Review: Yo-Kai Watch

In Japan, there are few properties more powerful than Yo-Kai Watch. Level-5’s creature-collecting RPG has captivated the country’s youth, selling millions of toys and games since its debut in 2013, and it looks like it’s here to stay. It’s hard to go a day in Japan without seeing at least one of Yo-Kai Watch’s adorable mascots, and both Level-5 and Nintendo are hoping the franchise can find similar success in America. With the anime airing on Disney XD and manga being distributed by VIZ Media, the 3DS-exclusive star of the show has a lot of weight on its shoulders. It’s been compared, understandably, to Pokémon since its announcement, but is Yo-Kai Watch anything more than a stylish knock-off of Game Freak’s impeccable series?

Yo-kai are mischievous, malevolent and mesmerizing creatures that inhabit our world, invisible to all but a special few. Nate Adams (or Katie Forester, should you choose to play as a girl) is an average elementary school student, ignorant to the presence of yo-kai until he acquires the mysterious Yo-Kai Watch, a tool that allows him to see the spirits hidden throughout the town of Springdale. It turns out yo-kai have a penchant for meddling with the lives of humans, and Nate, along with his yo-kai companion Whisper, decides to investigate the mysterious and maligning happenings during his summer vacation. Yo-Kai Watch is very much a game with kids in mind, but Level-5 portrays this perspective intelligently, ultimately producing a compelling and unique adventure that doesn’t busy itself with grandiose narratives or complex conflicts. There’s real commitment to portraying the perspective of a child; players look under structures for items, climb under obstacles while exploring, and spend time with their friends, all while working towards uncovering the secrets of yo-kai. It’s a quaint and charming premise, and felt nostalgically reminiscent of my fondest memories from childhood.

Its pace may seem plodding to some, but it’s not quite fair to expect the same epic storyline of similar creature-collecting RPGs from Yo-Kai Watch. Level-5’s creation is far more leisurely, emphasizing interaction with the world more than spinning a riveting narrative. That approach has its charm, and it helps to check your expectations at the door, but it’s a shame Level-5 couldn’t mix its fantastic world with a more compelling plot. I can see many players enjoying Yo-Kai Watch for the first few hours, but eventually losing interest because there simply isn’t enough motivation to progress. Even so, the game doesn’t shy away from tackling some serious themes over the course of the journey; death and divorce are both central plot points early on, and it was refreshing to see Level-5 respecting the emotional intelligence of its players while demonstrating healthy approaches to life’s more difficult topics.

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Yo-Kai Watch‘s story plays out in episodes, each with a central plotline and focus. Like any good episodic story, however, the game also offers players smaller secondary tasks they can complete at their leisure, and it’s here that Yo-Kai Watch begins to consume your time. You’ll often come across people in need while you trek through town, and helping them out yields items and experience points that make your larger goals that tiny bit more attainable. They nearly all ask you to fetch something or defeat some misbehaving yo-kai, but while they may be repetitive, they almost always feel worthwhile thanks to the compelling and relatable conflicts at their core; one might have you tracking down a husband who won’t come home because he’s scared of his wife’s wrath, while another asks you to poll citizens about their favorite ramen. The writing in Yo-Kai Watch is brilliant, and these brief but varied interactions help bring life to Springdale in fun and engaging ways. The game’s attention to humanity is exhilirating, and seeing yo-kai using their unique powers in practical, non-violent ways helped them feel much more integral to life in Springdale.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a reliable or intuitive system to help manage those quests. You might be asked to visit three parts of town and collect three specific items, but with no way to mark those locations on your map you can be left wandering aimlessly and relying on serendipity. That can be frustrating, especially when a quest stands between you and progressing the story, but Yo-Kai Watch rewards exploration often enough that you very rarely feel like you’ve wasted your time. It doesn’t excuse the map system’s issues, but it does allay their negative effects enough to keep you enthused.

Springdale really is Yo-Kai Watch‘s most surprising strength. It’s incredibly well populated, both by people and by yo-kai, and seems to grow bigger and more detailed the more you explore. Yo-Kai Watch does a great job of incrementally introducing new areas to poke around, and constantly invites players to stray from their main objectives and indulge their curiosity. The world is positively gorgeous, boasting some of the best visuals of any game on 3DS, and playing the game in 3D really accentuates the deep and detailed environments. There’s a ton to discover, and even when you feel like you’ve finally become familiar with an area there’s usually more to explore when you come back. Over the course of experience you’ll level up your Yo-Kai Watch, which in turn unlocks the Watch Locks strewn throughout town, barriers that stop you from setting foot in areas you aren’t ready to enter. It’s a system very reminiscent of Pokémon’s HMs,  but streamlined to work more seamlessly with the adventure, and extends the excitement of exploring Springdale’s nooks and crannies. Upgrading your Watch also allows you to see more powerful yo-kai as you traverse the town, which once again reinvigorates the fantastic sense of discovery.

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Level-5 may claim that the localized Yo-Kai Watch is set in America, but its Japanese identity is largely intact underneath that tissue paper cover. Shrines, temples and bathhouses star in important quests, cars drive down the left side of the street, and people wear kimono during festivals, making Springdale a wonderfully holistic representation of life in contemporary Japan. It boasts the country’s captivating combination of modern and traditional sensibilities, and one has to wonder why Level-5 even bothered shifting the setting for its American debut.

Then there are the yo-kai themselves, which boast designs inspired by traditional Japanese food, objects, and spirits of folklore. They look fantastic, and each flaunt bespoke personalities, and altogether felt more exciting and unique than many of the Pokémon series’ recent efforts. Using your Yo-Kai Watch as a radar, you’ll find the ghastly entities lurking all over town. They’re under vending machines, in the grass, on telephone wires, and in other unlikely places, and unless you’re in one of the dungeon-like areas, they won’t attack you openly unless you train your lens on them and expose their presence. It was great fun to run through town searching for new companions, and I was constantly excited to see which yo-kai I had discovered, but there are an egregious amount of lazy duplicates stuffed into the game, little more than simple pallet swaps, that needlessly pad out the roster.

There are over 200 yo-kai in the game, all members of one of eight tribes. Each tribe excels in certain elements of combat, be it physical attacks or debilitating techniques, and along with the variety of personalities each yo-kai can possess, there’s a ton of variety throughout the roster. Players can equip stat-boosting items to their yo-kai pals and even evolve them, both by leveling-up and by fusion, but Yo-Kai Watch is frustratingly vague when it comes to actually befriending new yo-kai. Players can appeal to wild yo-kai by feeding them food during battle, but even then the spirits will often disappear without a word of thanks. It was incredibly frustrating to toss ten different types of food at one yo-kai in hopes of winning its favor and still not know if my efforts were paying off; Yo-Kai Watch lacks the visual feedback of Pokémon’s health bar, which alerts players to status ailments and hit points, information that can help inform the likelihood of catching a certain Pokémon. Befriending Yo-kai felt far too random in Yo-Kai Watch, and for a mechanic so central to the premise of the game, that’s both frustrating and disappointing.

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With your team of six yo-kai laid out around a wheel on the 3DS’ lower screen, three are always on the front line while the other three wait to be rotated in. If you decide you want to switch up your formation, or if a yo-kai becomes inspirited by an enemy’s technique, crippling their performance, you simply spin the wheel with your stylus until the new combatants are at the front and the damaged in the back, then proceed to purify the inspirited by following the touch-screen prompts. It’s a fluid and engaging system, but the battles themselves are largely passive. Yo-kai each have four moves, ranging from physical attacks to performance-hindering inspirits, but they unleash them at their own volition, leaving players with little more to do than simply rotate yo-kai in and out as necessary. Each yo-kai does have its own Soultimate move, a trademark attack or ability initiated by completing a menial minigame on the touch screen, but those can only be unleashed after a yo-kai’s Soul Meter has been filled over the course of battle. Yo-Kai Watch attempts to keep players involved on the touch screen while their companions fight, but the selection of minigames is so shallow and repetitive that all the spinning, rubbing, tapping and tracing quickly loses its novelty. It would have been great if Level-5 had included a way to acquire new, more challenging touch screen tasks to replace the game’s sparse rotation, but in their absence the combat system quickly becomes boring, repetitive, and far too easy.

However, it does show glimpses of meeting its potential during Yo-Kai Watch‘s boss encounters. Defeating these hulking foes requires constant manipulation of the yo-kai wheel, spinning some spirits out for healing and purification while monitoring the progress of the rest of the squad, and challenges players to devise unique strategies for each fight. These battles test your management skills, and provide more agency and sustained interactivity than the majority of the game’s standard scuffles. In fact, they might be a bit too hard; after the breezy battles leading up to each boss, I often felt unprepared for the onslaught I faced. Those difficulty spikes will breed a lot of frustration, but overcoming their challenges will also yield some of the most memorable and exciting yo-kai encounters in the entire game.

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Closing Comments:

It’s easy to compare Yo-Kai Watch to Pokémon (which we’re we’re guilty of ourselves), but Level-5’s creature-collecting RPG is a delightfully unique adventure. It may revolve around the supernatural, but its emphasis on daily life and the excitement of childhood instills it with a potent charm that should endear it to players young and old. Yo-Kai Watch may lack the epic plot and deep, challenging combat system of other RPGs, but its cheerful spirit and culturally infused world make it one of the most joyful experiences on 3DS.

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Yo-Kai Watch
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