He passes the ball, he kicks... ohhhhh just barely a goal!
Level-5 makes some unique games, and they should really be given a thumbs up for that. With products like Professor Layton, Little Battlers and Fantasy Life, I’m always surprised by how creative their teams are. The Inazuma Eleven series is the same in this regard, and it brings the world of (European) football in a to a larger audience. The blend of kicking balls on the touchscreen and role-playing adventures return on the Nintendo 3DS. While I can't fault all of its ideas, it left me feeling a little indifferent in the end.
If you never played an Inazuma Eleven game before, you will likely have a really rough time getting into the story. The game doesn't explain to you happened in the previous games which makes the entry level rather high. You play as Mark Evans, goalkeeper and captain of his football team Raimon, who has been summoned by Coach Hillman. Hillman has gathered a variety of players from a whole bunch of places, so that they can create the ultimate national team for Japan. This starts with prepping them all for a practice match, but some members from the other side are welcomed to join anyway. Now they have to overcome Asian adversaries like Australia to then move on and face opponents like Italy and England.
The story is a little campy in places, mostly due to the voice acting. It’s not completely bad, but it brings weird stereotypes to the front row of the experience. All of your Japanese mates have really thick British accents, while the rest of the game is filled over-the-top performances. Sometimes these are quite cringe-worthy and it is more noticeable in the countless animated cutscenes that the game has to offer. These are beautifully rendered, and are now viewable on the touchscreen. In fact, one of the main points of this game is that everything takes place on the touchscreen.
At first, this may seem like a weird concept since most action games mainly use the top screen, but a large portion of Inazuma is played with the stylus. In the role-playing game sections there is an optional feature where you can point at objects or points of interest. It is possible to use the buttons as well, but if you want to keep it all coherent, the stylus is the place to be. Mark and his team move across various landscapes and terrains to search for certain characters, getting certain objectives done and buy things to prep for the next match. The big problem I have with these bits is that purple arrows always guide you to where you need to go which defeats the purpose of exploration and creates linearity. Next to that, there is always a handy map on the 3D screen and this helps towards to the various points of interest.
Getting yourself ready for the next match requires a lot of planning and is how you will be spending a good chunk of your time. It starts by using your saved money at the stores and improving your equipment over time. This will make sure that your character stats grow to make each player a better part of your team. Next to your existing players, it is always important to scout for new ones. You can use the ones from teams that you have previously defeated, collect capsules with contact details or the map to visit them with the Inazuma Bus. The variety of options makes finding new friends pretty worthwhile and it certainly adds an additional layer of depth to the game.
Another layer can be found in how you train your team; characters level up and get better stats by performing good actions. While walking about, you will come across random teams on the streets that will duke it out with you in 4-on-4 matches. These quick matches will help you to build trust within your party and they are a snappy way to try some moves. Specific statistics can be improved by proving yourself in the various training facilities. Unfortunately, if you start training at a facility, there is no way to stop and if you fail you have to start all over again. There are also special training spots you can find while walking across the map, so it is better to use them upon seeing them.
Everything comes together in the football matches, which are the moments that the game is always building towards. Just before the real action begins, you can still alter the basic positions or change up the formation ever so slightly. Now that the gloves are off, you will have to explore to make the best use of the options you have at hand. You move the players by drawing paths for them with the stylus and you can a short tap on the touchscreen to shoot the ball. You don't have full control of the players, but as a sort of tactical advisory, you still guide the steps at every point. You will make them pass, charge, kick and shoot across opponents and it all works quite brilliantly.
Another important thing in these battles are the Command Duels, which allow you to use special attacks of various elemental values against one another. By having the right elements in check and having the correct stats, you will be able to overcome your foe, but it’s never a guarantee. Don't be surprised if something doesn't work out in your favor, you’ll have to pay close attention when they’re happening. Command Duels occur when two opponents clash or when you are about to shoot in the goal. You can always avoid them, but you do miss some fun by not experiencing the crazier side of the game. Every player can learn up to six of, so there is always something new in store for you.
These matches are the highlights of the venture, but the fun sometimes halted when the game puts weird restrictions on them that really shouldn't be here. There will be matches where you can do nothing until the story starts to develop more and it becomes irritating quickly because you are simply not made aware that you have to meet some criteria. When it moves past its guided set pieces, it becomes such a much better game and I am kind of sad that the developers decided to include them. I want to be on the front and do my best to defeat opponents to the best of my skills, not when the game allows me to do so. It is a staple that has made problems in the series before and seeing it still happen makes the whole thing feel like less than it could be.
Next to the regular adventure, the game offers quite a big array of communications options to players. You can receive notifications by activating SpotPass, allowing players to get additional characters and items to enrich their experience. For active StreetPass users, you can play against other people by getting challenges from their side and duking it out. Next to the challenge, you will able to see all the stats of the player and this allows you to compare them your own progress. These are certainly nice touches, but I wonder how often they will be used. If you have friend with the game, there are also some options that allows you to trade players or play against one another. You can also play together in the Extra Competition Route, which allows you to battle teams that you have previously defeated.
Unfortunately, this game is really no better than its original Nintendo DS release. It still looks like a Nintendo DS game and has seen no improvements over its 2010 counterpart. With the polygon animations of the special attacks you can clearly see how dated the graphics are. The sprites don't look too bad, but the characters barely stand out from one another. The game is colorful, certainly, but it is all just a little saddening. The music is no better, and mere MIDI tunes fill the landscape with needed color. Once again, I have no problem with the compositions but they show their age and it is a little on the lazy side.
Inazuma Eleven 3: Lightning Bolt is not a bad game by any means, but it suffers from a few rather unfortunate choices. The gameplay stands the test of time really well and there is a lot to like about it, and it is still an enjoyable world to walk around in. The matches are also great fun, despite for those annoying scripted moments where the story takes higher priority than the fun. The story in itself is campy, but never to the point of laughing out loud or becoming extremely unlikeable. The biggest problems are found within the game's presentation, which looks dated and needed an update from its original release. Porting it to the Nintendo 3DS was almost pointless, but it’s saved by some clever uses of StreetPass, SpotPass and Local Play.