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Inazuma Eleven (3DS) artwork

Inazuma Eleven (3DS) review

""Offsides" gets called every ten seconds, but the opposing team uses magic to fuse my team to the ground and they don't get so much as a foul."

It took its time arriving, but Inazuma Eleven is here at last and North American residents finally have the opportunity to play an early entry in the series of games the rest of the world has been enjoying since 2008. The delay is our punishment for not caring about soccer.

Inazuma Eleven is a hybrid soccer/role-playing game with a bit of Pokémon thrown in as a bonus. The story tracks the Raimon High soccer club, a team of junior high soccer players who (mostly) lack passion for their chosen sport. That apathy has brought the club to the verge of closure, but heroic protagonist Mike Evans--also the captain of the team--is determined to save the club from its impending doom.

Raimon High might well be the only semi-normal team in the world. Inazuma Eleven feels like a typical shonen anime, where soccer is the most important thing in the universe. The opposing teams are suitably crazy, as that convention demands. The Occult team uses bizarre magical powers and the Wild team consists of players that seem to be part animal, for instance. One especially powerful team, from Royal Academy, is definitely a team of Nazis.

The game is broken into a couple of phases. First is the adventure phase, where you can explore the school and the town in search of special training spots (which can then be used to raise specific player stats), or recruit new members for the team. You can also buy or find equipment, or get into random “soccer battles.” These events are quick four-on-four matches with simple objectives. You may be asked to score a single goal or simply take the ball from the opponent. The matches get old quickly, though, as random battles tend to do.

The adventuring and character building prepare you for the game’s true draw: the soccer matches. Actual matches utilize an interesting mix of simplified video soccer and turn-based RPG battles. Your team automatically runs around the field, chasing the ball and trying to lead it towards the opponent's goal. When the player with the ball meets an opponent, the game stops and you're prompted to choose an action. The odds of success are represented by a “form” value for each player involved, shown on the top of the screen. Two basic actions are available for every situation. The action on the left (like “feint” or “tackle”) has a lower chance of success, while the action on the right (“charge” or “sliding tackle,” for example) is more likely to result in a foul and grant possession to the opposing team. Factors such as the number of players nearby, elemental alignment, and level all affect your odds of success. Each new interaction forces you to think about the risks you're taking when choosing a given action.

Things really get interesting when you unlock the ability to perform special moves. These over-the-top abilities cost “TP,” but have much higher odds of success than regular moves in addition to being flashy and fun to watch. In one case, a striker can twirl into the air and engulf the ball in flames to knock a goalie right off his feet. In another, a goalie can send out a giant glowing hand to increase his odds of catching the ball. Multiple players can even combine their special moves to create even flashier and more powerful effects. Successfully performing special moves is incredibly satisfying.

Special moves are the most interesting part of the game, but many regular matches are at least partially scripted and require you to vary your approach. The story won't progress unless you put your players in a specific situation, leading to a mid-game epiphany that allows someone to learn a new move. You can also have friendly matches against teams you've already beaten, which will be pure 11 vs. 11 matches, and those are more fun than story matches. Unfortunately, you'll never make any story progress simply playing friendly matches. It's a great way to grind and level your team, though. Soccer matches in Inazuma Eleven are at their best when they're pure, and it would be nice to be able to take your team online and play against other human beings. Regretfully, only local multiplayer is supported.

Although they fare better than the moments between, even the soccer matches aren't all sunshine and joy thanks to a few quirks. You can call a time-out to pause the action and outline an elaborate play. You can draw lines to guide your players, then resume play and watch those plans be put into motion. The downside is that if semi-random chance leads to you losing the ball, your players will continue along the paths you plotted until every move is executed. You can cancel individual actions by drawing new paths, but this is a slow process and there’s no option to simply cancel everything at once. The time-out function simply isn't worth the risk as a result, and is only really useful if you need to pause the game.

The game's presentation is also a mixed bag. There's a huge cast of characters with unique designs, using the charming Level-5 cartoon style. The music is upbeat and fun, perfectly suited to the tone of the game (as is to be expected from composer Yasunori Mitsuda, of Chrono Trigger fame). The game uses over-the-top anime cutscenes and the effect is that the whole thing feels like a children's cartoon. With that said, this game was clearly designed to be played on last generation's DS hardware. The sprites are cute, but they’re tiny and difficult to interact with when things get frantic. You can make a player run faster by tapping on them, for instance, but you're sufficiently likely to accidentally miss and instead kick the ball away that it's not worth trying. The few 3D models that are used to animate special moves are ugly and low-poly, which can be jarring. Mike seems like a pretty upbeat and positive guy in his character art, but he scowls like a jerk in 3D. Meanwhile, the soccer ball looks like a 20-sided D&D die. It would have been nice if art assets had received a facelift for this 3DS version.

The low resolution also means you can only see a small fraction of the field at a time, which makes it tough to keep track of your players’ positions. A map of the field on the top screen would have been incredibly helpful, but the top screen only shows the score. The game is sometimes bad at teaching you how to play. You can choose the amount of power behind your shots, for example, but the game never tells you what that means in a practical sense (higher power means faster shots, but lower accuracy, in case you wondered).

This game came out years ago. Many people have played it already. There's really no excuse for so many of these problems to persist. That’s especially true of the misused top screen. Hopefully, the rest of the series is more refined than this first entry, which is a valiant effort that fails to live up to its potential. If you have the patience for it, though, Inazuma Eleven is still an interesting hybrid of genres that does at least work on a fundamental level. If you're interested in the game, it's probably worth checking it out. Though it's definitely not right for everyone, it might be right for you.


Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (February 24, 2014)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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