In the world of handheld video games, role-playing titles are king. Pokemon was released in the mid-90s and revolutionized what we played in the back seat of our parents’ car. How many family vacation trips did Pikachu save us when we were younger? Heck, you may even play the latest Pokemon titles now while you’re pretending to work in your cubicle. It’s ok, I’m not here to judge. What I am here to do is introduce you to your new addiction, Inazuma Eleven.
The series has been around for awhile, but unless you live in Japan you may not have even heard of it. A few titles in the series have been released in the States and the UK, but they’ve largely done so quietly. That needs to change, and I’m here to do that because this is a game any soccer-loving gamer needs to have in his or her library. Also, I need some people to trade players with…
Here’s the best way to explain Inazuma Eleven: It’s like Pokemon except you’re the captain of a soccer team, and instead of capturing monsters and teaching them different moves, you’re recruiting players and teaching them different tricks. There’s a storyline here, but it’s not the reason you should buy it, nor why you should keep playing it. All you need to know is that you start off captaining a sorry squad that doesn’t even have enough players to field a full team. You roam the school grounds, and places around the city, in search of players to compete in a big tournament. Seriously, it’s Pokemon with soccer balls.
Inazuma Eleven’s two strongest aspects are its controls and its absurdity. The game makes full use of the 3DS’ stylus while you’re on the pitch. Player movements are guided by drawing on the field, and passes and shots are placed by tapping on players and the goal. Truth be told, it’s all a little difficult to get used to at first. I had my butt handed to me more times than I care to admit when I initially picked it up. After awhile, however, you’ll be tapping and drawing like a pro. The stylus is really the best way to command so many players at once on the handheld.
Now on to the absurdity. Oh man, this game is crazy. In true Japanese anime fashion, everything is over the top. One of the first matches you play early on is against a team called Occult, which includes a defender with bolts sticking out the side of his neck, a midfielder wrapped up like a mummy, and a sorcerer. The names are golden too, like Rob Crombie, a third-year defender with stitches scattered around his body and dead eyes.
Each club you face has a theme to it, and if you stop to question why you’re playing against a kid with a diaper on his head, you’re not playing the game the right way. Special moves are really exciting too, like Kevin, a forward you get early who learns the move Dragon Crash. It’s a ferocious strike that literally summons a dragon in its wake. These special moves are governed by TP points that diminish over time, meaning you’ll need to use them wisely during a match. Players can even team up with one another to create even more special moves. When Kevin teams up with Axel Blaze (I swear that’s his name) they can perform the Fire Tornado, a strike that would require a goalie to use his own special move, like God Hand, to stop. The trick is, if you’re controlling the goalie, it’s a gamble on whether or not to use your special move. You won’t know if the opposing striker has just hit a normal shot or a special one until it’s too late. You either use your special ability, and use the TP points, or skip it and hope it’s a normal shot. This decision becomes crucial in later matches with tight score lines.
There are two other ways that Inazuma Eleven flourishes, and two other ways it resembles Pokemon (I swear that was the last Pokemon reference). The first is random battles. As you’re walking around your school, or the surrounding town, you’ll randomly run into a group of thugs to play against. These battles consist of smaller teams and usually tasks you with scoring the first goal. They’re a nice way to dig into the game mechanic without playing through a lengthy match. Your players will also level after these and normal matches, learning new abilities as they go. The second is the sheer amount of players you can recruit. Online functionality means you can play against your friends, but you can also trade players, giving you hundreds of options to choose your best starting XI. If you’ve got friends willing to pick this game up with you, it opens up a huge amount of playability.
Inazuma Eleven isn’t a perfect game by any means. The walking mechanics seem a bit stiff and getting from one side of the school to the other isn’t always as fun as it could be. Just like any RPG, there are times when you just want to get from point A to point B and the frequent stops for random battles make you want to throw your 3DS against the wall.
The other negative is the fact that this game can be really unforgiving at times. For example, there are actually two ways to lose those random battles where the goal is to score first. You can either be scored on, or have the timer run out. The timer is nice because it means battles like this won’t drag on, but there isn’t a stalemate option for 0-0, you just lose. More annoyingly though, is the fact that major matches are scripted. Remember that Occult team I told you about earlier? There’s a pattern of cut scenes to that match. You still have control of your players, but things happen in a certain way. They’re always going to use a certain power at a specific point in the match, and you’re always going to go down a goal when it happens. You can still either win or lose that match, but you’re forced to fight back in a very specific way. And heaven help you if you do lose a scripted match. The game will force you to play the entire match over again, but instead of starting from the first whistle, the game puts you back to your last save. Now, I’ve played enough games in my life to know better, but when this first happened to me it had been a solid two hours since I had saved. All I could think about was the vast amount of un-skippable dialogue I was going to have to wade through to get back to the match. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy.
If you can get past these flaws (and you definitely should), there’s an incredible game here. It’s fun, deep, and the online aspects make it a ton of fun with friends. The 3DS is really the perfect platform for it as well. There’s nothing like grinding out a match while you’re riding the bus to work, or leveling up a couple of players between commercials. Plus, there’s not the constant pressure to collect every single player. So, unlike your unfulfilled, 13-year-old desire to catch the original 150 Pokemon, this won’t weigh heavily on your shoulders while you’re writing out those client reports. Ok, THAT was the last Pokemon reference.
If you’re a gamer and you love soccer, this one is a no-brainer. It’s currently available in the Nintendo eShop for $19.99.