even if they appear a tad too frequently on occasion. The larger matches are far more tactical, and it’s here that extensive use of special moves comes to bear. Some are simple single player affairs, others can involve having multiple team players within the vicinity, while defensively they can be standard attempts at tackling or shot blocks based on positioning. Every player has core special moves that are unlocked in the campaign, while you can add additional moves that are found or purchased.
It’s these football matches and the special moves that serve as the main highlights, the primary event of each lengthy chapter within the campaign. Some have scripted moments to put you a goal behind early on, for example, but we did clear many of the 11-a-side matches first time; naturally younger players may be tested, but in a positive way. The stylus controls of tapping and dragging to pass, shoot and move are natural for the platform — especially as the tempo is slow enough to bring strategy into the reckoning — though adopting a button and Circle Pad approach that shifted the action to the top screen would have been welcome.
That wholesale transference of the DS title’s controls is, again, indicative of the somewhat basic approach of the game when considered a part of the 3DS library. As mentioned earlier in the review, that may be unfair with some extra context in mind — that this was a trilogy offering at a single game price in Japan — but against the backdrop of its European release seems relevant. A positive is that being a 3DS release may attract an audience keen for new experiences, but it feels like a missed opportunity in this format. It should also be noted that our review copy was the Bomb Blast version, but the differences between that and Lightening Bolt are largely down to slightly different side-stories.
Other features included, as per previous releases, are options to compete or trade players with others that own the game through a Connect Menu; the Extra Competition route — one of the aforementioned extra options to play more and recruit extra players — can also be taken on co-operatively with another owner. Items and players to also be discovered via SpotPass and StreetPass add additional extras to further engross those absorbed by this wacky world.
While essentially containing all of the depth found in its predecessors, this does at times feel like one game too many in a short space of time. Much is similar, and we also found the storyline less involving than previous entries. While the extensive side-stories and missions are present and correct, the main narrative takes a long time to get beyond a rather basic “playing in a tournament to be champions of the world” line, eventually hitting more fantastical heights after plenty of hours have already been sacrificed. Compared to the high-stakes drama of its immediate predecessor, this seems slightly tired in comparison.
Inazuma Eleven 3 delivers most of what made the first two titles on DS such excellent RPG gems that are suitable for almost any age. That’s a source of praise and criticism, as it’s still somewhat bloated if impressive in its level of detail; in addition, this title fails to truly justify its upgrade to the 3DS, while also struggling to deliver the same degree of narrative entertainment.
It’s good value, nevertheless, and for those willing to invest a lot of hours this is still a charming, light-hearted, over-the-top adventure. It lacks the spark of its predecessors, however, and it’s time for the series to do more than apply the most meagre of superficial upgrades.