‘Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions’ Review: Theatrical Football Action
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions embraces the theatrics of its manga and anime roots, and delivers an experience teeming with drama, both in its story and gameplay.
Rise of New Champions has two story modes. In 'Episode: Tsubasa', you play as the eponymous Tsubasa Ozora, a football prodigy playing for Nankatsu Middle School. He already has a couple of championship titles under his belt, and you take control of his side as they play for their third and final trophy together. It's like The Last Dance but with less emphasis on Michael Jordan.
These story matches come equipped with subplots. Cutscenes within matches are fun to watch but the way they break up play can get annoying. Sure, they help you get invested in the characters and their passion for The Beautiful Game, but cutting to a transition screen in preparation for a story segment throws off your rhythm, especially when you're on the break.
In the other mode, 'Episode: New Hero', you play as your own custom character for one of three school teams: Furano, Musashi or Toho. This story mode is more challenging, as you have to develop your character while the tale unfolds. You unlock points to bolster your stats, and improve your team through your in-game performances.
You also pick five friends to develop your relationship with throughout the story. These friends can be members from different teams, letting you learn the moves and techniques of other players in your position. The more you unlock, the more versatile your character can be by changing abilities between games.
You're also able to use training items to improve your custom character's performance, as well as that of the team. Before games, you can have a tactics meeting to learn about the opposition, giving you a clear idea of how to approach the match. All of this combined makes for a deep gameplay experience.
Matches play out as you'd expect, with your objective being to score more goals than the opposition. However, fans of football simulation games like FIFA and PES will find the pace of the game quite slow at times. You still pass, dribble, shoot, and all the rest you're used to, but gameplay is less about bombastic runs and more about tactical awareness. Keeping the ball for too long is the biggest crime you can commit in Captain Tsubasa, as you won't be able to outrun or go around everybody. Pass and move!
When you do get into shooting positions, you'll usually want to charge up to get a super shot in order to really test the keeper. Anything less is easy catching practise - for the most part - so the stronger the strike, the better. This sounds obvious, but it can be frustrating because charge times last an age when defenders are swarming. Not to say you can't score with regular shots, you'll just need luck to make the most of those rare opportunities.
As for defending, tackles are basically just fouls. You rampage through anyone who has the ball, usually knocking them down for a few seconds. Again, this isn't something you're used to in regular football sims, but Captain Tsubasa isn't restrained by petty notions like realism. Tackles knock you out and referees are non-existent. Every match is an epic showdown with players putting their bodies on the line more than you'd think appropriate for middle-school students.
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Despite the lack of fouls, penalty kicks still exist, but only for shootouts. To be honest, I wish they weren't included at all. Penalties are a lottery in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions, just like they are in real life. As far as I can tell, there are no clues as to which way the opposing keeper or penalty taker will go. If you win then you move on. If you lose, you feel cheated by RNG. Either way, you won't want to do it again, which is also just like real-life penalty shootouts.
If you're a football simulation game purist then Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is a novelty, but it really isn't for you. Everything about it is exaggerated, from the way characters talk about matches, to the gameplay mechanics. Whereas, if you're a fan of the Captain Tsubasa manga/anime then you're all set to live out both Tsubasa's and your own anime soccer fantasies.
If you're neither of these then it's still a very fun game; but the sudden cuts during gameplay are a massive issue. Yes, they tell the narrative effectively, but they feel jarring, disruptive. It's bad design, simple as that. Luckily, it only happens in the story mode, but the way it sacrifices fluid gameplay for cutscenes is nonsensical.
When playing 'Episode: New Hero' or Versus mode, the experience is gripping. Matches slip by in an instant when you're playing well, and last an eternity when you can't get a foothold in the game. There's also the option to make your own football club using players you can unlock in the game to fill your squad. You're even able to design your own team emblem and kit, which is immensely satisfying.
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions may be a game about students playing football, but it feels more like a tactical battle experience. You wear teams down by crushing their players. You smash through defenders and score ludicrous goals. It's not realistic but that's a good thing. It's about something more fanciful, more spectacular, more theatrical.
Pros: Rich and dramatic story, robust character creator, immersive gameplay
Cons: Gameplay can be sluggish, disruptive cutscenes
For fans of: Battle anime games, unrealistic sport games
7/10: Very Good
We reviewed Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions on PlayStation 4, using code supplied by Bandai Namco Entertainment. The game is out now, and is also available for Nintendo Switch and PC. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment