Ah, Association Football—the sport of the world. Known to most simply as Football (except in countries like Australia and the United States, which both refer to it as Soccer for the sake of not confusing it with their own respective versions of Football), it is a remarkably simple game which has often been seen as the great equalizer of sports for how little is required to play it in terms of equipment and space. Yet, for as inexpensive and simple the game is compared to many of the other sports America developed, Football is often the one sport you don’t see advertised nearly as much in the US. Well, aside for ads for games like Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA.
That’s a shame, considering that Nintendo and Level-5 have essentially been developing the NFL Blitz of Football games, almost none of which made it to our gloriously star-spangled nation.
Ladies, gentlemen and others, submitted for your approval, I present Inazuma Eleven 2: Blizzard.
Let me get the immediate concerns out of the way first; The first Inazuma Eleven did in fact see release in America, but it was the 3DS remake, and as far as my research goes, most every other entry in the series has released exclusively in Europe or Japan. Thankfully, the original trilogy were all games for the original DS Models, and are compatible with all DS systems up to the DSi, so import away!
That out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this little review.
Inazuma Eleven 2: Blizzard is a Football JRPG developed by the studio Level-5, perhaps more famous for games like Dark Cloud, Jeanne d’Arc, and Professor Layton. Curiously, while the original game was a standalone title, all subsequent titles adopted the Pokemon style of dividing the games into separate versions, each with very slight variations. For the sake of this review, I’ll be discussing the Blizzard version, but the other version was titled Firestorm. Honestly, comparing the intro FMVs alone, I think Blizzard’s is much better synced to the amazingly cheesy and utterly infectious opening song, which channels all the best hype from a classic dubbed anime OP.
Keeping with the tradition of a good video game sequel, Inazuma Eleven 2 starts hot off the heels of the previous game’s story, after the Raimon Football Club (named after a form of lightning demon that the protagonist can summon—more on that later) has won the Football Frontier, the international football tournament that acts as this series’ World Cup. Also in keeping with the nature of a good sequel, knowledge of the previous game isn’t required to enjoy this game, as the characters do plenty enough to fill you in on what happened in the last game.
The game starts proper with our hero, the Keeper and Captain of the Raimon FC Mark Evans (or Endou Mamoru, for those who prefer the Japanese names) waking up for the first day of training. However, just as the game starts, their training grounds at Raimon Junior High are thrashed by an attack by a mysterious group of aliens from Alius Academy, who are using football to utterly destroy schools across the nation, with their first strike coming from an enemy team known as Gemini storm.
Being the passionate advocate of football as a means to bring people together, Mark and Raimon aren’t too keen to let them run rampant, but as is often the case with JRPG bosses, Gemini Storm absolutely dominates them in a proper match, leading by 10 in the first official match you have with them. Down but not out, the team get a van courtesy of Coach Hillman called the Inazuma Caravan, and are tasked with traveling around Japan to find as much talent as they can for their team, discover the secrets behind Alius Academy, and save Japan from destruction by evil footballers from outer space.
All of this happens within the first hour of the game. And people say Soccer isn’t entertaining.
Being a JRPG based around a sport that is taditionally very non-contact, Inazuma Eleven 2 dooes some interesting things to the concepts of random battles, healing items, and party management. When you get into battles, you essentially play one of two different games: Battrles, which are smaller scale 4 v 4 encounters that require you to fulfill a certain objective within an alloted time (usually something like scoring the first goal, gaining possession of the ball, or keeping the ball away from the opposing team) and Matches, which are the full-scale 11-man games which keep to the full rules of proper football matches. Well, football matches, minus the card system and with a boatload more shounen inspired special moves. Either way, it plays similarly to a real-time tactics game, with you being able to direct the players actions using the touchscreen, including setting up plays before kick-off to maximize your odds of winning. This game can be played almost entirely through the touchscreen, so you shouldn’t worry too much with buttons.
Instead of your traditional stats like strength, dexterity, intelligence and the like, you have things like Kicking, Defending, Control, Guts, and more. Instead of HP and MP, you have Form and Technique, which can be restored through things like sports drinks and snack bars. Whenever two or more players get close (or whenever you gear up to try and put the ball into the goal), you’ll have the option to either play the odds and do things the normal way (Dodge and faint to maintain possession, tackle to get the ball, catch or punch to prevent a goal, etc), or you can use your TP to use a Special Move, which will have higher odds of succeeding, and gives you and often hilariously overblown animation. We’re talking strikers who leap into the air with fire tornadoes, mid-fielders who pull ninja-style bait and switch tricks to keep the ball, and in the case of Mark Evans, summoning giant magical hands and Persona-style lightning demons to block the goal.
Special moves are one of the highlights of this game, and are obtained through leveling up, or can be slotted onto a player through trick books a-la Pokemon’s TM’s. They even reward you for using techniques of the user’s element (which in this game is split between Earth, Wood, Fire and Air), so fans of Pokemon might get a kick out of this game. Also of note is the Scouting and Recruiting system, where you can not only recruit players from teams which you encounter in Random Battles (something you’ll probably doing a lot of early game), but enemy teams you defeat not only net you their match kit to wear, but often their signature formation and a chance to get their team members on your side. Getting players will generally cost Friendship Points, a form of currency exclusively for purchasing new talent, but getting players from larger teams will often require you to fulfill a certain prerequisite (have a girl in your 4-man party, have a certain amount of players, have a certain party member of that team already recruited, etc) before you can even challenge them, which will require you having to beat them in a battle or two to prove you’re worth their time. Team recruiting often tends to be more expensive to, so my advice is to hold off until you have at least 20 or 30 players from the random encounter pool before you start gunning for the big guys.
Difficulty-wise, I find this game’s often not that hard if you stick to your guns and get strategic, alongside the typical hallmarks of JRPG players. The game has a fairly easy-to-follow story, but leaves plenty of wiggle room to prepare your team as you see fit. With over a thousand players to recruit and only 100 players to store, it’s very likely you won’t find any two teams among your friends that are exactly alike.
As for story and characters, this game boasts some pretty interesting teams. While the main stars are Raimon and Alius Academy’s alien superstars, many of the teams you’ll face in the story and in the overworld each have their own unique identity and theme, from a team dedicated to Otaku, to a team themed around animals, even a team based on monsters from horror. There’s even a team you face later on that’s literally a group of badass girl scouts who get into a game over a cookie dispute I couldn’t make this up. The story’s easy to follow, broken up into nice, episodic chapters, making it a great game for those who like to play in short bursts.
Graphically, this game is a nice-looking 2.5D affair, mixing lively 2D sprites throughout most of the gameplay, occasionally switching to FMV cutscenes and high-resolution stills during important moments and reveals, and some quick and flashy 3D animations when using commands during matches. Be forewarned, however, that in the event of mirror matches (as in, if you happen to prefer a certain team’s kit to the default), that it can be a little tricky to tell who’s who in the heat of the action. Thankfully, you can hit the Select button to put a nice blue shadow or name-tag over your guys to make it easier, which is a nice touch.
Sound is arguably the weakest link, though it’s not a deal-breaker. Purists will likely not get along with the English dubbing, though voice acting is thankfully sparse. The sounds in matches and battles are what you’d expect, though I’d definitely recommend having headphones on to enjoy some of the really crisp sound effects, which pack as much oomph as the visuals.
Given that this is a JRPG, you can expect to sink a good amount of time in the single-player alone, as there’s plenty of side-content to keep you busy in case you just want to get a couple matches in to scratch that soccer itch. Playing against other teams is easily the best way to power-level, as your active line-up receives XP for participation, regardless of how much you use them. Games typically go by quickly, even when playing the boss-like matches, which means that if you play smart and plan accordingly, you can expect to set up some pretty slick passes and drill in goals like a real champ, while still feeling like you’ve earned it.
All in all, I think it’s a crying shame that this franchise was utterly neglected for American audiences, because if more games like this existed, I think people would get into Soccer/Football a lot easier. This game made me a believer from the word “go”, and while it’s not technically my first go at virtual soccer, it’s definitely the first game that’s actively made me feel the hype that seems to fuel the rest of the world’s ardor for this sport.
If you’re looking for a JRPG that isn’t just hacking at orcs, scrounging through the wastes, or smacking down gods in outer space and want to experience an engaging and genuinely entertaining take on the world’s most watched sport, Inazuma Eleven 2: Blizzard won’t leave you cold-blooded for long.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find that deer-looking fella in Nara. I like the cut of his jib.