Imagine this - a regular RPG coupled with association football. Sounds utterly mental and yet so right, doesn't it?

It turns out that the Japanese had already perfected this particular crossover years ago. Inazuma Elevenwas originally released in Japan for the Nintendo DS back in 2008, but we're only just getting it now in the UK.

In fact, two follow-up titles for the DS have been launched in Japan since the original made its home debut there, while a spin-off Wii title was also let loose into the world. We still have a lot of catching up to do, in other words.

Inazuma Eleven gives off plenty of sparks of originality, and the story is exciting to follow along with. Unfortunately, its weakest element is the main event itself: the footy.

It's a game of two halves


Inazuma Eleven tracks the story of Mark Evans, a young boy who is part of a school football club. With his team about to be disbanded, Mark sets out to recruit more players and win some matches, thus restoring the faith in his squad.

The game plays out as two separate entities brilliantly spliced together. For one half of the game, you'll be bounding around the school, talking to people and watching the story unfold.

For the other half, you're out on the playing field, making last-ditch tackles and slotting the ball into the back of the net. It really is a weird and wonderful combination.

Sliding debacle

Let's take care of the RPG elements first. Inazuma Eleven features a lovingly crafted explorable world, populated by an insane number of characters. Indeed, there are nearly 1,000 players available for recruitment.

You always have a primary goal to complete, such as getting to a particular spot or finding someone you need to talk to, but there are also plenty of side-quests and extra missions, like training your players and the aforementioned scouting.

As you run around, you'll encounter random battles, just as you would in plenty of other RPGs. However, rather than your usual turn-based or real-time fighting, the game instead pans to a football pitch, and the match is on.

In the set time limit, you need to take control of the ball with your team, gun it down the pitch, passing along the way, and thwack the ball into your opponent's net.

When two players meet for a 50/50 challenge, the action pauses to allow you to choose your approach. There are always three types of move: a 'safe' tackle, a harder tackle, and a special move. The outcome of the clash is dependent on your current character's element and your opponent's, so you may well have a slight advantage going into the challenge.

The action moves fairly rapidly, resulting in some pretty exciting and hectic matches. Fortunately, it's possible to pause the game, choose routes for your players to take via the touchscreen, and then hit play and watch it pan out.

Offside

Yet there is something that hopelessly ruins matches at various intervals throughout the game - scripted play.

Most matches let you play the game how you want to, but now and again, you'll encounter a match which has been entirely scripted, and requires you to play it exactly how the developers want you to.

The worst example is around two hours into play. You're up against the Occult team, and have just scored the first goal. So far, so good.

However, a set story is then put in motion, in which the other team scores without fail and you're asked to net in the remaining time with a specific player, having already used him to shoot on goal with a specific special move.

Stifling tactics

It's utterly maddening, and dampens a lot of the fun we were having up to that point. Why Level-5 chose to stifle a game that elsewhere is so full of freedom is anyone's guess.

It's also worth noting that Inazuma Eleven is very much aimed at kids. The main character is voiced by the (rather annoyingly high-pitched) actor responsible for Luke from the Professor Layton series, and there are plenty of running themes like love, compassion, and trust that football can do without.

Inazuma Eleven is a great start for the series, with just a few kinks to iron out here and there. Hopefully, Level-5 will see fit to bring the rest of the series to the Land of Hope and Glory, too.