Yo-Kai Watch is Nintendo and developer Level 5’s latest efforts in replicating the same kind of success that was brought to video games and popular culture that resulted from Pokémon back in the mid-to-late ’90s. Utilising the same kind of “gotta catch ’em all” mentality that the latter is synonymous for, Yo-Kai Watch pits the player in an urban adventure to solve mysteries, help others and battle against other mischievous yo-kai.
From the get-go the game’s production values are pretty slick: Upon booting the game a fun anime intro and song plays that really sets the fun tone and playful nature of the game. Thankfully, and this is something I was legitimately concerned about before going into the game, there is the choice between playing as a girl or a boy. When making a game that’s designed specifically to capitalise on popularity among kids, the first step is being able to cater them properly – a misstep that took Pokémon three generations to get right. There are also in-engine cinematic cutscenes that play out with full voice acting.
The game also doesn’t shy away from embracing its heritage in Japanese folklore – the word yo-kai is Japanese for ghost, after all – and the beginning of the game has the player doing what a lot of Japanese kids tend to do as an exploratory pastime: Looking for and catching bugs. This initial activity and game mechanic later extends to looking for yo-kai themselves and initiating battles to befriend them.
In fact, the battle system is somewhat more frenetic than your typical turn-based combat that most handheld RPG fans are used to. Your yo-kai pals actually auto-attack your enemies in up to 3v3 fights, but as the battle continues your party develops their own “soultimate” meters, which when initiated brings up a quick minigame (like tapping a certain amount of orbs, or tracing a circle with the stylus quickly to spin the screen) designed to unleash a stronger and more specialised attack from that character. At first I found this type of gameplay confusing and more complex than it needed to be, but after a few battles it just sort of “clicks” and becomes something that’s actually pretty easy. The only downside is that yo-kai attacks are incredibly limited compared to the movesets that Pokémon develop as they level up and evolve.
And speaking of Pokémon, the “gotta catch ’em all” side of that series makes sense when you pay attention to different element and attack types monsters belong to. Mixing and matching parties to suit upcoming battles and trainers is paramount to success and gets the player planning their play styles and engaging in other aspects of the game, such as breeding. In Yo-Kai Watch on the other hand, there are over 230 yo-kai to befriend (not capture, I’ll get back to that in a moment) and I found it difficult delving into the specifics of which ones I need to keep in my party via my Medallium – a tome which collects information on yo-kai the player encounters and the means for equipping/summoning help for battling. I found myself keeping basically the same party as I had from the beginning, apart from a few moments where I switched to higher level yo-kai who joined me as the game progressed. Little did I bother with stats and other abilities of my party, unlike what I’d need to if I was primarily a water-grass type trainer about to battle an electric gym leader in Pokémon. It kind of dampens the need to keep looking for battles to enlist the help of other yo-kai, which seems to be the point (at least from what I gather from the game and series’ marketing).
The task of befriending yo-kai is also difficult. Unlike Pokémon where the player is encouraged to battle using the correct element types/attacks to weaken a monster sufficiently so that the result is a successful capture, in Yo-Kai Watch the player needs to battle yo-kai X amount of times and feed it food to eventually attract it after battles. And the game doesn’t make it clear as to how many times a player needs to fight and feed it either – the times I was actually trying to befriend different yo-kai seemed random compared to each other. Some trusted me after two battles, some required four or five. It makes stacking your Medallium more of a chore than it needs to be, and coupled with the difficulty I had of understanding/caring about different yo-kai stats, it became something I didn’t really bother engaging with after the game’s first few hours.
One other major issue I had with the game was navigating its world map and finding quest objectives. The game is rife with various story quirks like thwarting a trouble-making yo-kai’s attempts to steal items from NPCs or causing citizens short-term memory loss, forcing the player to revert to the beginning of the objective if caught. However, the game’s map doesn’t allow for the player to set their own objective markers and will always point to the main quest’s marker instead. This made navigating an otherwise well-fleshed out and gorgeous overworld problematic, especially when having to find specific yo-kai across various urban districts to complete a quest that would upgrade your ability to end the main quest in the first place.
With all that said, the game’s sense of place and tone really help lift the spirit (no pun intended) of the game despite its major drawbacks. The music always had a Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker charm about it, invoking playful and dark themes despite its target demographic. And speaking of dark themes, there are quite a few moments where the game discusses aspects of life for young people in manners that are relatable and unoffensive.
For example, the player meets the yo-kai Jibanyan early in the game on a street corner trying to pick fights with trucks. Jibanyan explains that he was hit by a truck one day after being with his owner, and since then has been trying to fight them in revenge but always gets knocked back. No one else walking by can see this because he is a ghost cat. There’s another quest that revolves around defeating the yo-kai Dismarelda who enjoys making people miserable. She is encountered in the player’s home, after the player notices their parents constantly arguing with each other over petty problems.
The game does well to touch on aspects of gaming and culture to provide an experience that relates to young people in an engaging and fun manner. The series has proven to be an enormous success in Japan since its release in mid-2013, to the point that its second anime film’s release topped the box office charts over Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens during its opening season. There’s an anime series on Cartoon Network, movies in the pipeline to release in the West, an entire toy line complete with actual Yo-Kai Watches and medals for kids to collect… But the game itself has a lot of shortcomings that affect some of the other great aspects of itself.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with Yo-Kai Watch’s story, battle system and suburban exploration. Here’s hoping the second game when it’s eventually localised and released will make for a much smoother and streamlined experience.