During the Game Boy Advance era, there were a lot of RPGs made in a certain style that don’t quite exist anymore. These RPGs were story-driven experiences as reliant on plot as they were on the gameplay systems behind them. They were designed with children in mind, but they had a layer of complexity and strategy any adult could appreciate. Mario Tennis: Power Tour is one of these games. Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Sacred Cards is one of these games. And now, from a DS series finally available in North America for the first time, I can say that Inazuma Eleven is one of these games.
In Europe and Japan, Inazuma Eleven is an extremely successful soccer (AKA football) series. Though the series has spanned both the DS and 3DS with many sequels and a handful of alternate Pokémon-style versions, the very first DS game in the series is now available on the North American eShop. Although that may sound justifiably fishy to some, the reality is that the series is so story driven that there really is no alternative to releasing the first one on the eShop at a budget price. Additionally, it’s not a straight DS port either. Although there isn’t a ton of 3D and most action takes place in the bottom screen, select cutscenes and crazy soccer moves show an impressive display on the touch screen. More importantly, the game has been brought into widescreen and the visuals have clearly been remastered from the DS era.
Inazuma Eleven takes place in Raimon Junior High in the shoes of one young and charismatic Mark Evans, grandson of a legendary soccer coach and one of those anime protagonists who believes in never giving up and valuing friendship more than his own life. He has dreams of his school becoming the national championship team, but the team he is currently with is understaffed and unmotivated. As such, the whole game surrounds Mark trying to get a team into fighting shape before bringing them to the top.
Because this is one of those Japanese fictional worlds where every citizen is way too into soccer and treats it as the one way of life, the story gets pretty deep and pretty crazy. The game’s antagonist is so into soccer that he is willing to murder middle-school children just to win a soccer game that has no clear prize other than victory. And by murder, I mean actual murder. No one gets murdered in this game made for children, but the antagonist gives it a hell of a shot in the form of mass communal water poisoning as well as trying to drop girders directly onto the heads of these thirteen-year-olds. I won’t say too much for the sake of spoilers, but this game gets really crazy really fast.
Thankfully, the story maintains good, developing characters over the adventure and maintaining a 4Kids-like childlike innocence that keeps its feet on the ground in spite of the craziness. As a result, the story of Inazuma Eleven ends up being compelling and fun for any demographic.
The gameplay is not so simple. While it is ostensibly just a game about soccer, you aren’t controlling every single player and carrying out every single move on their behalf. Instead, soccer matches consist of managing your team by setting a course for where your players move in real-time and determining how they act against an opponent.
For instance, you have the ball in your possession and you approach a defender for the other team. Do you try to slip past them and keep the ball in your possession (despite a higher risk of losing the ball), or do you charge ahead, and have a better chance of keeping the ball as well as a better chance of having it fly across the field as soon as you win the confrontation. If you’re the goalie and a forward is trying to kick it in, do you punch it away out of desperation to make sure it doesn’t go in, do you try to catch it and maintain control despite a higher chance of it going past you, or do you expend some of your special points meter to summon a gigantic glowing hand that blocks a shot with a near 100% certainty? Although it’s not strictly soccer playing, Inazuma Eleven is a wonderfully fun game of chance where you strategically calculate the fastest way to get a ball across the field.
The gameplay gains a further level of depth in its stats, elemental alignments, and special moves. The stats, which include things like “guard” and “control,” determine how well equipped you are to block a shot or keep the ball in your possession. Elemental alignments, which include Fire, Wood, Air, and Earth, also determine the success rate certain players have against certain members of the opposing team. If a player of the Fire alignment has the ball and he’s going against a defender of the Wood alignment, he has an improved chance of winning the confrontation. However, if that team member with possession of the ball is of the Earth alignment and you go against the superior Air alignment, the Air-aligned player has a better chance of winning the confrontation.
Lastly, there are extravagant special moves you can use that can guarantee a goal or pass an enemy so long as your aren’t horrifically unmatched and your opponent doesn’t counter with his or her own special moves. These moves are visually the best part of the entire game. One of my star kickers has a move where he literally summons the power of a blue dragon to get a goal, and the goalie has a move called “God Hand” where he summons a gigantic hand to cover the entirety of the soccer net. The game’s ability to get really nuts likely stands to be my favorite thing about it.
Inazuma Eleven is a somewhat complicated game, and anyone who decides to pick up this 17-hour experience should know that there is a learning curve. However, its heartwarming story, endearing charm, and gameplay depth make this game a winner. If you like the Mario sports RPGs of old and want a game to scratch that itch in the way Camelot hasn’t been able to lately, Inazuma Eleven is a winner.
3DS review code provided by Level-5. Inazuma Eleven is now available exclusively on the 3DS eShop in North America and Australia. If you’re in Europe or Japan, this series is available on DS and 3DS.