Although football and RPGs are popular I cannot think of many video games which combine the two together. In recent times the only sporting RPG that comes to mind is the underwater handball mini-game Blitzball which featured in the two Final Fantasy X games. Level 5 have attempted to exploit this untapped market with the release of the Inazuma Eleven series. It's one of those rare games which have come to Europe, but not the States... possibly due to the unpopularity of "soccer" across the pond. If I had to describe the game I would say it's the offspring of Pokemon crossbreeding with Football Manager. Now with the image of coaches engaging in bestiality firmly planted in your mind let's kick off this review.
Raimon Junior High's football team have returned home after their success in the Football Frontier championships, but their celebration is cut short by an extraterrestrial threat. Alius Academy, a team of super powered alien footballers, have arrived on Earth with the aims of taking over the world. Their plans of conquest revolve around challenging high school teams across Japan to a game with the condition that failing to win will result in the obliteration of the team's place of study. Most kids would be thrilled at seeing their school buildings reduced to rubble, but not the footballing starlets of Raimon. After initially getting thumped against Alius they decide to travel across the land to prepare for a rematch. Will extensive training and recruiting new players to their cause be enough to save Japan's education system? Time will tell.
The ridiculous storyline seems to borrow elements from the movie Space Jam, but it isn't too crazy when compared to other properties developed in the land of the rising sun. Saving the day by playing football isn't after all any less silly than battling with spinning tops (Beyblade) or challenging evil doers to a children's card game (Yu-Gi-Oh.) Along the way Raimon will have to overcome many challenges including adapting to a new manager, dealing with team mates who are so desperate to win that they are tempted to use performance enhancing drugs and coping with their star striker's split personality which is triggered by the death of a sibling. I imagine that younger anime fans will eat this dramatic stuff up although adult gamers may find it all too cheesy (including big kids such as myself.)
Inazuma Eleven 2 features two types of football match. Major events in the story normally require winning a traditional eleven a side fixture which is broken down into two thirty minute halves (which last for around ten minutes in real world time.) The game also includes random battles which can occur at any time whilst exploring the game world. Unlike other RPGs these random encounters don't involve vanquishing monsters, but rather playing a short four a side match were you have to meet an objective within a strict time limit (score goal, gain possession of the ball etc.) Success will level up your players making them more skilful along with earning you prestige/friendship points. The points can be spent on training, buying kit for your team and recruiting rival players to your cause.
The stylus is what you'll be using to control your players during a match. By dragging the pointer across the screen you get to guide where you want your players to run to. Tapping an area of the pitch will instruct a player to pass/shoot towards the selected target. The real fun happens when two players clash forcing you to pick what action to take. You could opt for something boring like dribbling or launching into a sliding tackle, but it's also possible to use up TP to activate flashy special moves. The special abilities players can perform include summoning a genie to protect the goal, trapping opponents in a spider web and turning the ball into a flaming sphere which singes goalkeepers. Maybe if England could pull off those manoeuvres they wouldn't go out on penalties in every competition.
New to Inazuma Eleven 2 is the option to recruit girls to play alongside the male players. I suppose if Gordon Ramsey can move from the football pitch to the kitchen then ladies can do the reverse (crap I just lost my entire female readership.) A more significant addition is the introduction of long shots which allow certain players to aim at goal from anywhere on the field (as opposed to restricting shots to players in possession around the penalty area.) This introduction could potentially make the game too easy so to combat the influx of long range strikes some players are given blocking skills which can intercept shots on target.
Graphically the game isn't anything special. The action is presented from an overhead perspective much like the Pokemon games. The visuals look like something you would find from a Gameboy Advance release with characters drawn having oversized heads that constantly bob up and down, as if they were imitating a pigeon or head banging to a tune on their iPod. There's some 3D graphics when special moves are executed, but unlike the moves themselves the graphics aren't anything special. The polygon heavy models resemble something you would get from a Playstation game. Sound wise the music is alright, but I am forced to give the limited voice acting a red card. Lines are delivered with little emotion and the game is guilty of using the same actor to voice multiple characters which isn't very impressive.
Cosmetic complaints aside the actual game is a lot of fun. The cheesy story will be a barrier to entry for veteran players, but if you can overlook the childish plot the gameplay is surprisingly entertaining. The main game kept me occupied for thirty hours and once the final whistle is blown there's more stuff to do to carry you over into extra time. There's a multiplayer mode and additional teams to challenge who are unlocked when the end credits roll. At the time of writing I have invested ten more hours training up my squad and signing up new players to conquer the end game challenges. The game boasts a roster of over one thousand players, but as your squad is capped at one hundred slots you cannot partake in a Pokemon style "gotta catch em all" quest, even if you are patient enough to track them all down to enlist into the Raimon ranks.
Prospective buyers should be aware that there are two versions of the game (Blizzard and Firestorm.) From what I understand both are virtually identical aside from a few exclusive players added to encourage trading between owners of the different games. I picked Blizzard because it sounded "cool." Huh what's that? Your sending me off this review for committing an awful gag foul? Gripes ref that's a harsh pun-ishment.