Perhaps you, like me, have a more off than on-again relationship with soccer (or football, whichever you wish to call it). Maybe your love affair blossoms for a fleeting month or so when the World Cup rolls around every four years. Maybe you, like me, have more of an investment in the world of RPGs. Thus when the RPG Soccer game, Inazuma Eleven was finally released in North America, your interest may have been piqued as mine was.
While marrying soccer to the mechanics of an RPG seems an odd combination, it is actually not that far-fetched a concept. Soccer and role-playing games both rely on strategic play to an extent. It would stand to reason then that everything about this game would make perfect sense. Still, there was the initial questioning curiosity on my part: Exactly how could an entire story, and traditional elements of the RPG be applied around a sport? What I found was something both hilarious and clever in execution. Inazuma Eleven manages to take expected tropes and adapts them to its story and gameplay in an unexpected way.
The Quirky Way to Approach RPG Standards
In the traditional sense, during the RPG portions of the game - a game that follows the story of Mark, the goalkeeper of a failing high school soccer club on the brink of being disbanded, and his unabashed love of soccer that plays a role in propelling the soccer club to its eventual rise to stardom - your party of (usually) four players will run around to get from point A to B, doing whatever quest is required of them - whether that's finding someone or something.
In the soccer portion of the game, your team members level up by building their stamina, kick, body, speed and other stats by playing matches against various teams. The matches - or battles, if we think of this in RPG terms - are controlled by use of the stylus whereby you plan your moves, positions on the field, draw lines from your players to direct them where to run, tap them to give them little bursts of speed (which in turn depletes their stamina, of course), tap nearby players in order to pass the ball and tap the goal when you are ready to try to make a shot.
During encounters in which either team has to gain possession of the ball or score/defend a goal, the game will prompt you to choose an option by which to do so. There are basic commands that you can choose - tackle, dodge, block, feint, shoot, clip shot, header - but then there are moves that require a little more flash and power. This is where "magic" comes in and it's Inazuma's approach to "magic" and "monsters" that is not quite what you would expect from an RPG.
The game is grounded in a present day realism for the most part... that is of course, until you learn (or acquire by way of training manuals you find, buy or learn as per plot devices) special moves designed to assist in defensive and offensive plays during soccer matches. These special moves are presented in all their spectacular visual glory: high-powered attacks, shots, steals, and saves that defy logic by being so pleasantly insane that they are a joy to watch when executed. The game goes into little cut-scenes after you choose your special moves and things such as fire tornado kicks and tsunami wall saves are as ridiculously fun to see as you can imagine. Sometimes they fail because your 'magic' attacks are not high-level enough than the other teams'. These failures will have you screaming at those monsters who foiled your plans.
And speaking of monsters, this is where Inazuma feels particularly inspired.
During the course of the game, you meet some of your opponents from other schools competing in the game's regional and Soccer Frontier Association's matches. The monstrous elements of the opponents are at times in their designs and at others, in the villainous actions of your rival schools' members. They're not your traditional monsters, like say, a Final Fantasy Malboro looking to inflict every stat damage in the book on you. They are however, kids whose designs are a bit on the odd side to match their respective teams' identities. Just to give a few examples, some of them live out in the middle of 'savage' and 'jungle' type country and thus play as 'wild' animals would. Their designs and special moves are created to match: including moves such as "monkey turns", using agility and mischievous behavior as you would imagine a monkey would act. You will also meet brainwashed opponents with mind control devices on their heads that give them the confidence of no fear and a singular focus on winning by sheer strength. There's even an Otaku rival school. You can probably guess what sort of players you would find in that bunch. It's that sort of self-aware humor that is quite the chuckle while at the same time, may make you groan at its awkward commentary and stereotypes.
That Familiar, Beautiful Music
Fans of Chrono Trigger know that game for its time travel mechanics, tech battle system, multiple path endings, amazing characters and its complex, in-depth story. There's one other thing we may also love it for and that's its music. It's no surprise then that during the course of listening to Inazuma's soundtrack, most of which was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, that you will find yourself humming along to the school's theme, or paying attention to those more somber tracks. The music can get repetitive as the soundtrack seemed limited in what was utilized for the majority of the game. However, what is scored is beautiful, alluring, familiar and as magnificent as you would expect from Mitsuda's brilliance.
Exciting but Stressful...in a Good Way!
Trying to gain possession of a ball, scoring or alternately going on the defensive to prohibit the other team from landing a goal takes in part strategic planning, patience and like any good RPG: higher level stats. The main soccer matches between rival schools are the boss fights that can leave you with anxiety throughout. That feeling of scoring a hard-earned goal, setting up a shot and nailing a brilliant pass is an inexplicable, rewarding sort of feeling you'll get every time.
Other times, you may kick yourself when you make an error inputting commands to defend (usually an error made out of purely hasty decisions born of anxiety on my part). Sometimes you will have to take a risk by executing a future play in the hopes your command to snatch or keep the ball is successful. Future plays mean you can set up surrounding players to defend or intercept the ball further down the field. However, if your initial command fails, the team members you put into these future, anticipated plays are temporarily unable to act. I cannot tell you how cringe worthy it was seeing failed plays occur, followed by watching the opposing team head towards your goalkeeper to possible victory.
And then there is a certain kind of stress soccer fans will know well. It was during my regional finals that the game, for the first time during my playthrough, went into overtime and then into the ever-dreaded penalty kicks round. For all the planning and victories during the game, all of your hard work can be ruined in the penalty round. Hoping that your choices on where to kick your ball did not result in a save was a nail biting experience. Slightly worse was hoping that you positioned your goalie in just the right area to defend. Penalties are about having a whole lot of luck and a little bit of faith. It was an insanely heart-pounding moment but the sigh of relief at winning in that instant made for one of the most intense gaming experiences I had in recent memory.
Preconditions to Advance the Story
Some moments of the game are based on preconditions. For example, very early on, you have to score a goal via a special move in order to advance the story. The warning here is to be prepared that the other team will also score as determined by the story. It can become frustrating in that if you fail, you will have to repeat your actions over and over again until you meet that specific requirement. It's a challenge but that particular moment in the game really made me toss my hands up initially. It became a good place that truly forced me to play better even if it sometimes felt that its sole purpose was to antagonize me. This occurrence of preconditions happens on and off during the game but that first time was the most noticeable for me. The sense of achievement when you kick it to the game and cry out, "in yo face!" is worth it, however.
So Many Faces, So Many Places
While Inazuma is about an eleven man soccer team with certain members being staples to the story (and ones you will probably get attached to and want to keep around), the ability to customize your team is staggering. The scouting and recruiting system is not necessary to play the game but it adds a level of interesting possibilities. You can scout or recruit players from other school clubs, friendly rivals that you meet during the game, or even past rivals your team faced in regionals and Soccer Frontier matches. Yep, if you wanted to scout an Otaku member, you could. The potential here is that your team could be created of players with unique skill sets as per their special moves.
Like all sports, there are rules to follow. In Inazuma, there are two that came up most frequently (the only two that were ever called on me, actually). One of them comes out of no where with no real explanation as to why it's called. It's one we probably all know and love: Foul. It's the other rule that will frustrate you to no end if you are not well-versed in soccer. To play this game effectively, you should have an understanding of what it means to be "Offside". It's really not that hard a rule to follow once you understand the basis of it.
Same Old Scenery
Inazuma is set in a quiet (but fairly large) Japanese school and its surrounding neighborhood/areas. Fans of Professor Layton will love its art style in its characters and their charm. While there are truly not enough locations for exploration, there is a very rural neighborhood setting that lends itself to the slice-of-life atmosphere the game has. Though it can also be said that there is a sameness to locale that might feel anything but magical. RPGs come in all flavors and this is your Persona type area minus the weird other worlds you can explore at night. This is a game about a football team through and through, so the strange and wonderful sights are found in the odd opponents you will face as noted before.
The Story May Seem Lighthearted but Darkness Awaits
While the story is riddled with RPG tropes, that slice-of-life atmospheric quality to it exudes a sort of quaint charm. It's a story that carries a lot of heart: a small soccer team that starts from nothing to become not just the best in the nation, but the stuff of Legend. It's a story of inspiration, teamwork, personal growth, loss, coming of age, love, friendship, dealing with opposition and coming to terms with personal failures and insecurities while finding yourself. If it sounds really "feel good", it is. However, there are those moments when unexpected, darker drama unfolds and it's downright shocking when it happens. There are also some underlying themes that are not all sunshine and rainbow sprinkles. It's much like life in that way. Ultimately, the game's main character will be that beacon of unabashed cheer whose (mostly) positive attitude affects everyone in the game to improve themselves. But to underestimate Inazuma as a game that's all lighthearted would be to sell it short.
Ugh, Not Another Random Encounter on my Way to Another Fetch Quest!
As innovative as the reasoning behind and subsequent implementation of the game's take on random encounters is, the mini matches with the other After-School clubs can get tiring. The conditions for winning them rarely vary: score the first goal, don't let the other team score, or take the ball away. Their purpose in the game is to try to train you to play better but the simplicity of these exchanges without much experience points (at times) make them feel more of an annoyance than anything. They also only get more interesting late in the game when those opponents finally start using special moves on you too. However, with other easily accessible alternatives by which to truly level up your stats that become unlocked frequently throughout the course of the game, the random encounters just feel more like busy work than anything else early on in the game.
Then there's the running back and forth everywhere to look for things, talk to people or finding them which creates a definition in unnecessary repetition. That in itself can feel mighty tedious at times with fetch quests at its worst.
Oh, and I did not get one single red card! I wanted to feel like a hooligan. This is just in jest, of course. But really, there would be red cards everywhere in this game if I had to count every time someone used a special move during play.
Inazuma Eleven is simplicity at its core but it is a fun diversion with some genuinely exciting moments in gameplay. On the surface, the typical feel good story of a sports team's rise to stardom, while overcoming near impossible adversity could leave you wanting a little more. But if it's a slice-of-life, sports story you want with quaint charm, sprinkled with moments of true intensity in both its story and fun gameplay, then this is the game for you.
Inazuma Eleven is currently available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop for 19.99 USD.
Update: There is a local multiplayer mode available for matches, as well as a mode for trading locally. I unfortunately did not have a chance to try either.
Editor's Notes: In a showing of support to team Inazuma Eleven, I used orange review headers to match the team logo. Go Team!