Inazuma Eleven Review – get in touch with this soccer RPG

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Japan is home to some of the wackiest, most unique video games ever made. Games like Katamari Damacy, in which the player controls a prince of the cosmos who rolls up literally anything he can into a ball to create celestial bodies, are just the tip of the ice berg. The recent indie game scene has plenty of interesting concepts, but Japan is definitely still king in that regard.

System: 3DS (eShop)
Players: 2
Publisher: Level-5
Developer: Level-5
Price: $19.99

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Enter Inazuma Eleven, a game that mashes together two of Japan’s favorite things: Role-playing games and soccer. In this game, players take on the role of Mark, a boy who is obsessed with soccer. Mark has an enthusiasm for soccer, but for some reason, it appears that the school superiors at Raimon are bent on shutting the team down. Mark and his rag tag of less enthusiastic players are pushed into a match against the best team in the league, Royal Academy, a team whose introduction bears resemblance to the appearance of Darth Vader, soccer troops lining up like soldiers next to the red carpet. As expected, Royal Academy proceeds to trounce Raimon, but they unexpectedly concede the match, preventing the Raimon soccer team from disbanding.

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There are a few wrinkles here and there in the plot to attempt to spice things up. Along the way you’ll encounter a fantastic player who mysteriously quit playing soccer, and you may eventually learn about the legendary Inazuma Eleven. There are several subplots to help keep things moving. Unfortunately, the dialogue isn’t nearly as interesting. There are a few shining moments, but for the most part the text seems to be on autopilot, throwing out generic streams of words that you’ll want to skip quickly past.

Some of the situations you’ll encounter add some much appreciated lightheartedness, such as the time when the sumo team wants to recruit a brawny student named Jack. While Jack hides in a locker having an anxiety attack over all of the attention he’s receiving, the sumo team challenges you to kick the ball at the locker to get Jack out of it, all the while using their sumo blocking skills to thwart you. It would have been nice to see more special events like this for added comedy and to better bring out the personalities of the characters.

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The meat of the game comes in the form of matches against other teams. You’ll choose a formation for your team, place each member where you prefer them to be, and then choose the basic AI of the team: hold, attack, and defend. Each major possession of the ball will optionally allow you to swap players around, and change tactics.

Players will move on their own, advancing toward the ball if its nearby, or generally following the AI that you gave them, but you can also interfere by giving them routes to follow. After tapping on the screen to pass the ball, you can tap on another player to do one-touch passes. It’s a neat feature that works really well. Of course, you do have to be aware of the position of the other team’s players so they don’t block your passes. Thankfully, there’s a pause feature that lets you scroll around the field to get a better look at everyone’s positions so you can give commands and orchestrate attacks, passes and the like.

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Whenever there is a shot towards the goal, or a player who has the ball is approached, the game pauses so you can make a decision. The decision on the left has less of a chance of occurring, but if you succeed, your player will have possession of the ball. On the other hand, the right-hand decision has a better chance of occurring, but less chance of your player gaining/retaining possession of the ball. Stats affect these outcomes but so do the elements of the two players involved in an action.

Each player is assigned one of four elements: wind, forest, fire, mountain. Each element is strong against another, but also weak against one of the others. So, for example, it might be valuable to have a forward player (the one taking shots at the goal) whose element is strong against the opponent’s goalie. Lastly, in addition to the standard moves for attacking and defending, players can be equipped with special moves that also have one of the four elements. I found the hybridization of the gameplay to be quite unique. It was constantly flicking back and forth between playing like a soccer game, and allowing for choices that would be seen in an RPG or strategy game, though overall I didn’t find there to be too much depth. The most fun I had was orchestrating attacks and passes.

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One thing that I love about anime is its ability to exaggerate actions and situations. Inazuma Eleven borrows heavily from manga and anime, with characters who perform moves that cause things like an imaginary dragon circling in the air and striking forward as the player hammers the ball towards the goal. Mark is equipped with a skill called, “God Hand”, by which he creates a giant orange hand to halt any incoming score attempts. When a goalie is going to lose, an animation shows the soccer ball forcing its way towards the goal with blue fire spitting out of it as the goalie gets pushed back, eventually toppling over. There are all kinds of animations like this, and they do help to heighten the excitement of the matches.

This being an RPG hybrid, random battles occur at most of the locations you’ll visit, and strangely enough, it seems as though everyone wants to challenge you at soccer: the cycling team, “basketball lobbers”, tennis and baseball players…pretty much anyone. The objectives are simple and short, usually having you prevent the opposing side from scoring, scoring the first goal, and a few other types that help you hone your skills. You’ll get experience from these random battles to level up your characters. Sometimes the random battles occur too frequently, becoming monotonous, but thankfully you can run from them with only a small penalty to your points (which are used to recruit players, buy items, train skills etc.).

Inazuma Eleven is an interesting mashup that you might not think could work, but on the whole it does. There are tons of players to recruit, and different strategies to try out, adding to the longevity. The gameplay itself can be pretty fun, but it does lack in depth. With dialogue and a plot that don’t go beyond average, I suspect many players will be rapidly tapping “A” during cutscenes. Special attacks are a nice visual treat, bringing explosions of excitement to the field. Those who are interested in seeing the odd combination of soccer and RPG genres coming together should definitely give Inazuma Eleven a chance.

Grade B-

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