Previews

Inazuma Eleven: Does anime play nice with football in this RPG?

An RPG with balls...

Football and role-playing games might not seem like obvious bedfellows, but we've seen curious combos on Nintendo consoles in the past - like bongos and platformers, or pinball and military strategy. Inazuma might well be the archetypal game of two halves, but its two decidedly different elements gel surprisingly well.

After an earnest opening theme it's physically impossible not to cringe at, you're placed in the boots (and gloves) of Mark Evans, goalkeeper and captain of the Raimon Junior High football team. Despite Mark's enthusiasm, the school's squad is in a bad way, down to just seven members, most of whom fail to share their leader's cheery outlook.

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But this is a Japanese RPG, not a bleak Mike Leigh drama, so inevitably Mark gets the opportunity to turn things around after a chance encounter with an enigmatic, spiky-haired stranger who might just be able to play a bit. Could this moody young chap be the team's saviour? Well, with a name like Axel Blaze, it hardly takes a genius to work out the answer to that one.

MATCH OF THE DAY
If Inazuma's rags-to-riches tale puts us firmly on the genre's home turf, Level-5 deliver a crunching tackle to tradition. Sure, exploring the school and surrounding area offers a familiar blend of simple fetch quests and random encounters, but once you step over that white line it's a different story.

Before each match you organise your team as if prepping for battle, equipping them with performance-boosting items and allocating special moves. Player positions can be adjusted at kick-off, but once the ball's in play you'll need to touch the time-out button to briefly pause the action and fine tune your strategy.

Rather than controlling each player directly, you draw a path for them to take with the stylus. When you're in possession, tapping a player on the touch screen passes the ball directly, or you can tap elsewhere to punt the ball into space.

Get within range of the goal and the game pauses, giving you the option to choose either a normal shot or a chipped attempt, with a four-step meter to set the power. We've no idea why you'd ever pick a weaker strike unless you were trying to lob the keeper from a few yards out, but the option is there should you want it.

For some players, you'll have a third choice. Special moves are either earned or learned - they're automatically accrued as your team levels up, or they can be picked up from old footy manuals you'll find on your travels. Axel's Fire Tornado adds extra power to his shot that can take it past stubborn goalies - knocking them to the floor if they get in the way - and he can team up with fellow striker Kevin to unleash a powerful double-strike that's almost a guaranteed netbuster.

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Strikers don't get all the fun. When opponents have the ball you can interrupt their run by moving a player into their path, with the option to block or slide-tackle them. A midfield battle can see you hop over or charge through an incoming challenge. And specials are used here, too - defensive colossus Jack can erect a stone wall to stop attackers, while Mark's God Hand move allows him to hang onto even the most powerful shots.

MAGIC SKILLS
These skills come at a cost, using up a limited supply of Technique Points, but they're all apparently legal. People might moan about Sepp Blatter, but we're not convinced even the old duffers at FIFA would let a goalkeeper slice the ball in half or allow a midfielder to conjure a puddle of purple goop to pull down an attacker.

But then extravagant supernatural powers are the stock in trade of Japanese anime - which rather neatly brings us onto the thorny subject of Inazuma's release hold-up. Already available in other corners of Europe, the game remains off-limits to UK owners for the time being, as Nintendo hang on for the accompanying series to be aired on British TV. There's every chance the game might be available as you read this, or it might have another few months in Delaysville yet.

So should you happen to see this nestling among the new releases of your local gaming retailer, is it worth getting? Well, as the first of a new franchise it feels like a game that could do with a few tactical tweaks. Although fun, the footy battles can feel awkward, and the actual role-playing is fairly linear.

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