Captain Tsubasa game review: Influential Japanese franchise shoots for glory and misses by a mile

This is the franchise's first game on a non-handheld console (there was a game on the Nintendo DS in 2010) since 2006's Captain Tsubasa on the PlayStation 2

In a strange year and at the end of a strange football season, you'd think that a strange football game would be the way to go.

To that end, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions (CT:RoNC) — the eponymous captain's first non-handheld console outing since 2006's Captain Tsubasa on the PlayStation 2 — should have fit the brief perfectly. The mashup of football, a 1980s anime and extremely Japanese video game quirks should have been a combination strange enough to make for a brilliant game.

It's a crying shame then that the Tamsoft-developed and Bandai Namco Entertainment-published game ends up being little more than a rank average romp through adolescence and a sort of football. That isn't to say that it isn't sprinkled with some positives, but we'll get to all that in time.

Tsubasa Oozora is a middle-school student when we meet him, but started life in 1981 on the pages of a manga as a football-loving elementary school student. For the uninitiated, one of the more intriguing aspects of Tsubasa's origins is the story of how, as a toddler, he was once struck by a moving vehicle, but as luck would have it, the collision, as well as impact against the ground, were cushioned by a football he happened to be clutching between his tiny arms. True story.

The manga would go on to be adapted as an animated TV series, a trilogy of novels and a whole host of video games that have largely been put out on iOS and Android platforms over the past decade. In an interesting case of life influencing art influencing life, Yoichi Takahashi, the author of the original manga, was inspired by the 1978 World Cup — which has incidentally been dubbed, in some quarters, as 'the dirtiest World Cup of all time' — and a number of Japanese footballers have claimed to have been inspired to take up the game by Captain Tsubasa. All in all, it's a pretty important artefact of Japanese pop culture.

And that's something the main menu, the opening moments of the game's story mode and in fact, CT:RoNC itself convey rather well: The sense of occasion.

Screen grab from Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions

Screen grab from Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions

The franchise's first outing on a non-handheld console (there was a Captain Tsubasa game on the Nintendo DS in 2010) in nearly a decade-and-a-half lands well enough — throwing you into the finals of the first "Junior Youths World Challenge" between Japan and Germany, before you've even had a chance to take in the aroma of the turf. The Japanese team as which you play is full of the very cream of footballers from this age group to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun — such names as Hyuga, Soda, Jito, the Tachibana brothers and of course Tsubasa, with which you'll be familiar if you've followed the series in the past.

The good guys go one nil-up against Die Mannschaft (with a hard-earned goal whose importance, as the cutscene that follows makes clear, cannot possibly be understated in terms of its importance) in what is essentially a tutorial of the basics of CT:RoNC. Fade to black and flashback to the very beginning. That is to say the very beginning of this particular story, where Tsubasa has already won two middle-school tournaments and is a household name in the world of Japanese school-level football. So much so that he's even accrued a whole host of rivals from across the land — and there's nothing they want more than to stand between the Nankatsu Middle School and its third consecutive title.

All of which makes for a lovely little premise, but upon closer inspection of the main menu, you'd be excused for wondering if it's a bit on the skinny side. There's The Journey (the game's story mode which is very little like its FIFA 17/18/19 namesake), a versus mode, an online versus mode and a practice mode — which is your lot as far as playable modes go. The versus modes (which allow up to four players per match) are further splintered down into a penalty shootout, exhibition match and a tournament. It's a limited set of ways in which to play the game, but not necessarily a deal-breaker, because aside from sort of management mode, what more do you want?

After all, if a game is fun, nuanced and robust enough, these modes should ideally suffice. On that note, here's a look at how the game plays:

That's right, there's no referee in sight. While the linespersons (or assistant referees as they are called these days) are on hand to make the offside calls and signal for throw-ins, the chief referee appears to be only contracted to blow her/his whistle for kickoff, half-time and full-time from off-screen. There is no such thing as a foul in CT:RoNC and as you can see in the video above, clattering your opponent to the ground with no intention of going for the ball in the penalty box of all places doesn't so much as even elicit a warning from the referee. Why? Because there's no referee in sight is why. Keep up, will ya?

Gameplay is by and large extremely basic, with face buttons enabling you to play a short pass, through ball, long pass or a shot at goal — just as with most other football games. On the shoulders, things remain more or less business-as-usual with the R1 trigger allowing you to dash and R2 trigger letting you dribble. How both these mechanics work, however, is a bit different from what you're probably accustomed to. A spirit gauge determines long your selected player can continue to to dash or dribble, and once you've emptied it, the player starts moving a bit more regularly.

But wait. There's more to it. Dash and dribble don't simply serve to move you across the turf, they also serve to help you take down (I refuse to refer to this game's unruly method of retrieving the ball from an opponent as 'tackling') opposition players. And if you've watched the video above, you'll know just how brutal said takedowns are. Together, the dash and dribble functions form a sort of limited two-dimensional rock-paper-scissor mechanism (rock-scissor, if you will) that determines whether the player with the ball will lose possession and (temporarily) his ability to stay on his feet, or continue to maraud forward en route the goal. Essentially, if both players (or player and computer) have the same function activated, the tackler gets the ball, but if one's using dash and the other's using dribble, the player with the ball retains possession.

It's a largely luck-oriented way of swiping the ball from the opposite team's players that goes some way in taking the skill out of interceptions and step-overs or other tricks. But the problems don't end there. While the passing of the ball is generally well-executed — with short passes being the most accurate, followed by through balls and finally, long passes — and aided by a few neat combos, retrieving a loose ball is inexplicably difficult. For some reason, your controlled player will refuse to run straight at the ball and take possession; choosing instead to run around it for a little while before clumsily taking control of the ball.

A competent-enough story mode keeps things interesting. Screen grab from Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions

A reasonably competent story keeps The Journey interesting enough. Screen grab from the games

Without putting too fine a point on it, the absence of rules (no fouls, no penalties during regular time and no free-kicks either), an eminently hit-or-miss possession-retrieval system and a phobia of loose balls hurt CT:RoNC. But what really deflates the entire experience is the goal-scoring mechanic. For starters, aside from when taking a penalty kick (which only happens in a shootout at the end of overtime), it is impossible to aim a shot on goal with any level of precision. Next, it doesn't matter how slick, powerful or accurate your attempt on target, the ball simply will not go past the goalkeeper unless his stamina meter has been worn down. In essence, goal-scoring isn't about an audacious lob, a howitzer from just outside the box, a bullet header or a sumptuous team move any more. It's all about wearing down the 'keeper in a patience-sapping game of attrition.

Elsewhere, the game's story mode — The Journey — is split into two episodes. The first and the one the game urges you to take on first, Episode: Tsubasa, sees you step into the boots of the titular middle-schooler and take the Nankatsu team to its third title in as many years. The episode plays out like a series of cutscenes interspersed by matches that are preceded by brief tutorials. Over the course of the matches, these tutorials help with picking up handy little combos and crucial mechanics. It's a nice combination overall and by the end, you'll have tried out — and had the opportunity to extensively practice — most of the game's tricks. In terms of the storytelling, CT:RoNC suffers from the same malaise from which a handful of other Japanese games (Persona 5 comes to mind first) suffer and that is far too much exposition and repeated explanation. Being told by three separate teammates that a particular match had to be won seemed mildly excessive, at the very least.

Episode: New Hero is where things get slightly less linear. For starters, you get to create your own character with a reasonably varied amount of customisation options. You then get to select a school that isn't Nankatsu and climb up the ranks as one of Tsubasa's many rivals. Lending a deeper and more RPG-esque experience to this mode is the ability to build up your character's stats as you see fit, talk to non-playable characters and so on. The story is entertaining enough, but the mode suffers from a rather steep learning curve. As it turns out, The Journey is the only section of the game where you cannot change the difficulty level, because the game increases it by itself from level to level. And while this can get incredibly infuriating after enough repeated attempts, resisting the urge to rage-quit reaps rich rewards. The need for alliteration at this time isn't exactly clear, but then again, neither is the strange choice not to allow players to tweak difficulty.

Customisation options are fairly varied. Screen grab from the game

Customisation options are fairly varied. Screen grab from the game

Presentation-wise, there's a lot to like about CT:RoNC. Without ever threatening to push your console's processing power to its limits, the game does a wonderful job with its '80s anime design and graphic style. Animations are smooth and everything from the kicking up of dust as your player dashes across the turf to the mini explosion when a player is taken down with a vicious and crunching assault (still not going to call it a "tackle") works perfectly. The Journey's cutscenes within a match do a fabulous job of heightening the drama and pushing the story along, while player dialogues that pop up on the side of the screen at pivotal moments in any match are a nice touch. The latter wouldn't be all that shabby an addition to a regular football game, mind you.
Menus are simple and straightforward, but not once do they look like they belong in the PlayStation 2 era, a la the menus in the Pro Evolution Soccer series of football sims.

Further, if you're new to the world of Captain Tsubasa, progress through the game unlocks a series of short video clips that fill in the back story of the game's protagonist, his friends and rivals. While not groundbreaking by any stretch, they do put matters into context. When it comes to sound, it tends consistently to be of a high quality, whether it's voice acting, background music or sound effects that we're talking about. Additionally, hearing a man — or rather, an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood — scream out in pain after being tackled isn't something you get with 99 percent of the football games out there, so there's that.

Ultimately, CT:RoNC makes for a decent interactive anime experience, but it's poor as a football game. In fact, it's rather more accurate to categorise it as an action game that just so happens to take place on a football field with a ball knocking around. While by no means unplayable, the shallowness of the game and its mechanics wear a bit thin very quickly, and there's very little in the gameplay to keep you coming back for more. Perhaps the biggest tragedy, in summation, is that this game does a disservice to a character who inspired so many to try their hand foot at the sport.

Game reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Review code provided by the publisher.

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