FIFA 14 may be delighting footie fans across the world at the moment, but thanks to the sheer diversity of the world of videogames there’s also room for a, let’s say, ‘different’ take on the beautiful game: Inazuma Eleven 3. Authentic teams and strips? Nope. Realistic physics? Nope. Is it even anything like a traditional football game? Definitely not. But that’s all part of Inazuma’s oddball charm, as it wraps its football in typically bonkers anime style, with the result being a curious little football RPG that manages to be both compelling and addictive, despite a few flaws.
Inazuma Eleven is another one of those games that started off its life as a Japanese oddity. Originally released on the DS in Japan in 2008, developed by the same studio that brought us Professor Layton, the series quickly found a sizeable fan base, going on to spawn both a manga and anime series, which brought the games to fame over here after the show found a home on CITV. With several DS and Wii sequels and spin-offs released over the years, this isn't the Inazuma boys' first spin around the block, with the newest instalment taking tips from the recently released Pokemon X and Y.
Coming in two flavours: Lightning Bolt and Bomb Blast (each essentially the same but with slightly different subplots - so you'll have to buy them both if you want to play 'em all), the game casts you as soccer superstar Mark Evans, as you try to gain a place on the Inazuma National team and lead them to victory in the upcoming championship. Of course, nothing goes quite according to plan, and you’ll be swept up into mysterious goings-on before you know it. If you’re new to the series, the story can be a bit confusing initially, as it seems to rely quite heavily on bringing back characters from earlier games and referencing previous storylines. It’s easy enough to get up to speed, though - just be aware it’s not the most straightforward of games to jump into.
Essentially the same as the 5-a-side games, these large scale matches are more closely related to events in the story, and as such last longer and provide more opportunity to tinker with your formation and execute special manoeuvres. Inazuma’s matches are a bit frantic, at times hard to follow and worlds away from ‘proper’ footie games certainly, but we had a lot of fun with this aspect of the game nonetheless. Drawing players’ paths directly on the touchscreen feels natural, and there’s a degree of strategy involved too, as certain moves are more likely to succeed than others, while arranging your team in the best formation is important as well.The controls are simple enough: tap the screen to pass to a teammate, draw their paths with the stylus and select special moves from on-screen menus. It’s all very intuitive, but the gameplay is so fast that it can be hard to keep track of your team, especially at first.
Fun as the actual football matches are though, sadly the ‘adventure’ element of the game is a basic and linear experience. In order to advance the plot you’ll frequently be told exactly where to go, who to talk to and what to do, all the while being badgered by large, on-screen arrows. While this is useful for younger players or RPG newcomers, we found that the hand-holding gets a bit excessive after a while, and we’d rather have had a bit more freedom to explore - although perhaps this is more a personal preference than a game breaking glitch.
The voice acting is a bit problematic too. While the voices are faithful to the English dub of the TV series and likely to appeal to fans, it’s of a typically ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ variety which had us reaching for the volume slider very early on. Most characters speak in very broad regional accents, both in text and spoken dialogue, which could make some text hard to read for younger players. More annoying still is that not all of the dialogue is spoken. Certain exchanges are voiced, but great chunks of text are left as words on the screen which makes for a disjointed experience.
All in all, Inazuma Eleven 3 manages to overcome its problems and deliver a solid, if unremarkable, experience. There's fun to be had here as the story is compelling enough, and the game does have hidden depths when it comes to hand-picking your team, levelling up your players and trying out various over the top special moves against rival teams – provided you’re willing to put in extra time (Another one! - Ed). If you’re looking for something a bit different then Inazuma Eleven 3 is well worth a look, just don’t expect anything too spectacular.