Okay, before I start this review I need to come clean. I’m a massive Level-5 fanboy. There I’ve said it. Why? Let me explain.
To most people Level-5 will be known as the people who gave the world the charming Professor Layton games. They need no introduction of course, they’re pretty much a global phenomenon. I mean, Nintendo were trying to con housewives into buying the last Zelda – yes, that gaming juggernaut – by cynically comparing it to Level-5’s opus. It’s THAT big now.
The thing is there’s more to Level-5 than the Layton games. Since 2000 the developer has been producing some of the most charming (a word I use a lot when referring to Level-5 games) console role-players on the market. On PS2 they gave us the wonderful Dark Chronicle and Rogue Galaxy, as well as revitalising the Dragon Quest IP with the gorgeous DQVIII on PS2 and DQIX on DS. Incidentally, if you haven’t picked up the latter do so. It’s done as much for the genre as the recent and much lauded Xenoblade Chronicles has. Anyway, there’s a bit of back story for you and I’m sure you’ll now appreciate why I was excited to hear that Level-5 were bringing over Inazuma Eleven, until now an unobtainable piece of Japanese exotica.
Inazuma Eleven is a console RPG that follows the exploits of Mark Evans, a football obsessed goalkeeper in the city of Inazuma hoping to take his school team to glory. He’s aided by his dead Grandfather’s book of football skills, along with a variety of characters including the enigmatic centre-forward, Axel Blaze and somewhat begrudgingly by the other members of the school’s team, the Raimon Eleven.
The team starts off as being close to closure, with Mark’s first tasks being to fend off the team’s dissolution and then to recruit new members. As the game progresses the plot thickens, becoming much more than a tale of a footballing minnow blossoming into champions elect. I won’t divulge anything else as the plot is one of the game’s strongest aspects. It’s a joy to see the Raimon Eleven journey from near extinction to contenders. And as other, darker plot elements are brought in, the air of mystery and expert drip-feeding of narrative turning points keeps the player wanting to play on.
The excellent story is complimented by the large and varied cast of characters. The Raimon Eleven are a loveable bunch of losers and slackers, cajoled into action by the ever-positive Mark Evans. Additionally, the Raimon Eleven’s opponents are a colourful bunch; as much quasi-superbaddies and wry parodies as they are football teams.
The game’s core mechanics are split into two distinct parts. Mark traverses the world using the JRPG’s tried and tested formula of field and world maps. The world map is comprised of various sections of Inazuma that Mark is asked to visit, whilst the field map is full of NPCs who, as the genre dictates, provide useful tips and conversation that flesh out the game’s lore. The other main component of the game comprises the matches against the other teams the Raimon Eleven come up against, and the random “battles” Mark faces – challenges from other Raimon School students which come in a number of guises that allow Mark to level up his team.
Ever since I first heard about Inazuma Eleven the element of the game I was most intrigued about was the actual football. I mean, it’s a JRPG where you don’t battle monsters and pantomime villains. You play football, how do you give the player a battle mechanic that’s based around a sport and not besting beasties?!
I’m pleased to report that the football/battle mechanic is brilliantly implemented. In the full matches the player controls a full eleven-a-side game, directing players on and off the ball with routes drawn with the stylus. When shots or tackles need to be taken the play pauses and the player is presented with a number of options; either to take a standard shot, dribble or tackling manoeuvre depending on the player’s situation. In addition to this the player has a number of special moves which can be used depending on the amount of TP (essentially magic points) the team member has at his disposal. The player also has the chance to freeze play to plan ahead. This is to be taken advantage of as play moves quickly and any player, however good, has only a little time on the ball.
In battle situations, the random encounters that occur intermittently, the player controls three members of the Raimon Eleven squad and is asked to meet each encounter’s requirements; whether it be score first, get possession of the ball or a similar bite-sized task. Stringing moves together and finding the onion bag in both battle and match scenarios is immensely satisfying and Level-5 should be applauded for giving gamers a new way to experience football in a videogame.
Okay, so far Inazuma Eleven sounds like a bona fide classic. Yes, all of the game’s elements I’ve described in this review are excellently executed. However, there’s a big but. If you’re an experienced gamer you’ll find Inazuma Eleven far from challenging. The game has two genuinely tough matches and that’s your lot. Once you’ve started levelling your team up, allocating special moves to each of your players, you’ll find it easier and easier the further you progress.
Another aspect of the game that stops this game from being Champions’ League material is that the RPG elements are fairly lightweight. Exploration is minimal as the world map is relatively small and an omnipresent blue arrow keeps the player locked to the correct path.
It’s a shame as there’s a lot to love about Inazuma Eleven. This is a game with a compelling story, charming cast and unique take on football in a videogame context. There’s depth too in that you can recruit a plethora of players, each with their own personality and special powers to the Raimon Eleven cause. Although superfluous to progression it adds a Pokémon-esque, collect ‘em up facet to gameplay that increases the games longevity. This is a game that I heartily recommend to young gamers who are either fans of the Inazuma Eleven cartoon currently airing or those in need of a “my first JRPG” experience. Unfortunately, the more experienced gamer may want to look elsewhere unless they are a hardcore JRPG fan.
(With special thanks to Game-bit.net for allowing Stevivor.com to republish this great review! -Steve)