PES 2021 is a funny old game. Not a proper, brand new PES, but a season update, essentially the same game as last year’s effort but with up to date lineups and a cheaper launch price of £25. Developer Konami had signalled as much, wisely managing fans’ expectations in the same breath it promised to hit the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X hard with a new game engine in 2021. I certainly respect Konami’s decision, and hope FIFA publisher EA takes note. But goodwill notwithstanding, PES 2021 the product is a bit like Spurs: lacking major signings and with no real hope of challenging for the title.
The upshot is PES 2021 is not really worth writing home about. It’s last year’s game although, thankfully, not last year’s game as it was when it launched. PES 2020 had serious gameplay issues when it came out, many of which I covered in our review. In the year since, many of these wrinkles have been ironed out by patches, and so PES 2021 fares much better at launch. It’s hard to tell where exactly PES 2021 takes its PES 2020 gameplay cue from. I’ve seen some say they feel the gameplay is much improved, but I found it hard to tell much of a difference. Perhaps the players are ever so slightly more responsive than they are in PES 2020. Perhaps there are subtle tweaks to the shooting. It feels all players take a heavier first touch, so you always have to be mindful of how you receive the ball. The goalkeepers are perhaps a touch more reliable. But only the most hardcore of PES fans will notice any difference.
Which means PES 2021’s gameplay is pretty good! Beautiful, at times, even. It’s a slower, more realistic game of virtual football than FIFA, and it looks and feels fantastic when a silky move ends in a goal. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: PES’ ball is wondrous. It steals the show, coursing through the air like a ballet dancer leaping across the stage. PES’ ball feels grounded in real-world physics, travelling in hypnotic arcs inspired by cosmic orbits. I get more satisfaction from passing in PES than I do shooting.