When it was announced a few months ago that the latest Pro Evolution Soccer by Konami would only be a seasonal update with minimal improvements over the last game, I was really interested in the concept. This isn’t something exclusive, Electronic Arts have released their “Legacy Edition” of FIFA and NHL on older consoles (and FIFA on Nintendo Switch) but they still charged full price. In the case of PES 2021, Konami has released the game at a discounted price (about 50% less than last year’s game and if you’re a regular player of the game (or played PES 2020 through Xbox Game Pass), they offered an additional 20% discount on certain editions of the game). For the risk they took essentially skipping this year so they could focus on next-gen next year, I think it has paid off.

Yes, if you’ve played PES 2020, PES 2021 is more or less the same with a few minor changes. The most notable will be the updated leagues and club changes. AC Milan, a club I support, was in PES 2020 but having signed a marketing partnership with EA a few months ago, they are out. On the flip side, AS Roma who was missing last year signed a partnership with Konami and is exclusive to PES. For those who only follow the English Premier League, Arsenal and Manchester United are fully authentic in the game with the rest of the league players available to use but their clubs being filled with generic names, crests, and kits. 

If you’re a general football fan or care more about players than clubs, this isn’t a deal-breaker. This is nothing new to the Winning Eleven/PES series, where they’ve always relied on delivering a solid performance on the pitch and let the authentic licensing stuff take a back seat.

From my time with PES and its community, the two core modes are My Club, their answer to FIFA’s Ultimate Team, and Master League, their managerial mode. While I enjoy playing the club tournaments like Euro 2020 and the AFC Champions League, I know that those inclusions are only really there to help give more content to My Club. Also, based on the pre-order offers and club editions, My Club is definitely where they want you to play.

My Club is your item collecting mode but it’s different enough from FUT and offers its own set of benefits to bring people in. EA has been accused, rightly so, of really trying to push microtransactions in order for its users to have success. Konami doesn’t go this route. Yes, you can by My Coins to get better players, they also do a lot to give regular users free My Coins and other bonuses to keep engagement.

Whereas FUT has squad building challenges to get packs and players, My Club uses random player drops through agents and a leveling system to strengthen your squad. You can take a chance and hope an agent gives you a high-rated player, or you can take the 78-rated player you have and use them on your squad to see their stats improve. It might take you a while to do this it still feels rewarding.

On the pitch, PES is all over the place. When it plays well, it plays really well. When you’re able to string passes and score, it’s rewarding. But, the passing in the last few games has been somewhat frustrating. I’ve had too many times situations where a short pass goes long or an intended long pass goes to a nearby teammate. This is a legacy problem for both this franchise and even FIFA and it’s something I doubt will ever get fully fixed. 

The same goes for player switching. Yes, there is an indicator to let you know who the next player the game will switch to, it’s not always who you think should be the selected player. In some cases, it will use the player ahead rather than the player who is closest. I can understand the reasoning, but having to try to switch a few times until the right player is chosen can waste key moments.

I also noticed a lot of inconsistencies with the referees. Times, when I was certain a foul would be called, they were signaled for play to continue. Then, when I was certain I cleanly won the ball, I was called for an infraction. For some players, they will claim this is the game scripting events in order to create drama. Considering these happen at random times, that conspiracy theory doesn’t hold much water.

But even with these issues, I still have fun on the pitch. Every game I played felt competitive. If my team was strong, I rightfully dominated the match. But, when my team was the weaker of the two sides, I knew I had to play to my strengths if I hoped for a win (or avoid a loss). I never felt that the game was favoring one team over the other because of a flip of an imaginary coin. 

PES is known for its Data Packs, which include updates to the game ranging from new clubs to gameplay tweaks. Having played PES 2020 a lot before the launch of PES 2021, I do see the improvements to gameplay, which gives me hope that some of the problems I and others have had thus far can be adjusted. It won’t be perfect but it’s nice to see that Konami isn’t just launching the game and not trying to make it fun for all.

I am quite a fan of how the game looks. I think Konami has consistently done a great job of stadium designs and crowd interactions. It was fun to play an early game in My Career with a half-full stadium, especially since I was leading a French 2nd division team. There are still areas to improve and expand upon but when it hits, it does a fantastic job of adding to the immersion you need in a sports game.

I do wish the commentary was better or at least did a better job of connecting to the action on the pitch. Regardless of the mode,  I felt I could play the game without any commentary and not think I was missing something of value. The crowd effects are good but sometimes you do want to hear the pundits make an interesting comment about a certain player or make more references to the team’s past performances.

Konami took a huge risk being upfront with how they were handling PES 2021, but they pulled it off. Yes, long-time players will feel like the lack of meaningful additions or improvements will not justify the game’s price point. However, you’re still getting a fun game for about half the price you’d typically pay and there are still tons of hours of enjoyment to be had. Konami is starting fresh with the Unreal Engine for PES 2022 next year but I think they’ve ended this console generation on a good note.