At first glance, it’s easy to make comparisons between Yo-Kai Watch and the long-running Pokemon series. The anime look and feel, along with the dozens upon dozens of ‘catchable monsters’ brings weight to these comparisons, though I for one think that it falls more in line with Ni No Kuni.
Both titles, developed by the talented crew over at Level-5, feature combat system focused on catching, training, and fighting with monsters. But for those who played Ni No Kuni, you’ll probably remember the game’s emphasis on helping those around you, especially when it comes to their emotional state.
Yo-Kai watch smartly capitalizes on all of this, combining the addicting ‘catch and battle’ systems from Pokemon, while taking the story and world in an entirely different direction. Gone are the days of gym leaders and badges, the Elite Four, and a lot of the other staples you probably associate with Pokemon. If anything, Yo-Kai watch reminds me a little of Ghostbusters.
You take control of a young boy (Nate) or girl (Katie), who awakens a ghost who goes by the name of Whisper. Referring to himself as a “Yo-kai butler” of sorts, Whisper introduces you to the world of Yo-Kai, ghostly spirits who inhabit many hiding places around town. When they aren’t playing hide-and-seek, Yo-kai take up the task of influencing and harassing the other townsfolk, with your goal being to stop and befriend them.
It’s a simple premise, but one that is charming and funny enough to keep you interested for the ride. After a few hours in, it becomes pretty clear that there is more going on behind the scenes when it comes to the more mischievous of Yo-Kai, but the animated expressions and colorful designs of each Yo-Kai is where the appeal comes from.
Hungramps, for example, is an elderly gentleman who causes munchies in those nearby (you might have caught him in the most recent Nintendo Direct). Jibayan, on the other hand, is one of the flagship Yo-Kai; a ghost of a cat who died after being run over by a truck at a busy intersection. He’s juvenile and silly, but it’s hard to hate on someone (or something?) that’s so adorable.
Finding and engaging other Yo-Kai isn’t as simple as walking up to them, however. This is where the titular ‘Yo-Kai Watch’ comes into play. The watch has a built-in spiritual radar of sorts, which will begin to beep as you approach a Yo-Kai. From there, you’ll have to use your 3DS stylus like a lens of sorts, scanning the screen until you find and hone in on a Yo-Kai. If you can keep one in your sights for long enough, you can engage it in battle.
Battles play out in real-time, and they progress rather quickly, meaning you’ll have to balance planning and execution on the fly. While you can have six Yo-Kai in your party when you go into a battle, only three can fight at any given moment. Your Yo-Kai are laid out on a wheel on the bottom touch screen, allowing you to rotate them in and out of battle when needed.
Careful consideration is needed when battling certain enemies (simple Yo-Kai types like fire and ice exist), but for the most part Yo-Kai attack on their own. The exception to this comes in the form of each Yo-Kai’s Soultimate move, which can only be used after the aptly named Soultimate gauge is filled. It might sound like a cakewalk since the Yo-Kai attack on their own, but you have to take into account where Yo-Kai are placed, as bonuses can be granted to attack speed or damage if same type Yo-Kai are lined up together.
If that didn’t sound like enough, I should also mention that Soultimate moves have to be triggered by successfully completing a mini-game, which takes the form of tapping, tracing or spinning your stylus on the touch screen. There were a more than a few moments during my time with the game where I nearly missed out on using a Soultimate move, which would have cost me the battle, lending more tension to an already engaging battle system. Yo-Kai can also be Inspirited, meaning they won’t be able to attack. It’s a great offensive option, but enemies can pull the same trick on you, and in order to fully heal your Yo-Kai, you’ll have to swap them out and successfully perform another mini-game.
I could go on and on about how the battle system is more than just a simple, one-click turn-based affair, but the reality of it all is Yo-Kai Watch injects a lot of variety into its mechanics, which help to ward off repetitiveness when you’ve sunk in a few dozen hours. As much fun as I had with Yo-Kai Watch, there are some niggling issues I’d like to see remedied in future iterations (assuming those come to North America, though I desperately hope they do).
When you’re not battling, there are plenty of side-quests and other areas to explore around the town of Springdale, which is pretty massive for a handheld game. There’s a lot to see and do, and the town residents have plenty to say, whether its complaining about the humdrum nature of everyday light, or how they find their loved ones less than attractive. It’s more Earthbound than it is Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, for a town so big, it’s all laid out on a less than user-friendly map, which doesn’t allow for custom waypoints, except for main story missions. It’s not impossible to figure out where you are going, though I admittedly consulted user-made maps online when I wanted to cut out the guesswork and backtracking.
My only other complaint (worth mentioning) is how the process of befriending new Yo-Kai works. Rather than attempting to capture Yo-Kai mid-battle, you need to befriend Yo-Kai, which (as the game tells you) can be done by feeding Yo-Kai their favorite food before a battle commences. It sounds simple enough, but oftentimes I found that Yo-Kai that you feed will ignore you. What’s even weirder is that Yo-Kai that I blatantly ignored would approach me post-battle and befriended me anyways. It’s a weird quirk that introduces an element of randomness and luck that I would be fine without, though it doesn’t break the game by any means.
With the recent release of Yo-Kai Watch in North America, alongside the now localized animated series, I could only hope that we will see more of the beloved franchise in the future. While it’s already been a smash hit in Japan for years now, there’s a lot that it has to offer stateside, assuming that players don’t mind another collectathon RPG for their handhelds. It might not exactly innovate on all fronts, but it’s a refreshing take on the monster collecting games that we all fell in love with at some point or another.
This review is based on the Nintendo 3DS exclusive version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
Yo-Kai watch might seem like another Pokemon clone, but it's anything but. Don't be fooled by its kid-friendly nature; it's chamring, endearing, and one of the best 3DS games of the year.