As Spain found out during last year’s World Cup, finding the room to play pretty football can be difficult when you’re constrained from all sides. It’s a situation Level-5 will be more than familiar with, the confines of the DS’s small screens proving a tricky obstacle to overcome in soccer RPG Inazuma Eleven, even with the rather squat player models involved. The tight spaces found here are hardly conducive to tiki-taka or tactical play, forcing a rather inelegant approach to the so-called beautiful game. It’s a good job, then, that the titular team have superpowers to ease them to unconvincing victory.
With its simplistic but big-hearted stories and fantastical football sequences, Inazuma Eleven seems to have been created with an anime tie-in in mind; sure enough, the cartoon is on its third series in Japan, having recently been localised for European viewers (if not UK watchers, hence the missing-in-action release date for the sport’s spiritual home).
Players regularly pull off impossible moves, assisted by hurriedly-assembled stone obstructions, swooping dragons, fireballs and deity-sized hands to prevent certain goals. An occult team possess supernatural skills, capable of confusing even the most sharp-eyed defender, while tornado-powered shots carry the ‘keeper into the net even as he grasps the ball firmly between both gloves. It’s Winning Eleven meets Dragonball Z; little wonder Japanese gamers lapped it up.
After Layton expertly blended a gripping narrative with the kind of puzzles that had players young and old chewing their styluses, it’s no surprise to see Level-5 adopting a similarly genre-bending approach. Yet while the sport wouldn’t automatically seem like a good fit for a role-playing game, that half of the game is, perhaps surprisingly, as linear as the genre gets. As goalkeeper and team captain Mark Evans, it’s your responsibility to build a suitable squad from the ramshackle Raimon Junior High team, a motley crew of has-beens and never-weres, to compete in a national football tournament.
This is accomplished via a series of simple story-based quests, many of which simply involve locating a character or obtaining an item. Initially, most areas outside the school grounds are off-limits, but as your squad increases in size and ability and more matches are won, the environment of Raimon City opens up, eventually offering complete freedom to explore and recruit.
Along the way, you’ll engage in Inazuma’s take on random battles; here, you’re challenged to either score a goal or take the ball from a small group of challengers. The local book club might seem like a pushover on paper, but, as the cliché goes, there are no easy games in football. Indeed, while the interruptions which simply require you to gain possession put the player just one solid sliding tackle away from success, netting within a strict time limit is a tougher task; even against weaker opponents, you can easily lose valuable prestige and friendship points from simply failing to score quickly.
On the pitch, the same problems remain, albeit this time you’re given more time to – quite literally – achieve your goals. Characters are guided with touchscreen controls, stylus slides setting them on a path and taps passing the ball either into space or direct to feet. The need to build momentum means it’s rarely wise to attempt the latter unless the recipient will release the ball quickly.
Opponents can be upon you before you’ve had time to accelerate away, and regardless of stats and elemental alliances – another traditional RPG conceit – a head-on sliding challenge almost always sees the opposing team emerge with the ball. Fill your squad with nimble-footed players, however, and you’ll often find tough-tackling opponents simply can’t keep up – though, as you’re still reliant on the caprices of the erratic AI player movement, it can be some time before you fashion a decent opening, where you’re at the mercy of a curious shooting mechanic which pauses the action before allowing you to select the power and loft of your shot.
It’s a system that seems to reward players for perseverance – and the use of special abilities – over genuine skill. An option exists to ‘fire up’ your side, offering a temporary boost to the success rate of shots and challenges, while items can be used mid-match as buffs or to replenish the Friendship Points each unique ability depletes.
Eventually, the game’s idiosyncrasies are mastered, whereupon you’ll find yourself scoring with greater regularity, not least when it becomes obvious how easily goalkeepers can be pulled out of position when a player cuts into the penalty area. Again, teams with a surfeit of speedy players tend to benefit most when adopting such an artless approach.
Yet if the football resembles that of a battling mid-table side rather than a championship challenger, there’s still much to enjoy here. Scouting for fresh faces offers surprising satisfaction when a hidden gem is unearthed, and while the linearity will be considered a weakness by some, it provides a momentum to the story as your squad grows and improves.
Though hackneyed in places and downright cringeworthy in others, the rags-to-riches tale is skilfully told, Level-5’s writers finding the time to sprinkle in a small handful of surprises throughout the otherwise predictable plot. All-too-fleeting animated sequences suggest young anime fans are eventually in for a treat when the series is picked up for television, while the voice acting has a certain rough-hewn charm.