With all the talk about how popular Yo-kai Watch has become in Japan – it was the country’s most popular game in 2015 – and all the comparisons to a small indie franchise known as Pokemon, Level-5’s first Yo-kai Watch game to come westwards has high expectations to meet.
The question asked seems to be whether this game can dethrone Pokémon. No, but it isn’t trying to either. The experience that Yo-kai Watch creates is entirely different from any other handheld RPG – the world the game takes place in ended up being more enjoyable than the gameplay.
Yo-kai are spirits used in Japanese folklore to explain why certain things happen. Forgot your briefcase on the train? Wazzat might be making you forgetful. Having fights with your family? Dismarelda might be causing you to lose your temper. There is a Yo-kai to explain just about everything. While the names have changed for a western audience, the traditional Japanese Youkai are very recognizable to those who are familiar.
The game starts with the hero finding a Yo-kai named Whisper inside an old capsule machine behind the local shrine. Whisper introduces the hero to the concept of Yo-kai and gives them a means to find and befriend them via the game’s namesake, the Yo-kai Watch. From that moment on, the hero is tasked with taking on the rogue Yo-kai causing mayhem all over the town of Springdale.
You are allowed six Yo-kai in your party at any given time. Each one is placed on a dial that can be rotated during battle with three spirits taking part in the fight and three in waiting. Yo-kai will act without any input, choosing to Attack, Defend, Heal or Inspirit (stat effects). The player’s job is to rotate the dial to swap fresh Yo-kai into battle, target specific enemies or weak points, use items, Purify debuffed Yo-kai and activate a Yo-kai’s special Soultimate power.
Most low-level battles can be won with little help from the player, which can make for some very tedious level grinding. It’s not until you get to boss battles that the gameplay really shines. Boss encounters make for some frantic moments, forcing the player to switch Yo-kai in and out of battle while trying to determine when the right time is to use items and Soultimates.
Add in the fact that activating Soultimates and Purifying Yo-kai require quick time sequences on the bottom screen, and you have an engaging battle that keeps the player on the edge of their seat until the end. It’s a shame that the rest of the game’s combat is so laid back. While the game was designed to be accessible for kids, Yo-kai Watch differentiates itself from Pokemon’s passive, turn based battle system most when the battles are frantic and engaging. With the franchise trying to make a name for itself, it’s disappointing that Level-5 didn’t capitalize on what made its gameplay unique.
The game starts you off with a few freebies, but you are quickly expected to fill in the rest of your roster with Yo-kai you befriend yourself. And that leads to the biggest complaint about the game. Whisper explains early on that when the player encounters a Yo-kai they want to add to their party, they need to feed the spirit it’s favorite food and defeat it in battle. Even more frustrating than the frequency of Yo-kai not joining is when the wrong one asks to join after a battle. Much like the battle mechanics, the capture methods give the impression of being a bystander watching what was happening instead of a player impacting the outcome. One of the most compelling parts of a monster battling RPG is the process of collecting and training the monsters, and all too often that process felt too random to enjoy. But all gripes aside, these lapses in gameplay weren’t enough to completely derail the experience.
Yo-kai Watch has one of the most lovingly crafted worlds ever seen in a handheld RPG. The story, voice acting and animation are obviously very well executed and true to the anime, but that isn’t what makes the world great. Level-5 took the world building lessons they learned with Ni no Kuni and adapted it so perfectly to Yo-kai Watch‘s setting that it makes up for some of the gameplay’s shortcomings. Everything about Springdale, besides it’s name, screams Japanese culture. Every detail from the architecture, to the way the streets are laid out, to the way your shoes come off and on in the entryway of every house you enter is so carefully thought out. It’s charming and was clearly designed by a team with a passion for the source material. The map is surprisingly large, and you never run out of quests to finish or areas to explore. While it takes a few hours to get into the main narrative, the game is paced well and never makes you feel like you’re wasting your time.
By far the most surprising thing about Yo-kai Watch is that it doesn’t back down from exploring adult themes. Marital disputes, depression and addiction are just a few of the topics broached. While Yo-kai are a great explanation for why these things happen for kids, the game becomes surreal at times as an adult because you can genuinely relate to some of the scenarios. It was a lot like watching a Hayao Miyazaki film. The world is vibrant and colorful, but beneath the surface lie deeper, more thought provoking subjects. Maybe that’s giving the design too much credit, but it’s an experience seldom found in a handheld game, and makes the dozens of hours you’ll spend in Yo-kai Watch much more enjoyable.