Review: Inazuma Eleven

Most of the games I play come from friend recommendations. One friend in particular is pretty good at picking out games that I would enjoy, and he linked me to a demo video of Inazuma Eleven, essentially saying, “Hey, you like JRPGs and you like soccer, so this should be for you.” I love JRPGs, but despite my love of sports, I hate most sports games. In fact, the only sports games I like aren’t really sports games; for instance, I’m a big fan of Mario Tennis. But after dealing with games like Top Spin, I just can’t handle sports games. They either bore the hell out of me or frustrate me to the point where I begin to hate the sport itself, so I generally stay away from them. Here was a chance for that to be redeemed, even if this isn’t a sports game in the sense that FIFA ’11 is a sports game. I figured I’d give it a shot.

As always, I will attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible. I’m not sure it will really bother our American readers, though, as Level-5 hasn’t announced this game for the U.S. and probably won’t be releasing this particular one here.

Inazuma Eleven
Systems: Nintendo DS
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Level-5 (JP), Nintendo (EU)
Release Date: August 22, 2008 (JP), January 29, 2011 (EU), August 26, 2011 (UK)
MSRP: £24.99 from Game

Being the easily persuaded person that I am—at least when it comes to trying new games—I got hold of the UK version and started playing. I popped the game in and sat down on my couch in my German national team jersey, ready to relive some wonder years. The game loaded and I started watching the introduction, a music video-length movie featuring prominent characters and scenes foreshadowing the drama that awaited me. It was… painful, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong; the music itself was catchy, and the graphics are beautifully done and made me curious about how this was going to turn out. But the lyrics… Instead of describing it, I’ll just let you see for yourself here. It’s only slightly less painful in German, the other language I’m familiar with. I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that it probably sounds best in its native language, Japanese.

But ignoring the lyrics, I was pretty intrigued. It reminded me of a mix of Dragon Ball Z and Prince of Tennis, both of which are shows I’ve been quite attached to in the past. In the video itself, I could see some pretty sweet soccer moves, interesting character designs, action, a generally positive outlook, themes of friendship and teamwork that make soccer the great sport it is, and even a bit of danger. To top it off, there was a lot of focus on the goalkeeper and defense, which rarely happens in real life.

You play as Mark Evans, captain of the football team and goalkeeper extraordinaire. Your grandfather was also a goalkeeper and a coach; you have his playbook and use it to help your teammates. The game starts out with your having only a few people on your team, not even enough to have a match. The school is thinking about shutting your club down, and in order to prevent that, you have to recruit players. The headmaster’s daughter doesn’t seem to be too keen on you, either; she sets up a match for you against one of the best teams around knowing you don’t even have enough players, let alone a cohesive team. She also sets up these random soccer battles, where you and three friends will be walking around and suddenly be attacked Pokémon-style and challenged to do certain things, like get the ball off the other team or score the first goal. In all of these battles, you only have fifteen minutes to achieve this objective. If you win, you gain Prestige and Friendship Points. If you lose, draw, or run away, you lose those points. (Losing points when you draw is odd, considering that’s a very not-soccer mindset for draws.) Prestige Points can be used to buy in-game items and to heal your team; Friendship Points are used to recruit players.

Still, being the eternal optimist that you are, you always thank Nelly for helping you improve. You then work to recruit Axel Blaze, a new transfer student who is rumored to have amazing forward skills. He refuses at first but eventually overcomes the personal issues that kept him from playing. Like any real-life soccer team, there’s drama between players, especially those that want to be stars but either aren’t willing to put the effort into it or are focusing so much on their own glory that they forget that soccer is a team sport. You have differing motivations to play, both on your team and others; for instance, Mark’s motivated by his love for the sport, but the Royal Academy’s entire team just wants to win. Players get tired in-game when their Stamina (known as FP) gets low, and they can’t use special moves when their Mana (TP) gets low, similar to real life if magic existed. There’s also a lot of high school-level humor in the game, which makes sense considering that the game revolves around first-year high school students. There’s also high school drama to be dealt with, including unrequited love, hormones, bullying, and teachers who only tell you that you should be studying instead of playing soccer.

The story itself is interesting but highly unbelievable. I was able to suspend my disbelief to allow for people being able to do physics- and reality-defying moves while playing soccer–I am an anime fan, after all. I was even willing to set that aside in order for Mark to participate in some of the shots where he’s required to sprint from your goal line all the way to about the opponent’s eighteen yard box and then back if it missed—which doesn’t make sense for a goalkeeper, but somehow, he manages it. But I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief when I saw how people cared enough about soccer at a high school level that they’d be willing to go through with big crime cover ups, poisonings, and assassination attempts, including one where the whole team could have gotten killed. That aside, I really did get into the story, and by chapter 7, I was more annoyed with the Zubat-like encounter rate of soccer battles than anything. I just wanted to finish the game and see what happens to everyone. I wasn’t disappointed.

I was taken aback by the weird imbalance with AI. During the soccer battles with only four players, your players are practically impossible to work with a lot of the time. Even late into the game, your defender will stand right by your goalkeeper for no reason at all, even if someone is running freely down the field toward your goal. During the matches, however, with all eleven of your players, they do a lot better of a job. I can’t count how many times I screamed, “What the fuck are you doing?” at my game during the soccer battles, but the matches were relatively stress free. Not that I didn’t scream on occasion at a stupid midfielder, or when the referee randomly decided that three of my attempts to steal the ball in a row were fouls yet the other team was using the same moves with no problem. The AI listens to you a little too closely when you’re telling it what to do as far as movement goes; the player will finish running the path that you chose for him and then run toward the ball you kicked in his direction. This made planning out plays more difficult than they needed to be a lot of the time.

There were no general commands that you would find in a regular game of soccer, like “Push up.” It’s usually shouted by the defense to tell all the players to move up, usually to get the other team’s offense in an offside position or to help your offense put pressure on the other team’s midfield and defense. Additionally, you can move players to a different position than the formation before the whistle blows, but there’s very little point in doing that as, after the whistle blows, they just run back to whatever position the formation had them in. I felt very little need to use the time out button, even though you can only see a small portion of the field at a time.

During the battles and matches, there are cutscenes whenever you decide to use a special move, be it a dribble, block, shot, or save. During the battles, most of these can be skipped. During the matches, however, you have to sit through them all, which runs down your clock. If you’re not having as much luck as you’d like during a match, this can be very frustrating.

Outside of the matches, using the stylus is basically a bad idea. It’s a lot easier to move around using the D-pad than it is to use the stylus as using the latter requires you to put your stylus where you are and drag it across the screen in the direction you want to go, which leads to a lot of confusion. They really should have just had Mark run to where you put your stylus; it makes a lot more sense. But even using the D pad was annoying sometimes as the designers seemed to have decided that you couldn’t walk alongside objects. Usually in games, you can walk right up to, say, a bookcase. In Inazuma Eleven, the closest you can get is about three pixels away, and it’s easy to forget that. I had a habit of running into invisible walls when trying to turn corners, or being unable to fit into spaces where I clearly should have been able to fit into had the invisible force field not been there.

The stylus is also pretty touchy when it comes to selecting menu options, and I remember giving up entirely and just pulling the stylus out for matches. Speaking of menus, I was not a fan of the user interface. There were too many options for the menus, and sometimes, it was difficult to remember where everything was supposed to be as part of the layout can be counter-intuitive.

There are some features that make the game a bit more interesting. Silvia, one of your managers, sets up a blog and the girls update it from time to time. This serves as a good reminder if you’ve set the game down for a while and don’t remember what happened. There’s also a player binder, which  lets you see information on both Raimon players and those from rival teams. You can see their names, years, position, and some flavor text. This is especially helpful if you know you want to recruit a player but can’t remember his/her name. You can also use the team strip to change your jersey around; you pick up jerseys from defeating teams, buying, and finding them. You use this strip in connect mode and competition routes.

You can scout players from Raimon and recruit players from other team. In order to scout, you talk to Celia; and in order to recruit you talk to Nelly. There are nearly 1000 recruitable players, leaving for plenty of in- and post-game activity if you’re a fan of collections. In order to scout players, you can search based on criteria and pick someone from the three or four players Celia manages to find, give Celia his/her name to scout a specific player, or scout people that have been placed on a connection map. My only complaint here is that there seems to be strikingly few female soccer players. Granted, there are a few, but I wasn’t able to get to a point where I could see any female players on the connection map–despite going out of my way to use it–nor were any of the female players aside from one who were anywhere near interesting or good enough for me to think, Hey, I should recruit her. With nearly 1000 players to recruit, I’d think I’d find a few decent females within the storyline. I also think it’s weird that there are this many kids that can and would like to play soccer at this school, yet you could barely scrape together a team at the beginning of the game.

Speaking of modes, you have a few to choose from. There’s the regular storyline mode, which is ten chapters long and picks up after the first few. You can also use connect mode, which allows you to play against other people, trade players, and download items. After a certain point in the game, you can talk to Silvia to request a friendly match against a school you already played against. This makes for decent training along with the Flash Training Facility, which opens up about halfway through the game. After the game, you can use premium competition routes by talking to Nelly’s father, the headmaster. Different matches will have different win conditions, and there are eighteen matches in two routes. If you complete a route, you get a special surprise. Once you beat the game, a gallery opens up for you to look at with twenty-two scenes from the game.

The graphics in the game are lovely and have held up in the four years since the initial release of Inazuma Eleven. The cutscenes that are actually cutscenes and not just a bunch of text play out like a television show. The voice acting was decent, and the music was nice and suited the game well. Over all, this game did very well on the JRPG side, but the sports side was on par with other sports games I’ve played, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

This was the first Inazuma game, so no doubt they’ve improved since this one. There’s some decent potential here for a series that could do well, even in a soccer-deprived nation like the United States, but there are some issues that need to be dealt with first, ones I hope have been dealt with in subsequent games.

PROS
* Good storyline that draws you in
* Pretty graphics
* Enjoyable music
* Lots of options for gameplay
* Lots of options for training
* Relatable and likeable characters
* Number of recruitable players

CONS
* Terrible lyrics in opening sequence
* Stupid AI at times
* Random fouls, mostly on your side
* No real way to control players
* High encounter rates for battles
* Stylus outside of the game is a joke
* User interface is sometimes difficult to navigate
* Lack of good choices for female players

FINAL SCORE: C+

Disclaimer: This game was not sent by Level-5. At the time of writing, the reviewer had completed the main storyline in 19 hours 47 minutes, achieved a team level of 37 and recruited 48 players. The reviewer was currently working on post-game content.

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