Over the past few weeks, I got to play Konami’s newest soccer simulation game, PES 2021. Officially listed as eFootball PES 2021 Season Update, this year’s update to the series is exactly what it sounds like. Back in July, Konami announced that, rather than release a brand new entry this year, they would be producing a half-price update to PES 2020. By doing so, the team plans to focus on making PES 2020 for the Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5, through the development of a new game engine.
How do you review an updated version of a game? Well, I haven’t played PES 2020, so I looked at PES 2021’s merits as a stand-alone soccer sim.
Presentation and Gameplay
The two single-player game modes are all presented as though you are visiting eFootball PES Sports Network dot com. It’s an aesthetically pleasing look. I felt like I wasn’t just playing through the game modes, but that I was interacting with the story those game modes were creating. Even when you’re simulating mid-game, the display is like watching an ESPN box score. They link it all together with Follower Counts, which track your club or player’s popularity throughout their careers. At least, I think they do. Mine never went up.
Gameplay feels fine! The PES 2021 Season Update really feels like a simulation soccer game that is an update from a solid simulation soccer game. Two aspects of gameplay jumped out at me. First, dribbling the ball is difficult, even with the fighting game-esque move sheet the game offers you. This appears to have been a problem in it’s predecessor, so maybe they’ll get it in Next Gen. Second, the transition from offense to defense is very rigid. Sometimes a pass would barely miss me, and my player would give up pursuit of the ball in favor of moving for defense. Or, an attempt to make a sliding tackle to disrupt a loose ball would instead charge a pass that I never get to make. PES 2021 draws a line at where possession ends, and it doesn’t feel fluid or particularly natural.
I really enjoyed PES 2021’s club customization options. You get two levels of clearance on what you can and cannot change, depending on the club you choose. For licensed leagues, you obviously can’t change the crest, or the name. PES 2021 does let you make alternative jerseys that don’t have to be sacred to the brand.
You can completely rework the fictional teams, however. The one thing PES 2021 is missing here? A crest maker. The game actually gives you more freedom, by letting you upload pictures from a flash card to use as your crest (as well as official team partners, which is hilarious), but a simple crest creator could go a long way.
I didn’t really dig into the online modes, and MyClub isn’t really my thing. So I focused mainly on the Master League and Become A Legend modes. I spoke pretty highly of the customization options for clubs, so imagine my disappointment when, for your custom manager, you just choose from a list of people who exist. I possessed the body of R. Dudfield, and so F. COOLBEER was born. F. COOLBEER took control of the now-official Hoosier FC, which competes in the fictional PLA League. Manager COOLBEER did not have a good opening season. We’ll get back to that.
When you boot up Master League mode for the first time, you see a few cutscenes. You control your manager and make a few decisions. How well should we expect Hoosier FC to perform in the PLA League? What kind of coaching decisions do you plan to make? Basic questions I expect to answer in games with dynasty modes.
Master League mode gives you the reins to your club pretty fully. The second series of cutscenes you encounter walk you through the transfer process. There’s a lot to look at but, overall, the process is pretty simple. You set terms. A CPU manager reviews them and decides if they like what they see. Your players don’t really get a say, which makes the process a little less engaging, if not wholly realistic.
I struggled through my first game of the season, a 0-1 loss. The game really lets you have it after the first couple of losses. A message on my home screen really drilled it home, “Fans angry with Hoosier FC opener.” I had unread messages in-game and had the same real-life anxiety from having important messages I didn’t want to read. I bit the bullet, and struggled through 3 more losses. Eventually I thought the game could simulate Hoosier FC better than I could play them. The simulation, however, was brutal.
Lucky for players like me, PES 2021 only puts on a scary face. COOLBEER ended his inaugural season 0-17-3. After a bummer of a season, Hoosier FC lost… zero fans. COOLBEER even received four job offers for his performance as a rookie manager. It was nice, because I’m bad at soccer games. There wasn’t a punishment for boldly declaring we’d finish sixth, then finishing last. Knowing there aren’t consequences took a bit of the competitive edge away.
Become a Legend
Now we’re CREATING A PLAYER and it rips. PES 2021’s character creation suite is pretty deep, and it’s nice that you get to create a player whole cloth, unlike with the clubs. I suspect you could really mess a face up with this thing, but I made a boring dude because I’m a boring dude.
Career modes have this problem simulating what it’s like being an up-and-comer. Most rookie players don’t start. Some of them don’t even have minutes their first season. Most games avoid this by making you a prodigy, or by having you play in High School. In my first game with U.S. Lecce, I warmed the bench. You get to fast forward the game while you’re not in, which is a blessing. I wish they would do me one better and just let me skip to when I’m playing. I played for the final 4 minutes of the game, making little impact.
Then, I didn’t make the squad. For four games I fooled around in the various menus making sure my training options were right. I was gonna be a Super-Sub, since that was apparently my role in the organization. Then, I started games. PES 2021’s BAL mode surprised me with how well the split the balance between “rookie player sits his first 3 seasons,” and “he starts right away because he’s a superstar.” When I started two games in a row, it felt like I earned those starts.
Beyond this, there’s not very much drama in as far as I got in BAL. The biggest problem I had was that my preferred number (#11) was taken by a starter, so I had to choose another number (#69, nice). If your create-a-player is an attacker, or an offensive role, you may get enough action out of BAL for it to be ok that nothing is happening outside of games. I built a midfield defender, and while the gameplay is still good, the mode outside of games needs to have more excitement built-in to keep someone interested.
Between Master League and BAL, you could sink season after season into PES 2021 Season Update, bouncing from team to team. That’s not even taking into account MyClub, the existence of which is constantly extended because it’s a gacha game that’s always receiving updates. my concern is that there’s just not enough going on in either single player mode to keep people interested long-term.
In Master League, there were a few more cutscenes throughout my first season, but they served as tutorials to teach me how being a manager works in PES 2021. Which is welcome, because I love a good tutorial. However, in order to really hook me into the story of these modes, there aren’t enough events happening. Players are improving and transfers are in talks all-year around, but in terms of content that’s about it.
After simulating through the rest of COOLBEER’s first season, I started the second season with a tutorial on negotiating contracts with your own players. Again, important things to know, but the only effect my previous season had on my manager’s career was a series of text boxes scolding me and asking me to do better. Even the generic messages somehow feel canned. When I started my Become a Legend file, I received a message that I had not been selected for the U.S. Nationals team. Of course I didn’t make it, I’m 17 and I’ve never played a game in the league. Why would I be so disappointed?
eFootball PES 2021 Season Update is a layover, while Konami works on getting Pro Evolution Soccer ready for the next console generation. PES 2021 never tries to hide that, though, and the game is better off for it. If PES 2021 were a $60 game I could not recommend it to people who weren’t already fans of the Pro Evolution Soccer series. However, it’s a $30 game, and if you’re looking for an affordable single-player soccer experience, PES 2021 could be the game you’re looking for. Despite my lack of soccer skills, I enjoyed my time with PES 2021, and I’m probably gonna go back to that 0-17-3 Master League team and try to register at least one win.
PES 2021 Season Update Review: A Cross To Next Gen