In Japan, Level-5 is one of the masters at maximising franchises through games — typically on portable systems — and TV shows or films, continually keeping the storyline going and producing regular content. Yo-kai Watch is the current craze, while Professor Layton had some film content to accompany six main-series games and more spin-offs besides; then there's Inazuma Eleven, one of the company's most prolific franchises. Its route to the West has been long, however, with heavily delayed localisation and a Europe focus holding it back — North America only recently received a revamped 3DS version of the DS original.
It's a series with impressive lore, nevertheless, and Inazuma Eleven GO: Light & Shadow are the first entries (two titles largely the same, Pokémon-style) outside of Japan to bring the major side-series to Western attention — in Europe initially, once again. Right off the bat we'll say this: if you're a devotee of the first three main titles across DS and 3DS, this is a fun extension that should join your collection. For those coming in fresh, a lot of the nods, winks and background story may be a little baffling, albeit not enough to spoil the experience.
The storyline takes place — we think we've got this right — 10 years after the conclusion of Inazuma Eleven 3, and this time around you're controlling Arion Sherwind, who comes with the same DNA of over-the-top super-enthusiasm as the main protagonist of this title's predecessors, Mark Evans. He's just starting out at Raimon, the setting of the first DS title and recurring home of Evans, and joins the school team and a host of new characters. Initially we struggled to warm to Arion and his team-mates as much as those that came before, but the title does a good job of using its story-telling to flesh these players out; eventually we did have some level of affinity with these young footballers.
There are a host of returning characters, though, which we won't spoil here, which as mentioned above could fly over the heads of those jumping in for the first time. There's a bit of clunky reminiscence to remind you of what's come before, but overall the ensemble cast is introduced and expanded relatively skilfully. As for the overall storyline, it's got a neat hook and progresses nicely, though it does have padding that feels unnecessary; in fact, the amount of slightly inane busy-work that's thrown in on occasion is a regular complaint following on from Inazuma Eleven 3 — the development team wants this to be a substantial undertaking, but throws in unnecessary filler to achieve that goal.
This GO entry, meanwhile, scales back some of the daunting depth that spiralled out of control in the original trilogy, though perhaps chops away too much. The first title hit a sweet spot that this entry misses, as despite having equipment, abilities and levelling to tackle, it feels less substantial. Random 5-a-side football battles are exceptionally rare now, as you're instead simply shown challengers on the map that you can take on or completely ignore — it's welcome, compared to over-zealous equivalents that came before, but we found that the world felt less vibrant as a result. There are plenty of NPCs to exchange meaningless phrases with, yes, but for many hours we were running around the same dozen or so small-ish areas over and over again; this is a title setting the foundations for the whole GO series, yet it falls short of being compelling in its storytelling and sense of progress.
That said, there are new features and an attention to detail to admire. Though the overworld is more barren than before and items feel less relevant than ever, there's real depth to the action. The Extra Competition Route for additional matches returns — despite being annoyingly restrictive early on — but there are new ideas such as Twitter-style network where characters chat over events, and a neat trading card mechanic for acquiring new players. As with previous entries you can certainly get by with the default line-up and extras picked up in battles, but there's daunting scope to expand your roster, while local Wi-Fi trading is great for making deals with friends.
The primary feature of this title — beyond exploring the over-world and picking some local battles — is the story 'event' matches, which are 11-a-side and full of drama. It's in these where the now-standard wacky special moves come to the fore, and some scripting is combined with increasingly tough matches — we even had to endure a penalty shoot-out on one occasion. These are essential to the plot and progress well, gradually unveiling more abilities and evolving characters, all once again — as with the 5-a-side battles — controlled with the stylus on the touch screen, though conversations and special moves show on the top screen. It functions as before with a combination of taps and swipes, though this entry throws in some new mechanics; most notable are Fighting Spirits, which have their own energy requirements and involve rather large spirits beefing up key characters and, on occasion, clashing with each other.
It's to Level-5's credit that these matches remain a highlight, especially with some added drama thrown in with key events that disable the clock — you're tasked with getting a specific character into a certain area of the pitch, for example. Managing points and energy for special moves, Fighting Spirits, special team moves and general stamina may sound complex and exhausting, but it's introduced steadily and impeccably structured; young gamers that can handle Pokémon should find it a breeze. With each chapter structured in multiple parts that conclude with a match, on occasion we found ourselves keen to get past the fluff of storyline and fetching brown bread for the coach — yes, really! — and into the matches.
What these matches and the title as a whole also show off is a genuine improvement in presentation, too. While previous efforts on 3DS — two iterations of Inazuma Eleven 3 — were a little lazy, this sports a new visual engine that's clearly based on the same technology used for the more recent Professor Layton titles. The style brings us clean, simple polygons that look particularly good in 3D, while the music is of higher quality than before. This was the first title in the series developed from the ground up for 3DS, and it succeeds in moving the franchise on in terms of its presentation. There's download content — as well as StreetPass and SpotPass functionality — so keen players have plenty to enjoy.
Overall, this is a thoroughly decent entry in the Inazuma series, with its GO moniker introducing some new elements and a young cast to join old favourites. That said, the core experience remains largely the same, and we feel that the RPG sweet-spot of the first title hasn't been hit here — it's less ponderous that the last of the original trilogy, but somewhat empty and smaller in scale, too. Despite that, it retains the franchise charm, enthusiasm and positive attitude, while providing a meaty adventure to keep gamers busy for a lot of hours.
Inazuma Eleven GO: Light & Shadow is another welcome entry in the series, notable for finally embracing the 3DS fully as opposed to updating DS content. It adds a smattering of new features and ideas, some of which enhance the play, though retains the same formula of overworld exploration and stylus-based matches — all of which should satisfy long terms fans. The world is a little less vibrant than the original classic yet retains charm, and this is a good jumping-in point for 3DS owners that are willing to overlook nods and winks to series lore. A solid début for the GO sub-series, if not a stand-out, it scores a narrow, extra time win in its quest to maintain the standards that fans of outrageous football have come to expect. Well played, Level-5.