Release Date: February 13, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Level-5 (Level-5)
ESRB Rating: “Everyone” for Mild Violence
In Japan, Inazuma Eleven is a game series published by Level-5 that fuses deep RPG mechanics into the unlikely realm of Junior High Sports. The game, which managed to be the most popular title sold in Japan the week of its release, went on to spawn an equally popular anime and manga series.
I, however, had never heard of any of these things—and I would have been initially skeptical if I had. So when my editor Jenni approached me to review, “Inazuma Eleven, Level-5’s soccer game,” I accepted on the simple premise that “Inazuma is a cool sounding word with all the same vowels as Ikaruga; a game I happen to love.” I had no idea that it was somehow significant that America was finally getting a copy of this popular franchise, or that there was a group of people who were profoundly excited about it. In the interim, I did manage to discover that when Jenni says “soccer game,” she is referring to a gaudy and vibrant approximation of the world renowned sport. Inazuma is soccer-esque at best. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just like with Final Fantasy X‘s Blitzball.
A Familiar Narrative That Requires Patience
Thanks to exposition, Inazuma Eleven boasts one of the slowest first hours of gameplay in recent history. What the game wants to communicate is that the soccer club at Raimon Junior High has seen better days. The team, consisting of a mere 8 members, is riddled with discouraged, lazy, and rotund outcasts lacking anything approaching team spirit. To make matters worse, the school they attend seems to have the highest amount of unadulterated aggression per capita than any other school conceived of in reality or fiction.
This makes it initially hard for team captain and protagonist, Mark Evans, to recruit the four extra players he needs to officially compete. It also doesn’t help that he is a gigantic dork wielding a powerful Goku-esque naïveté that starkly clashes with the cold, hard realism everyone else seems to exude. So, despite the grim prospects of his club, team captain Mark Evans endeavors to keep spirits high. In a way, this embodiment of perseverance and hope is heartening and serves as the center piece for the narrative’s themes. It’s also why he can be found practicing alone when a couple of ruffians steal his soccer ball.
This conflict, which occurs a bit into the game, initiates the first instance of actual gameplay. You grab your stylus and prepare for excitement; these ruffians are going to get the full blunt of your wrath, now that you have been freed from the cheese filled prison that is Inazuma Eleven’s mechanical dialogue. And within seconds, after swiping the stylus perhaps only once, Mark has run between the two bullies and retrieved his soccer ball. He also gets some experience points for the effort, which seems a bit charitable. But that is about the last time in the 40 hour experience that Inazuma Eleven can be called charitable. Many walls of text later, when you get into your first real match, you begin to realize that the gameplay is a mismatch with the atmospheric fluffiness that encompasses it.
Things do pick up momentum when a strange message is delivered from reigning champs, Royal Academy, challenging your scrub team to a friendly exhibition match. The scrimmage becomes something more substantial when it is decided that if Royal Academy loses the match, they will be permanently disbanded by the school board. Harsh, right? Fortunately, an edgy anime cliché by the name of Axel Blaze has recently transferred into Raimon. Mark is excited, because ridiculously awesome name (which may or may not have been stolen from Streets of Rage) aside, Axel Blaze is a bit of a footsportin’ legend. Mark sets out to recruit him, setting in motion one of the most painstaking bit of questing possibly ever. It’s not that it’s particularly lengthy, but the back and forth trekking combined with some of the worst writing I’ve seen, makes the irrepressible facepalms physically dangerous to one’s own health.
Fully Realized, High Octane Footsportin’
When you finally reach your first full match and complete the game’s first chapter, how Inazuma Eleven managed to achieve overseas success begins to make a lot more sense. The game is incredibly deep, with a brutal emphasis on strategy, grinding and player choice. On the surface, the gameplay in Inazuma Eleven sounds terrible. An entire team of characters are simultaneously controlled by the stylus, after all. But clever AI and the ability to pause the game in order to route your team allows for more strategy than rapidly switching between characters, as is typical in conventional soccer games. Tap to pass, drag to steer is almost all a player needs to know in order to at least navigate the game. Inazuma Eleven becomes a more complicated affair within the game’s systems, equipment, and menus.
For starters, there are over 1,000 players for Mark to recruit to his team, either through conversation or the use of a scout, who can be set to search for different parameters that you deem necessary for your team composition. These characters will bring a variety of stats and move to your team, allowing the player to amalgamate his dream team, as well as experiment with a variety of plausible strategies. Once on his team, the player can begin training the characters to accentuate their strong points, or play it safe and refine their shortcomings. These stats will be essential considerations when the game does the math behind the success or failure of your player’s special moves.You see, in Inazuma Eleven, when two characters collide, no amount of reflexes will give one the advantage over the other. Instead, the player must choose one of three moves which will factor in the character’s element (yes, like Pokemon,) the move’s element, the opposition’s elemental combinations, the character’s stats, and the base accuracy of the moves. Each choice ends up being a practice in risk versus reward.
Once chosen, an over-the-top animation will ensue, depicting the player’s fortune or lack-there-of. Adhering to the Blitzball analogy I made earlier in the review, think of these animations as spectacles comparable to Tidus’ “Jecht Shot.” But only, the “Jecht Shot,” would look relatively weak among the techniques displayed in Inazuma Eleven. Most of the visual appeal lies in the colorful anime cutscenes that crop up whenever they damn well feel like it. From mid-match drama, to special techniques, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to inject its effervescent personality into every facet of the bloodthirsty world that is High School Sports. Not a single line of voiceover is delivered without a healthy dosage of gravitas, but the way in which the corny as all heck delivery matches the atmosphere somehow renders the whole experience delightful. And that’s what Inazuma Eleven ends up doing, for those that invest in its expansive campaign. It takes the most cynical, grump and shows them that it’s okay to be silly.
Hear Inazuma Eleven roar.
I should confess to a personal bias. I wanted to hate Inazuma Eleven. I’m not what you would typically call an anime fan. To the contrary, I typically roll my eyes at things that are too kawaii for my comfort. It’s not that I think I’m better than them, or anything. It’s that I’m embarrassed of my middle school self whose closest thing to a real relationship was vicariously through Chobits or Oh! My Goddess! And I’m not mature enough to face that regularly, so god damn anything that takes me back to that dark, dorky place.
Mark Evans took me there, and I wanted to destroy his whole game as punishment. But if I’m being honest, fair, and professional, Inazuma Eleven is an excellent game. For $19.99 , the amount of gameplay you get is astonishing. A multiplayer element motivates the further improvement of a team you grow to love as they overcome, frankly, ridiculous conflicts. Nuanced play, unapologetically clichéd characters, random footsporting battles and general silliness all contribute to my complete understanding of Inazuma Eleven’s overseas success. I just hope it finds its audience stateside.
Site [Inazuma Eleven]