Don’t let the Yo-Kai fool you; this is not Pokémon.
The insanely popular Japanese phenomenon known as Yo-Kai Watch has finally hit store shelves in North America, and man oh man was I genuinely curious about this 3DS game. After spending over a dozen hours in the city of Springdale with my own ensemble of Yo-Kai friends, I now have a clearer understanding of why this game has caused such an uproar; it’s delightfully charming.
At face value one could assume this is just a Pokémon clone because it focuses largely on recruiting and battling monsters. However, Yo-Kai Watch is its own unique experience and feels very different from Pokémon. The only constant between both franchises is the recruitment of monsters, and that’s as far as the similarities go. Gameplay, too, is completely different from Pokémon.
The story follows in the footsteps of a young boy named Nate who stumbles across a bizarre capsule machine while searching for bugs in the woods. Giving that baby a twist pops out a capsule, and opening it brings forth a Yo-Kai creature named Whisper. This ghostly guy gives Nate a peculiar device known as a Yo-Kai Watch, a wristwatch that allows him to identify and see various Yo-Kai that are causing mischief around Springdale. Yo-Kai are essentially invisible monsters that are the cause of many problems we experience on a day-to-day basis. Completely forgot what you needed to do ten seconds later? Yo-Kai. Need to go to the tinkle factory all of a sudden? Yo-Kai. And the list goes on.
In Yo-Kai Watch, it didn’t feel like there was much of a story line for the majority of the game; it felt like I was solving relatively simple missions or fetch quests for a good chunk of time. Super vague nuggets of an over-arching story are sprinkled throughout, but things really didn’t come together until the tail-end of the experience. I guess having that knowledge at the end gives the game’s story missions a bit more purpose, but I felt it would have been better if they didn’t feel so much like isolated events. It’s good fun though, and I liked how Yo-Kai Watch even tackled a couple of darker and more serious themes — from trying to stop your parents from fighting to helping your friend because he thinks his parents are leaving each other.
In terms of presentation, Yo-Kai Watch is supremely well done. The visuals are really polished, and it runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. The stereoscopic 3D effect even adds a surprising amount of depth to the world. The game takes place in a gigantic city split up into a few different sections, but since most of it is industrialized, a lot of it will look the same. There are forested areas, back alleys, and underground sewers to spelunk through, but most of the exploration is done in the large city. Because of this, it can be a bit difficult to differentiate between the various sections of the map, and you may get confused on where exactly you are, so having a bit more visual uniqueness for each area would have been helpful. Nevertheless, the architecture and design of Springdale does look phenomenal. It looks like a living, breathing, and fleshed out town that you’d likely see in real life — not just some flat piece of terrain with houses sprinkled throughout. The designs of the Yo-Kai are, for the most part, pretty spectacular and memorable. For example, there’s one named Cheeksqueak who literally has a butt face. And then there’s a bird named Snotsolong who has a major snot problem. How is that not amazingly awesome? However, some Yo-Kai are pretty much re-skins of other Yo-Kai.
On the other hand, the music is really well arranged. While traveling throughout Springdale you are accompanied by pleasant electronic tunes that make the town feel very peaceful. It reminds me of Animal Crossing in the way that it’s really calming. Other tunes in the game don’t shy away from adding a more eerie Luigi’s Mansion-type vibe since Yo-Kai are more along the lines of being ghostly creatures, so it’s very fitting. Overall, there isn’t a whole lot to not like about the soundtrack. It’s quite superb.
Now, let’s talk about the meat and potatoes: the gameplay. The hook of Yo-Kai Watch is no doubt capturing or, in this case, “befriending” different Yo-Kai. They can be found all around town, but since they are invisible, you have to search for them. This calls for a scavenger hunt and your Yo-Kai Watch tells you how close you are to a nearby Yo-Kai. The way you go about capturing them is unique as you’ll usually need to feed them their favorite food, defeat them, and then hope they want to join your team afterwards. I enjoyed the way in which Yo-Kai are befriended because it’s something different, but I do wish finding their favorite foods didn’t result in so much trial and error. As far as I could tell, the game doesn’t seem to give you a nudge toward what food a Yo-Kai will like. So most of the time, the Yo-Kai didn’t love the food I gave them.
Similar to Pokémon, there is certainly a draw very early on to collect as many Yo-Kai as you can. You’ll be dying to collect them to see what each one is packing in the stats and moveset department, hoping each one will be the key to making your team a juggernaut. Some even evolve, and you can even fuse two Yo-Kai together to create a totally different Yo-Kai. It’s a blast seeing a giant cast of unfamiliar monsters and figuring out what each one is capable of.
The battle system will likely be the deciding factor when it comes to enjoying Yo-Kai Watch because it’s such an integral part of the gameplay. And it’s down-right weird. You sit on the sidelines, so to speak, offering assistance to your Yo-Kai while they automatically duke it out in turn-based battles that play out in real-time. You’ll rotate Yo-Kai in and out of combat, use items in your inventory, and play simple mini-games to clear away status ailments or let your Yo-Kai execute special attacks. When I tried out the demo, the battles just didn’t feel like my cup of tea; I had no clue what was going on, and it seemed like I didn’t have much control. However, after spending hours immersed in the game, my view on that aspect has changed for the better.
As I came to understand the intricacies of the battle system, it began to grow on me. Ironically, it is quite complex and takes a bit to get used to. Each Yo-Kai has its own unique pre-selected moveset that includes attacks, buffs, and debuffs. Plus, the location of where you put the Yo-Kai in your lineup may affect their performance and your survival since a minimum of three Yo-Kai must always be on the field at once. The complexity goes even deeper than that when you factor in the attitudes and tribes of these Yo-Kai, which again affects battles. It’s a combat system I have never quite seen before, and I appreciate the effort made to create something wholly unique rather than fall-back on the standard JRPG turn-based battles. However, it wouldn’t have hurt to implement a greater variety of mini-games to clear away status ailments and pull off special attacks; there’s only around three mini-games which can become a bit repetitive.
Most of the time, combat is a passive experience because it’s fairly easy and most battles don’t call for too much strategy. The only time things can get a bit tricky is during boss battles, which were my favorite parts of the game. These lengthy matches get pretty tense as you furiously switch Yo-Kai in and out of battle and execute special attacks as quickly as possible. Do I wish the rest of the game offered a similar difficulty? Yeah, but Yo-Kai Watch has such a charming and robust world that it alleviates some of the concern I had with the lack of challenge.
The main storyline of Yo-Kai Watch is pretty short for an RPG, coming in at around ten to fifteen hours. When you factor in the large number of side quests, post-game content, and over 200 Yo-Kai to find and collect, Yo-Kai Watch is definitely a game that will keep you busy for many hours after you hit the end credits. After about fifteen hours of gameplay, I only befriended a little over 40 Yo-Kai, so you can imagine how long it will take to see everything. The city of Springdale is chock-full of places to explore and discover, and you get a great sense of satisfaction when you find seemingly hidden areas. On the downside, Yo-Kai Watch lacks online multiplayer; battling other players can be done via local play, but each player needs to have his or her own 3DS and a copy of the game.
Overall, I was really excited to dive into the world Yo-Kai Watch because I was genuinely curious about it since Japan is head-over-heels for it, and I came out of it having a rather swell time. However, I didn’t really start enjoying it until a few hours in, once I figured out its intricacies. And there is a bit of a learning curve. The presentation is really polished, the battle system is refreshing with its own unique twist, and befriending the myriads of memorable Yo-Kai is a total blast. This is a series that I could see people latching onto as it does have a very captivating world. Whether or not it will be the next phenomenon outside of Japan, however, is totally up in the air. I do believe it is a game that’s worth checking it. Just don’t go in expecting Pokémon, because it’s not that.
Yo-Kai Watch launched in North America on November 6, 2015. It was first released in Japan on July 11, 2013. It is scheduled to arrive in Europe some time in 2016.
You can watch my video review of Yo-Kai Watch below: