Just like Mark Evans, you've gotta want it.
You may go into Inazuma Eleven with pre-conceived notions about whether it's going to be your cup of tea or not, or that, based on the near-universal praise it's gotten, that it at least won't be bad. I volunteered for this review—a review of a soccer-RPG hybrid—because it was something new and different. I almost immediately regretted my decision. I hated this game for several days and there were many times where I felt like throwing in the bloody towel.
But then I played it a lot more, out of fear that I was missing some crucial strategy or instruction that was keeping me from actually succeeding in the game. How could this game be getting such rave reviews when it's so fundamentally broken?
It turns out that Inazuma Eleven has a lopsided difficulty, kind of like Kid Icarus, in that it is insanely hard to figure out and even harder to win matches for several hours, but once you start leveling up and recruiting players and saving up enough Prestige (money) to buy equipment, Inazuma Eleven starts to grow on you. The problem is that you really have to power through those first few chapters. The story focuses on a boy named Mark Evans who loves soccer but is the only one who actually wants to play in Raimon Academy's soccer club. Everyone else is happy lounging in the club house, and then Mark gets the news that the club will be disbanded because…well, that's not clear. But wait! A new student, Axel Blaze, enrolls one day right at the same time that state champions Royal Academy challenges Raimon to a match! DRAAAAAMA!
In all seriousness, despite its anime clichés, the story is well-written and you'll develop a fondness for many of the characters. I consider the localization this game's greatest achievement. Many times, I pushed through frustration to see how the Raimon boys would tackle adversity.
Aside from the story, Inazuma Eleven is, first and foremost, an RPG. Instead of traditional battles, you play soccer matches. An immense portion is focused on grinding though it’s here that the game's soccer-RPG hybrid system starts to annoy. There are a lot of systems at work in the soccer game—so many that they overwhelm the soccer itself. Of course, each player has an experience level and seven stats to consider. You can recruit players, which is one of the best mechanics. You scout around the school looking for new players, and then you play them in 4-on-4 matches similar to the random battles. The soccer gameplay is where you’ll spend most of your time. When the whistle is blown, you use the stylus to snap the ball and draw routes for your players to take. They do a pretty good job of following the action on their own, and you can freeze the action to draw multiple routes if that helps you. Now, this is all window dressing—the real dice are being thrown behind the scenes and only come to the fore when two players collide: you’ll get a choice—the choice on the left has a bigger failure rate, but success generally means keeping possession. The choice on the right has a higher success rate, but you may lose possession. For example, you’re the goalie, and somebody is making a shot at the goal. If you “catch” (on the left), your success rate is lower, but success means you gain possession and can then throw the ball to a teammate. If you “punch” (on the right), your success rate is higher, but the ball just goes flying. It might go out of bounds or into the waiting feet of an opposing player.
Each chapter builds up to a fight with a rival team, and that’s when I started pulling my hair out. Your opponents spam special moves during player collisions. But matches also have to be won a certain way, and if things don’t go exactly as planned, you may well reset the game. In the very first match, your under-developed team has to win in a specific way using a specific player. If the stars don’t align with that one character, then you fail. The trouble is that the soccer is already initially so difficult that simply winning at all is a lofty expectation, but when you throw in pre-scripted crap, it’s frustrating.You can also take your team on the road for 11-on-11 local multiplayer matches, assuming you have a friend with a copy of the game. You play with the team makeup you’re currently using in-game. But wait, there’s more! You can also trade players (but obviously not storyline-critical characters). While online multiplayer would be nice, it’s probably too much to expect for a six-year-old DS game.
I have real issues with the soccer-RPG mechanics, but once you get over the initial hump, it smoothes out a little bit. It's like how you don't play Metal Gear Solid games for the gameplay—you play for the crazy storyline. I feel that way about Inazuma Eleven. Mark Evans and his band of ruffians keep me motivated, even if their sport of choice doesn't.