Thunderflash Edition tested
The Inazuma Eleven series has been around for a little while now without ever, it's fair to say, really making it to the big time. Chrono Stones is the best chance yet for the series, though - despite it being the second game in the second trilogy, it is the most accessible yet.
The premise is this: you are Arion Sherwind, captain of the Raimon High School football team. The school is famous for producing excellent football teams and yours is fresh from winning a local tournament when a shadowy organisation from 200 years in the future bowls up to erase the sport from history. Something about the offspring of talented footballers evolving into people with psychic abilities, and they're causing a war in their time. Naturally.
This causes a race through history to recruit the essence of various historical figures to imbue your team with them and win the day. Play divides into two halves (there was a joke in that somewhere): running round the overworld and games of football. The latter splits into 5-a-side first-goal-wins knockabouts - almost like random battles - and 11-a-side matches, both of which are controlled with the stylus. The player in possession will naturally run forward but everything else is up to you: tap a teammate for a pass, or to assign someone to run towards an opponent in possession. It's a surprisingly smooth system, though the defensive AI is a bit lax at times.
The game's RPG elements are in full effect throughout. Each player has one of four elements, Pokémon style, and there is a loose rock-paper-scissors affair going on, which is constantly depicted on match screens. This helps to decide the outcome of challenges for the ball, how your shots will fare and whether or not you'll pull off that fingertip save. Special moves level up through repeated use, and kit can be upgraded to help give you an extra edge. Furthermore, you can recruit opponents to join your squad. The default team is rather sharp, of course, but some of the more experimental formations might require more defenders than you have, for example. Even better, as in the original Inazuma Eleven GO, you can recruit female players. Chew on that, FIFA 16 - boys and girls play alongside each other here.
The storyline is classic anime madness, though it is also a slight letdown. A lot of the narrative beats are repeated way too often in the middle chapters of the game, causing the game to sag somewhat. This is a shame, as the twists, turns and bizarre characters put me in mind of a Professor Layton game on steroids (no surprise, given that Level-5 are the developers for both series), with all the quality/mushiness that entails.
Another slight flaw is that it demands The Grind. Certain 11-a-side matches are the Inazuma equivalent of dungeon bosses, and they can wipe the floor with you if you are not powerful enough. At one stage pulling my team up just a couple of levels meant the kerbstomp scoreline swung from the opponents to me. Although I love grinding, it might have been better to balance things out a little more fairly.
There's also a mite of slowdown when certain special moves are activated and the characters are conversing (as above). The only other drawback is that the number of mechanics to juggle can be overwhelming - and that's coming from an Inazuma veteran! To combat that, the game plays its ace-in-the-hole: Arion's Football Corner. The in-game hero has a chat with the player at the end of a chapter about tactics and the advantages of elements you may have just unlocked. In short, the game gently nudges you into being a better player by the time you really need to be on top of things - and you will, because the final match is a doozy.
It looks fabulous, and sounds better (though the quality of the voice acting varies wildly). You find yourself developing tactics on the fly, actually based on real football: a neat ball over the top causes your top scorer to peel off his marker and slam one into the onion bag past the stunned goalie. Dragging a winger into a run to beat the defender, cut in and score a beautiful goal that'll surely be Goal of the Month on Match of the Day. Admittedly, you'll occasionally set your gloves on fire, shoot several feet in the air, and catch the ball in your flaming palm, but this wackiness is a huge part of the appeal. You'll not find the depth of a genuine football sim here, but the spirit and fun of the game is here in abundance.
Final Verdict: If you're a fan of RPG's and have yet to experience the series, you really should jump on this. You don't need to have played any of the four previous games to pick up the story and it is a cracking RPG. If you're a football fan who's sad that you won't be able to play FIFA 16 on the 3DS, be more wary... the uniqueness of the Inazuma Eleven series is as much a flaw as it is a strength.