Yo-Kai Watch's Western début has been a long time coming - two 3DS games, several anime and manga series, and a mountain of merchandise have already conquered the imagination of young Japanese players, and now the first portable RPG in the series is making its way to the rest of the world courtesy of Nintendo and Level 5. Yo-Kai Watch had a relatively muted presence at Nintendo's E3 showing this year, but we were eager to get our hands on it; after spending a few hours with the demo tucked away in the media section of the booth, we came away totally charmed.
When we booted up the game, we were placed in the role of protagonist Nate, a young boy who has the unique ability to see and interact with Yo-Kai - normally-invisible spirit-like creatures from Japanese mythology and religious traditions - thanks to his special watch. Whisper, a friendly, ghostly Yo-Kai who acts as a guide of sorts, informed us that there were three naughty Yo-Kai 'inspiriting' residents of the town - making them lazy or cynical, for instance - and it was up to us to track them down and sort it out.
After talking to Nate's parents - a start-of-RPG tradition - we headed out of the house and set to searching for the three mischievous Yo-Kai. As we wandered around the appealing, semi-urban Japanese town (recast unconvincingly as 'Springdale' in localization), a representation of Nate's watch on the top right of the screen acted as a 'hot-or-cold' meter, letting us know when we were getting close to any potential paranormal activity. The first time our meter really lit up we were near a young woman who was acting suspiciously shiftless. With the needle flying off the handle as we spoke to her, we then used the touchscreen to switch into 'Lens Mode' and look for the offending Yo-Kai.
Lens Mode lets you slide a special magnifying glass around the top screen using the touchscreen, as in the 3DS Layton titles, which will reveal hidden Yo-Kai if you pass it over them. Sometimes they'll be sitting in place, but often they'll be moving around - and if they're on the move, you'll need to keep the lens trained on them for a few seconds before they're full revealed. We quickly found our culprit, who turned out to be Dulluma, a slothful Yo-Kai that was causing the humans around him to laze the day away, and entered into a battle to send him packing.
While it draws superficial comparisons to Pokémon thanks to its monster collecting ('befriending', in this case) and combat, Yo-Kai Watch's real-time battle system really sets it apart, and we absolutely loved it - it's fast-paced, interactive, and incredibly engaging. You'll field all six Yo-Kai on your team at once, using a wheel system. Your Yo-Kai are arranged in a circle on your watch, and moving this circle (by physically spinning it on the touchscreen) will change up the formation - the three Yo-Kai up front will be actively engaged in battle, while the three Yo-Kai in the back part of the circle will be off the field. Crucially, you can spin the wheel around whenever you like, so all your monsters are immediately accessible whenever you want them, and you don't have to wait for any 'turns' to pass to change things up.
Your up-front Yo-Kai will act automatically at regular intervals, using whatever move they see fit in a given moment - attacking, healing, or buffing your party - but you can also get them to perform 'Soultimate' attacks on command. Soultimates are powerful moves unique to each Yo-Kai, and come with awesome animations, from screen-sweeping tsunamis and rockslides to full-party heals and more. Pulling them off is more involved than simply choosing a menu command, too - after tapping on a Yo-Kai and selecting Soultimate, you'll have to succeed at a rapid-fire, Wario Ware-style microgame. These range from tapping moving targets or tracing out simple shapes to spinning an Ouendan-style wheel; they're also randomized each time, so you won't know what's coming before you begin.
Of course, if you could simply spam Soultimates battles would be a piece of cake, but each Yo-Kai will have to wait for an individual Soultimate meter to recharge before using another. That gave us time to focus on the back part of the wheel as well, which is where you'll be able to heal or 'Purify' Yo-Kai affected by the enemies' abilities by using different takes on the same style of stylus-based microgames.
Yo-Kai Watch's kinetically charged battles were like nothing we'd ever played before, and we were instantly smitten. The stylus action gave a tangible sense of urgency to our actions, and between charging up and activating Soultimates, spinning Yo-Kai around to take advantage of elemental weaknesses or give embattled spirits a bit of rest in the back, and Purifying inspirited allies, we were constantly engaged and entertained.
And if you're worried about the combat being too easy, fear not; our Nintendo rep pointed us towards a hidden boss in the demo that offered up a massively challenging - and seriously satisfying - fight. While we could mostly rely on auto-attacks and a few Soultimates to take out the early enemies in the demo, we had to pull out all the stops to come out on top here. Quick-spinning the wheel to shift damage away from fragile monsters, constantly healing and Purifying the back row, timing our Soultimates to avoid long gaps between attacks, and using elemental advantages were the only way we made it through - and then only on our second try. The tougher fight also demonstrated just how important team composition is in Yo-Kai Watch - thanks to the circular wheel setup, it's not just who's on your team that counts, but where they are in the loop.
Picking your Yo-Kai crew should be a lot of fun too, because the Yo-Kai themselves are so oddly appealing. They're weirder than Pokémon, but just as lovable, and sometimes all the more so because of it - we grew very fond of our dog-with-a-human-face Mejimutt, whose 'Creepy Bite' Soultimate was as aptly named an attack as we've ever seen. One thing we hope will be included in the final product is some sort of in-game background information on these creatures; many of the Yo-Kai have interesting (and often surprising) origin stories that would be immediately obvious to their original Japanese audience, and hopefully Western players will be given access to at least some of that cultural context. Interestingly, while most of the monsters have been given cleverly punny names in localization - Tattletell, Snotsolong - the most prominently featured Yo-Kai - like Jibanyan and Komasan - seem to have kept their original Japanese names.
Battling in Yo-Kai Watch was a blast, and the characters are endearing and fun, but beyond that, two things we noticed in the demo elevated the experience into something really special: a Level 5 level of detail, and a wonderfully kid-friendly perspective.
For the former, we were amazed at just how alive the small section of town we traipsed through felt. Cats napped on and walked across rooftops, pedestrians ambled about at different paces, and every room in residences was lovingly rendered - no bathroom-less houses here. The thing that made the biggest impression on us, however, was unquestionably the shoes. Each time Nate steps over the threshold of a home, his shoes come off and appear next to the house's residents' by the door, and they go on again when he leaves - a tiny but delightful detail.
These details helped bring the town and world to life, and even better, they were filtered through a refreshingly childlike sense of scale throughout. We first noticed it when we received reasonable sums of pocket change for winning battles - $6.67, as opposed to $200 or $1000. It's a small thing, but getting paid out in change really added to the feeling of being a kid out on an adventure, as opposed to an RPG hero who happens to be relatively short. That feeling continued when we discovered we could get down on the ground and peek under vending machines and benches for bugs, items, and Yo-Kai, very literally taking a child's perspective on the action.
In addition to the detail and sense of scale, Yo-Kai Watch impressed us with a polished presentation throughout. The graphics were beautiful, cast in a calm, colourful aesthetic that reminded us of Inazuma Eleven, and the soundtrack - we put in headphones to enjoy it - was light and catchy. The dialogue was another highlight of demo, full of the quiet charm and friendly humour we've come to expect from the house of Layton. When we first encountered Dulluma, for instance, Nate exclaimed "Let's defeat him fast, before we totally lose interest!", and after explaining all the things we could do in the full version of the game, a powerful Yo-Kai added "Wait, why am I telling you this?"
Yo-Kai Watch has been a long time coming, and if our time with the demo is any indication, it will definitely be one to keep an eye on ahead of its Holiday release in North America (2016 in Europe). We loved its exciting battles, fun characters and thoughtful presentation, and think Level 5 could have a real Western hit on its hands - we can't wait to head out on the full adventure.
Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3:
- Plugging In To Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash
- Logging More Flight Time With Star Fox Zero
- Celebrating a Gaming Icon With Super Mario Maker
- Our Impressions of the Full [email protected] Line-Up
- Getting Into the Fold With Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam
- Linking Up in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
- Holding Court with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash
- Our Maiden Flight In Star Fox Zero Prompts Mixed Emotions
- Kicking Off With Metroid Prime: Blast Ball