There's no point beating around the bush: Yo-Kai Watch is a lot like Pokémon. But instead of straight up emulating one of Nintendo's biggest franchises, developer Level-5 has aspired to create something a bit stranger and fresher than Pokémon has done in years. The result is a welcoming RPG that has some highs and some lows, but ultimately succeeds thanks to a compelling world filled with endearing, humorous characters and an unwavering insistence to do things its own way. There's certainly room for improvement, but Yo-Kai Watch is proof that this is a franchise to watch (pun intended).
If you aren't already in the know, Yo-kai are ghost-like beings that influence and cause problems for ordinary folk. You know those Pokémon that are criticized harshly for their off-the-wall appearance? (Mr. Mime, Nosepass, Klefki are good examples.) That's what Yo-kai are like. They look ridiculous – adopting characteristics of animals, humans, and inanimate objects; with silly names like Snotsolong (a bird with arm-length boogers dangling from its nostrils) and Timidevil (a small demon-like goblin that trembles from anxiety), it's hard not to be amused by the quirkiness. Level-5 embraces the weird, and a lot of humour, personality and charm result from it.
You play as a boy or girl of elementary school age with the ability to see and communicate with Yo-kai thanks to the powers of the titular Yo-kai Watch. After befriending Whisper – a Yo-kai that actually resembles a traditional ghost – you set off to stop other Yo-kai from harassing the local residents. For most of the game it feels like you're bouncing from one self-contained problem to the next without establishing a primary conflict or ultimate goal. While there are plenty of entertaining stories to experience around town, the lack of a significant plotline and central antagonist is certainly felt.
Luckily, the town of Springdale is a wonderful place to explore. It gives the impression that it's been inspired by Eastern and Western locations/cultures, and the result is a setting that's immediately comforting yet unfamiliar enough to feel mysterious. It's a fairly normal town, with middle-class and upper-class neighbourhoods, business and shopping district, schools and more. Residents can be found out and about, typically congregating near hotspots like parks and convenience stores. To make things even more interesting there are many tucked away alleys, underground passages, and hidden areas to sniff out, as well as abandoned buildings that function rather like dungeons. The world isn't as large as some other handheld RPGs, but it uses its amount of space in an effective manner.
Yo-kai can be found in nearly all areas of town. Some hide around trees, parked cars and garbage cans, while the rest roam freely throughout areas that humans don't typically go. Finding hidden Yo-kai is all about using the touchscreen to drag a lens over the Yo-kai's aura until it's fully exposed. It's not a challenging process until late in the game, but it's nonetheless an appreciated layer of interaction. You're doing this to trigger a battle, which leads to XP gains and the potential that another Yo-kai will join your party.
The battle system is one of the most original components of the game. It's passive in some respects, but there's almost always something to do to remain busy and engaged. When a battle begins the Yo-kai fight with one another on their own – taking turns to attack like a typical turn-based system. It's up to you to dole out health and buffs, rotate the lineup, focus attacks, initiate special moves and cure any Yo-kai that end up inspirited and unable to move. It's a surprisingly frantic and involving touchscreen experience – especially during boss battles, which require you to attack certain parts of the body before exposing a weak point and significantly damaging your foe.
Yo-kai belong to eight different tribes, each of which excels in different ways. For example, some Yo-kai are more aggressive in battle, while others tend to be caring and share health with teammates. Placing the same tribes next to each other on the wheel will grant unity bonuses in battle, resulting in things like speed boosts or stronger attacks. Considering individual Yo-kai also have personality traits that affect their likeliness and frequency of attack, there's a lot to consider when creating the ideal lineup. It's very, very satisfying once you've tinkered around and formed a party of spirits that compliment each other's characteristics and abilities.
But the battle system isn't perfect. To unleash a Yo-kai's special move, which is referred to as a Soultimate attack, you have to participate in one of a few simple touchscreen minigames. It's a great idea, and it is enjoyable for a while, but it's not long before these activities lose their appeal. Tracing the same shapes or popping the same orbs over and over becomes routine and therefore devolves into a chore. The format works fine, but there needs to be more variety and skill in the minigames for participation to remain stimulating throughout the entire game.
Sadly, befriending a Yo-kai is based on luck. You can – supposedly – increase your odds by throwing food items to an opponent during a battle, but it's not a reliable tactic. For example, of the 200+ Yo-kai inhabiting Springdale, we only ended up befriending 49 during our 30 hours with the game. It's frustrating when you're engaging a particular type of enemy numerous times in a row and nothing you do convinces it to offer its friendship at the conclusion of a fight. This misstep can probably be overlooked by more casual players who just want to experience the story, but anyone looking to collect all Yo-kai will be impacted by this in a big way.
What ultimately drags Yo-Kai Watch down are the oversights related to the map system and navigation. As the story takes you all around town you'll come to locked doors denoting the watch grade that's required to enter. To upgrade your watch you'll need to perform tasks for Mr. Goodsight at the watch shop to prove you're ready for stronger opponents. Problem is, even though you're told where you need to go for your tasks, the map can't be browsed freely, nor does it label streets, buildings or passages. So when Mr. Goodsight mentions the "Abandoned Tunnel," there's a solid chance you'll have no idea where that is. Accessing the quest log and scrolling through all active quests can give you a better sense of where you need to go, but it's not as intuitive or immediate as it should be.
Any time we ran into hang-ups while progressing through the story we switched our focus over to fulfilling requests and favours for the townspeople. It was usually during one of these quests that we ended up inadvertently finding the solution to whatever problem was holding us up. Most of these tasks don't amount to much more than basic fetch quests or Yo-kai battles, but there is the odd request that more closely resembles the multi-objective structure of a story mission. The reward for your troubles comes in the form of XP, items and money, which usually feels proportionate to your efforts. It also helps that these encounters with residents often feature amusing dialogue and curious predicaments that are worth experiencing. Still, these activities aren't rich enough that you'd want to do them in excess. It's best to knock them out naturally during your story travels.
It took us around 24 hours to complete the main story, but there's still a lot to see and do beyond that if you don't mind a bit of grinding. Not only are there the many quests to complete, there are also special Yo-kai to expose for gifts, a hidden boss to find and prepare for, and a final watch rank to obtain. You can also battle a friend over a local connection, use the Yo-Kai Cam to snap pics of yourself with your favourite spirits, and welcome wandering Yo-Kai to town via StreetPass functionality. It's a pretty buff package overall, offering many challenges for players that don't retire a cartridge until they've done everything there is to do. It's just too bad that it's so frustrating to befriend Yo-kai.
It would be irresponsible of us not to mention just how great Yo-Kai Watch looks in action. In fact, we're confident saying 3DS games don't get much better looking than this. From the scenic, detailed environments to the expressive Yo-kai animations, this is a delightful visual experience all around. Anyone disappointed with the uneven presentation in recent Pokemon games will be happy to know that the entirety of Yo-Kai Watch is presented in stereoscopic 3D, and the sense of depth really works to enhance the adventure. Top it all off with a memorable soundtrack and you have a top-notch presentation that goes a long way.
Yo-Kai Watch is almost a great game. In fact, in many ways it eclipses the effort GameFreak has put into Pokémon over the years, both in production and creativity. That alone should be commended. Unfortunately, there are a few oversights and missteps that ultimately detract from enjoying the many, many things Yo-Kai Watch does so well. The groundwork is here for a franchise that could thrive for a long while to come, but Level-5 needs to rethink a few design decisions and put more focus into plot before Yo-Kai Watch reaches its full potential. This is definitely a game that you should play if you're attracted to the concept, but there are caveats to bear in mind before hunting down spirits on your 3DS.