Inazuma Eleven is still one of my favourite gameplay concepts of all time. It's one of those JRPGs based around a specific thing; Pokemon or plastic spinning tops or demons or whatnot, starring an intense youngster who's totally obsessed with tactical battling, outrageous special attacks, collecting loot and becoming the very best like no-one ever was. Except, instead of pulling out a sword or Pokeball, you'll throw down a couple of jumpers and get involved in a game of five-a-side.
Only with strategic real-time action and the ability to pull off ludicrous power moves that set the ball on fire or summon massive monsters onto the pitch! Now that the DS trilogy has come to an end, it's time for the 3DS sequel to... kick things up a notch? Oof.
Football is everything in Inazuma Eleven GO; a way of life, the combat system, the entire driving force behind the plot. High school football is apparently the most important sporting event in the entire world, yet ten years after Raimon High rose to prominence as the ultimate soccer academy, things have gone horribly wrong. A massive conspiracy has taken over the sport and rigs every match, effectively dominating the entire world in the process. So it's up to freshman Arion Sherwind to lead a revolution and bring sportsmanship back to the beautiful game, making a new Raimon team while meeting some old faces.
It's silly, ludicrous, hilariously hammy and impossible to take seriously, but Inazuma Eleven GO embraces its silliness so earnestly that you can't help but get swept along for the ride. You won't be able to keep a straight face as Arion shouts "I'm going to defend football! I won't make football sad!," and that's absolutely fine.
Once again, Level-5 prove their worth as master localisers, making Inazuma Eleven GO feel like a truly British Saturday morning cartoon penned by UK writers. It's full of overegged voice performances (from Arion especially, who reminds me heavily of the old Dennis The Menace cartoon) and curious regional stereotypes (one of the characters even tweets in a Geordie accept -- "howay, I'll be alreet!"), yet the quality of the writing, references and observations ensures that every character is unique and likeable. It's a shame that the art deparment couldn't swap out all the cherry blossoms with piles of fly-tipped refuse, mind.
Girls can play footy with the best of 'em, too, wearing the same kit and packing impressive stats rather than just filling cheerleading or managerial roles. I'm not trying to make a statement here: it's just nice to see.
Like any JRPG, you'll lead Sherwind and his team around some isometric environments, typically Raimon High and outlying areas, talking to plenty of NPCs, training and shopping. It's familiar if somewhat pared-back fare compared to Pokemon, but as throughout the adventure you'll meet plenty of rivals, NPCs and opponents just spoiling for a battle. Which means, in true Inazuma style, you've got a game on.
The tactical real-time action remains largely unchanged from the original games. You'll control your team by drawing arrows for them to follow like a manager's whiteboard, tapping to pass, intercept or shoot. At key moments such as tackles, shots or volleys, you're prompted to choose from several options with differing effects. Slide tackles are powerful yet simple blocks come with less chance of a foul, while chips, headers and volleys all come with their own benefits and drawbacks. Whatever you choose, you'll see the results play out in a seamless short cutscene before the match resumes. Everything feeds back into your players' stats and equipment, which can be modified and upgraded as you see fit, and hits a sweet spot between accessibility and strategic depth.
Inazuma Eleven GO's new 3DS-powered visuals come as a real breath of fresh air, much like the step up between Pokemon Black/White 2 and X/Y. Beyond extra detail, the cel-shaded graphics add real personality to special moves and victory celebrations, making every slide tackle and volley feel so much more satisfying and dynamic to pull off.
Having mentioned special moves, Inazuma Eleven GO is no slouch in that regard. Players draw upon limited yet powerful mana reserves to accomplish frankly ridiculous things. Goalies can imbue the ball with flames and slam it downfield, midfielders turn into drag racers or locomotives and hurtle across the pitch and strikers summon special attacks that would make Sephiroth slightly envious. New Fighting Spirits also make their first franchise appearance; massive spiritual monsters that imbue your players with extra abilities and duke it out on the pitch. With up to three-per-side, things can get utterly insane mere seconds after kickoff! It's fantastic boisterous chaotic fun, clinched by brilliantly over-wrought animations.
Five-a-side battles do hit a couple of snags. Some of the victory conditions can either be too easy or tremendously aggravating -- just stealing the ball is a cinch whereas holding it for several minutes can be a nightmare -- while it's a little too easy to bamboozle opponents by just falling back on the old one-two. Sometimes battles just boil down to running rings around defenders while shooting at an overpowered goalie until you finally hit the net.
But when the serious 11 v 11 matches begin, all is forgotten as clever use of formations, proper equipment, careful use of special abilities, managerial decisions and pre-match preparation comes to the fore without bogging down the fun and hectic gameplay.
There's plenty of depth here for even seasoned footy fans, blending Pokemon grinding with Football Manager-esque minutiae. You'll recruit dozens of new players by beating their teams or fulfilling PalPack Card objectives, such as taking photos in specific locations, creating a flexible roster on the bench. You'll obsess over grinding up a perfect balanced team and equipping them with the best boots and gloves. A social network can be browsed for amusing asides. StreetPass functionality lets you import and export teams to battle, while special team orders are on hand to push the tide of a particularly gruelling match.
Beyond some of the foibles surrounding battles and the relatively limited exploration, I do have to criticise Inazuma Eleven GO for its slow start. The first handful of hours are interminable; drip-feeding new mechanics at a glacial rate while too often bogging down in exposition (during which Arion's voice will start to grate, I guarantee it). It's a necessary sacrifice for the start of a brand new storyline on a new console, yet annoyingly leaving series veterans fuming. Be sure to push through it and enjoy the setup -- it's the calm before the storm.
- Tactical football combat & RPG depth is fun and accessible
- Gloriously OTT special moves and new Fighting Spirits complement improved graphics
- Great dialogue and characters, earnestly silly personality
- Exceptional localisation makes it feel like a British game!
- Relatively limited exploration vs most RPGs
- Tedious slow start; Arion's voice will grate
- Battle objectives can be too easy, the old one-two is slightly too viable
The Short Version: Inazuma Eleven: GO successfully blends football and over-the-top JRPG gameplay into a silly yet compelling mix. Outrageous special abilities, massive Fighting Spirits and improved visuals make this a fresh new start for Level-5's quirky franchise.