Yo-Kai Watch, the latest monster-catching game to grace the Nintendo 3DS, is something of a slow burn in the opening hours. Give those flames time to catch hold, though, and you’ll discover an entertaining romp that combines some familiar systems with creative new ideas in a way that makes Yo-Kai Watch difficult to put down.
In Yo-Kai Watch, you take on the role of Nate or Katie, plucky youngsters who stumble upon a mysterious contraption that opens their eyes to a whole new world. It turns out that many of life’s dilemmas are actually due to Yo-Kai, pesky spirits who like to possess humans and make them behave in certain ways. Can’t get enough sleep? Forgetting things? Having arguments with friends for no reason at all? Yo-Kai is why.
With your titular Yo-Kai Watch, you’re able to peer into the world of these spirits and, with the help of friends you’ve already collected, put an end to their shenanigans. The more Yo-Kai you defeat, the bigger your collection of spirits grows and the more options you’ll have for handling situations in the future.
Rather than ignore the Pokemon-shaped elephant in the room, we’ll just charge into that particular comparison head-on. Yes, Yo-Kai Watch is very similar to Nintendo’s legendary portable series in that you collect monsters and use them to battle other monsters. There are a few other similarities between the two games, but those comparisons could be made with pretty much any other RPG, too. There are also quite a few areas where I feel Yo-Kai Watch actually improves on the Pokemon formula but, rather than regurgitate everything here, I’ll instead point you to our previous coverage if you feel like going neck-deep into those comparisons.
Yo-Kai Watch is a Level-5 game, so you know going in that you’re getting a well-realized world and some fantastic writing. It’s no secret that Yo-Kai Watch is geared at a younger audience, but the gameplay is solid enough to keep even seasoned monster catchers entertained and the dialogue is absolutely lovely. All of the main characters have personality and are utilized enough to make it feel like you’re part of their world rather than just passing through.
Like any good kid-friendly game, Yo-Kai Watch is full of positive messages that typically serve as the backbone of Saturday morning cartoons, but they’re usually delivered with subtlety and never talk down to the player. I was surprised to see Yo-Kai Watch handle some pretty serious topics (parents fighting, depression, divorce), but the way the game tackles these real-world dilemmas never goes too dark and always empowers the player to have a positive impact or accept that, sometimes, things are out of our hands.
If I had to describe the world of Yo-Kai Watch in one word, it would be “dense.” Unlike most RPG’s, you won’t be embarking on an epic journey around the world. You’ll instead be confined to the major regions of your hometown of Springdale, which help reinforce a quaint atmosphere I found to be very refreshing. Again, these people are your neighbors and this town is where you grew up, so I appreciate being given an opportunity to make it feel like home.
But while the scale of the world isn’t epic, the developers managed to pack a lot of content into a relatively small amount of space. You’ll find plenty of things to distract you while working your way through the game’s 10 main story chapters. There are loads of sidequests to complete, which serve as a terrific source of experience even if they are the standard mix of fetch quests. It’s a little frustrating that you can’t mark these missions on your map, making the completion of some a bit of a chore. You can search the world for useful items, as well as try to catch bugs or fish. There are also a few random encounters that will trigger mini-games that offer their own rewards.
On top of all of the various shops you’ll want to visit on the regular, Springdale has a sort of dungeon system built into its overworld that allows you to fight more yo-kai or solve simple puzzles in order to clear stages or locate more loot. While you’ll usually have to use your watch to locate and then battle Yo-Kai, these areas feature wandering monsters that you can actually see on the screen. Run into them and you’ll trigger a battle. While I appreciate that the main game does away with random encounters and lets you fight when you feel like it, I like that these dungeon areas change up the pace and give you additional fodder if you’re looking to do some leveling.
Which of course brings us to Yo-Kai Watch’s battle system. This is easily the most unique aspect of the game, combining traditional turn-based confrontations with several new mechanics that appear to be influenced by Level-5’s newfound interest in the mobile platform.
More so than in any other game, Yo-Kai Watch puts you in the position of being a trainer for your team of monsters. Each Yo-Kai boasts a collection of abilities, including a standard attack, a special attack, an “inspirit” ability that will either hurt foes or help allies, as well as a powerful “soultimate” attack.
Yo-Kai also come equipped with two traits that determine how they will behave in battle. That’s important, since they’ll carry out all of their basic moves (except soultimate attacks) on their own. A cautious Yo-Kai will guard more frequently, which is a handy trait if they don’t have a lot of HP but offer helpful abilities. Combine that with a trait that makes them fire off those abilities more regularly and you’ve got yourself a handy Yo-Kai. Put them next to Yo-Kai from the same tribe, and they’ll earn even bigger boosts throughout the battle.
While fine-tuning your Yo-Kai party is done outside of battle, and they move on auto-pilot when engaged, you’ll still have plenty to do while the fur is flying. Your team of six can be rotated at will, with the front trio being the group actively fighting. If one of your crew gets inspirited, you can rotate them to the back to play a minigame that will clear them of the status effect. A targeting system lets you go after specific enemies and even claim additional loot if your reflexes are quick enough. You can hit the X button to speed up less challenging fights and trigger soultimates by taking part in another collection of mini-games. You can throw items in to help out your team on the fly or even feed enemies to heighten the chances of befriending them after the fight.
Like many RPGs geared toward a younger crowd, most of the standard fights aren’t all that challenging, which means you could spam a powerful attack here and there and just breeze through the whole affair. You could even just press X at the start of a fight and just watch it breeze by without interruption. That’s a bit of a bummer, but there’s definitely some depth here for folks who are willing to dig down and experiment with the game rather than take the fastest path to victory. Plus, the handful of boss fights can be legitimately challenging (and quite a bit of fun), and you’re going to want to have those skills and strategies figured out before squaring off against the toughest Yo-Kai the city has to offer.
Pull all of that together and what you’re left with is a lighthearted romp with fun characters, some unique mechanics and charm to spare. I’m not sure if Yo-Kai Watch will evolve into the mega-hit it has become in Japan, but it’s certainly worth giving a fair shake. Just don’t go in expecting it to be something it isn’t. Yo-Kai Watch is certainly familiar, but it also does an admirable job of putting some creative spins on a formula that was in desperate need of exactly that.
Players: 1 (2-player battle)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo, Level-5, Koei Tecmo