In Japan, Level-5 is one of the masters at maximising franchises through games — typically on portable systems — and TV shows or films, continually keeping the storyline going and producing regular content. Yo-kai Watch is the current craze, while Professor Layton had some film content to accompany six main-series games and more spin-offs besides; then there's Inazuma Eleven, one of the company's most prolific franchises. Its route to the West has been long, however, with heavily delayed localisation and a Europe focus holding it back — North America only recently received a revamped 3DS version of the DS original.
The storyline takes place — we think we've got this right — 10 years after the conclusion of Inazuma Eleven 3, and this time around you're controlling Arion Sherwind, who comes with the same DNA of over-the-top super-enthusiasm as the main protagonist of this title's predecessors, Mark Evans. He's just starting out at Raimon, the setting of the first DS title and recurring home of Evans, and joins the school team and a host of new characters. Initially we struggled to warm to Arion and his team-mates as much as those that came before, but the title does a good job of using its story-telling to flesh these players out; eventually we did have some level of affinity with these young footballers.
There are a host of returning characters, though, which we won't spoil here, which as mentioned above could fly over the heads of those jumping in for the first time. There's a bit of clunky reminiscence to remind you of what's come before, but overall the ensemble cast is introduced and expanded relatively skilfully. As for the overall storyline, it's got a neat hook and progresses nicely, though it does have padding that feels unnecessary; in fact, the amount of slightly inane busy-work that's thrown in on occasion is a regular complaint following on from Inazuma Eleven 3 — the development team wants this to be a substantial undertaking, but throws in unnecessary filler to achieve that goal.
This GO entry, meanwhile, scales back some of the daunting depth that spiralled out of control in the original trilogy, though perhaps chops away too much. The first title hit a sweet spot that this entry misses, as despite having equipment, abilities and levelling to tackle, it feels less substantial. Random 5-a-side football battles are exceptionally rare now, as you're instead simply shown challengers on the map that you can take on or completely ignore — it's welcome, compared to over-zealous equivalents that came before, but we found that the world felt less vibrant as a result. There are plenty of NPCs to exchange meaningless phrases with, yes, but for many hours we were running around the same dozen or so small-ish areas over and over again; this is a title setting the foundations for the whole GO series, yet it falls short of being compelling in its storytelling and sense of progress.
The primary feature of this title — beyond exploring the over-world and picking some local battles — is the story 'event' matches, which are 11-a-side and full of drama. It's in these where the now-standard wacky special moves come to the fore, and some scripting is combined with increasingly tough matches — we even had to endure a penalty shoot-out on one occasion. These are essential to the plot and progress well, gradually unveiling more abilities and evolving characters, all once again — as with the 5-a-side battles — controlled with the stylus on the touch screen, though conversations and special moves show on the top screen. It functions as before with a combination of taps and swipes, though this entry throws in some new mechanics; most notable are Fighting Spirits, which have their own energy requirements and involve rather large spirits beefing up key characters and, on occasion, clashing with each other.
What these matches and the title as a whole also show off is a genuine improvement in presentation, too. While previous efforts on 3DS — two iterations of Inazuma Eleven 3 — were a little lazy, this sports a new visual engine that's clearly based on the same technology used for the more recent Professor Layton titles. The style brings us clean, simple polygons that look particularly good in 3D, while the music is of higher quality than before. This was the first title in the series developed from the ground up for 3DS, and it succeeds in moving the franchise on in terms of its presentation. There's download content — as well as StreetPass and SpotPass functionality — so keen players have plenty to enjoy.