25th Aug 2011 | 11:26
Football these days is all about statistics. As more and more money pours into the game, we've reached a stage where every single event, both major and minor, on and off the pitch is reduced to a mere figure in a gigantic database.
Turn on Sky Sports News at any time of day and your eyes are assaulted by numbers, while Opta records everything from the number of goals scored and fouls committed to the most darts related extra-curricular misdemeanours.
With that in mind, it's no surprise to see someone blend the sport with the stat-loving world of the RPG, even if it's a bit of a shock that it's taken this long.
The biggest eyebrow-raiser, however, is the length of the wait for a UK release. The home of football has been tutting loudly and tapping its watch for three bleddy years since Inazuma Eleven's Japanese debut. Indeed, in the east they're already up to a second sequel, with a Wii spin-off to boot. So what gives?
GIVE AND GIVE
The anime gives, that's what. It's taken until now for a kids' channel to get around to screening the series in the UK, and thus it's the perfect time for Nintendo to capitalise. Trouble is, we're now left with a game that's three years old and starting to look its age. Inazuma's a great idea in an embryonic state - one destined to benefit from the improvements that hindsight (and sequels) can bring.
Perhaps Nintendo should have skipped the first and brought us number two or three instead, though it could be that Level-5's new western arm will result in a faster turnaround for the follow-ups. Either way, what we're left with is something that our extensive knowledge of sporting parlance suggests footy connoisseurs would describe as a game of two constituent parts of equal size.
As Mark Evans, goalkeeper, captain and professional Luke-from-Professor-Layton-impersonator of the Raimon Junior High football team, your job is to build a team capable of challenging for honours. Some people can be easily convinced into joining, while others need to be cajoled before they step over that white line.
You explore the school and surrounding area (whose borders gradually expand the further you progress) from a top-down view with stumpy characters trotting through fairly bland environments. It's uncommonly unattractive for a Level-5 game, far from the polished presentation we've come to expect from Layton and the like, even if its age is a mitigating factor.
The characters are amiable enough, though the dialogue tends to skew a little younger than you might expect. Level-5 mastered something universally appealing with Layton; Inazuma, by contrast, feels precision-targeted at ten-year-old boys. That won't matter to many of the anime's fans, but it's a slight disappointment to us oldies who miss the wry wit and gentlemanly charm of everyone's favourite professor.
Once you've fulfilled the right conditions, you'll get the opportunity to test out the skills of your new recruits on the pitch. Again, for the most part, you're left to watch chunky sprites amble about, though this time you're in direct control of them all, executing runs, passes and tackles with the stylus.
It's a control scheme more elegant than the game itself - with the pitch confined to a single screen it's easy to feel hemmed in, and unless you're quick enough to guide every off-the-ball runner as well as the man in possession, you can sometimes find yourself crowded out.
With a little practice, you'll learn that a short passing game seems to be the best way to succeed. Passing direct to feet is the safe option, albeit at the loss of momentum; sending players on runs into space before pinging the ball a yard or so ahead of them is the key to unlocking stubborn defences.
Shooting pauses the action, giving you the chance to select the strength and height of the shot, though you can also increase your chances of scoring by spending Technique Points on a potentially net-busting super-strike.
Such incredi-moves aren't only reserved for the forwards, with wingers able to clone themselves to bamboozle opponents, and goalies teleporting from one side of the net to the other to make impossible saves.
Inazuma takes the idea of erecting a defensive wall all too literally - you'd think the concrete constructions featured here would count as cheating, but officials happily turn a blind eye. Fun when you're blocking; less so when you're on the receiving end. Who's the b...[blighter - Ed] in the black, indeed.
Still, in the context of the anime, such Naruto-esque nonsense actually seems to fit. Subtlety isn't really Inazuma's game and it's this explosive drama that ultimately elevates it above its fairly mundane mechanics. The story might be a fairly straightforward rise-of-theunderdog tale, but as your team of loveable losers improve, you'll be rooting for them all the way to the Big Important Must-Win-Or-Else Tournament.
On a console hardly short of RPGs, it's more of a top ten side hoping for a decent cup run than a genuine title contender, but Inazuma isn't without its charms, particularly if you're a fan of the sport - or, indeed, of anime. Younger audiences will certainly get a kick out of taking Raimon Junior High all the way to the top, even if the football they'll play to get there is more Birmingham than Barcelona.