At first glance, Level-5′s Inazuma Eleven seems like a childish version of a soccer game, and it’s true to some extent. The main character, Mark Evans, is a student at Raimon Junior High School with a dream to bring the school’s soccer club to new heights. But behind this adolescent character is a game with an interesting mix of RPG and actual soccer. The game was originally a DS title, released in 2008 in Japan and 2011 in the U.K. and Europe, and after six years it’s finally arrived in North America on the 3DS eShop.
The idea of a soccer game with RPG elements is growing on me. FIFA fans can somewhat relate if they take the role of a manager in the annualized game, but Inazuma Eleven pushes the experience between matches further. Instead of just waiting for the next match, players advance through Mark’s journey towards building the best soccer club. The interactions between characters is a bit more mature than I expected, especially since most of them are in middle school. This is furthered by some quite ridiculous character names; one of the most prominent players that you first meet is a guy named Axel Blaze. But if you push the story aside and look at what the world has in store, it can be quite enjoyable.
When traveling, Mark is not alone. He is usually accompanied by three other teammates for the purpose of playing pickup soccer games. These are triggered at any time that they are moving around the world, similar to Pokémon or Final Fantasy battles. These encounters have a reasonable objective, such as to either score the first goal or simply take the ball from the other team. It’s not always easy, but the game is fair enough that you’re not always going to lose. Winning these games unlocks points to replenish the team’s strength and stamina or to increase Mark’s circle of friends in order to scout more players.
It was honestly surprising to find out that this game had an actual scouting system. By talking to the scout manager in the clubhouse, you can filter preferences to find the right kind of player. Using the Friendship Points won in pickup games — it sounds silly, I know — players can unlock more characters to scout. This opens up a wave of strategies that players can experiment with to try to make a formidable team. Replenishable items are littered throughout the world and can also be bought, adding a little bit more depth to the game, although I barely used it since it was just more convenient to keep my team rested up in the club house before and after games.
As for the beautiful game itself, it’s a fun experience, but learning how to play it can be quite difficult. Whether it’s a small game of four-on-four or a full eleven-versus-eleven game, the controls are still the same. By tapping and swiping with the stylus, players can tell characters to move to certain areas, make passes and score goals. On top of that, one should also mind each character’s stats in a match up. Taking the ball away or scoring a goal pauses the game and allows the character to make one of three moves as an attempt. Having a higher form stat or shooting stat than the opponent usually leads to success. On top of that, each character has its own element — mountain, fire, forest, or lightning. Knowing the hierarchy of the elements is also important in a match up. It’s surprising that even in a sport such as soccer the traditional RPG elements are ever present, but somehow they work.
Overall, it should be easy to play the match with the 3DS’ two screens, but unfortunately, it only uses one. The top screen is reserved for a large scoreboard, which could have been minimized to allow for a full two screen soccer field. Utilizing only one screen is frustrating especially if your team is pushing towards the opposing goal. It’s tough to make decisions if an opposing character suddenly appears from the top of the screen. The game tries to make up for this by adding a pause button at the top right corner, but it only serves to disrupt the flow of gameplay. After all, who wants to play soccer by pausing and resuming the game multiple times in one match?
Though it suffers slow beginning, a somewhat difficult learning curve and one-screen gameplay, Inazuma Eleven can be really fun. The special moves of some players, such as creating decoy balls or sending a meteor-like shot into the goal, puts FIFA Street‘s moves to shame. Once you get the hang of the gameplay, and have the patience and know that you’re probably going to lose a lot at the onset, it can be amusing and even addicting.
This review of Inazuma Eleven is based on a eShop code for the Nintendo 3DS sent to SideQuesting by the publisher.