When it comes to most of the best games coming out of Japan, we dedicated Western fans are often left waiting years to finally getting our hands on them. Three years, in fact, when it comes to this particular (and very popular) Yo-Kai Watch spin-off. And considering the series’ third full entry entirely avoided a release in the West (despite being set in America), it’s a relief to see Level-5 finally giving us another dose of colourful monster battles and irreverent humour.

Rather than following the usual formula of a Pokémon-esque battling, collecting and enlisting a series of oddball creatures, Yo-Kai Watch Blasters: Red Cat Corps & White Dog Squad on Nintendo 3DS does away with the middleman of Nate & co and lets you control those titular characters yourself. And while it looks very much the same in execution - a top-down view of Springdale and other various familiar locations full of Yo-Kai to befriend and bosses to fight - it makes one important distinction. Battles are now in real-time rather than relying on the wheel-spinning automation of the main series.

The result is a kind of 'Diablo for kids' setup that, and with its bright colours and charming Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, it’s more akin to Skylanders than it is the traditional battling of the Pokémon series it so closely resembles. Depending on which version you pick up, you’ll start out with either Jibanyan or Komasan, but you can swap them out for any other creatures you meet and add to your Medallium on the way. As a member of the Blasters - the Yo-Kai-based patrol first introduced in Yo-Kai Watch 2 that heads out during Terror Time to maintain law and order - you’ll jump into the action in a squad of four and complete various missions.

With its red firehouse headquarters, firepole, Blizzie as a receptionist and the Blastermobile waiting in the garage (which looks and sounds suspiciously like Ecto-1), it’s not even trying to hide how much its pastiching Ghostbusters (the Japanese original even translates to ‘Busters’ rather than 'Blasters') - even long-running mascot Whisper could pose as a rudimentary Slimer. Pop culture overtones aside, Blasters is having so much fun it’s hard not to get swept up along for the ride.

As well as their usual tribe and attribute, Yo-Kai also have a specific role in battle, providing a tactical benefit to the team when out exploring and battling. Some are Fighters (perfect for melee and up-close attacks), Tanks (for drawing enemy attention and blocking), Rangers (for distanced attacks) and Healers (for, well, healing). It’s your run-of-the-mill class setup, and while it doesn’t really bring anything new to the personalities of each of its 400 characters, it does enable you to mix-and-match a balanced team.

However, while it uses a classic set of RPG classes, its levelling system is more of a manual affair. You’ll need to collect Oni orbs (found by looking for a devil symbol on the map, or from the occasional enemy drop), finish the mission (or escape) then return to your Blasters House. Once there you can head to the LvGym and manually charge up a bar to increase a Yo-Kai’s level (thus increasing their stats and unlocking new moves, much like in the regular series). It’s an interesting approach and one that actively urges you to explore the map in full every time you head out on a mission, as well as serving as a currency for purchasing new items from the gacha-style Crank-A-Kai machines located on the roof, or for evolving your creatures.

Evolving, much like levelling, also needs to be performed manually, and it costs a lot of orbs so you’ll only do it so often. You can also fuse Yo-Kai with special objects, much like you can in other series. It all helps Blasters feel like an authentic addition to the franchise, offering the same colourful little universe with a more traditional real-time combat that anyone can pick up and enjoy without too much trouble. You can only befriend basic level Yo-Kai when exploring, so you’ll need to use Evolution to actively fill up your Medallium.

You can head out and battle other Yo-Kai on one of three modes. Story mode enables you to complete a series of main and side-missions in a medium-sized sandbox, each with a distinct set of objectives (defeat X number of foes, protect a friendly NPC, collect X number of items, etc) and tackle a big boss at the end of each chapter. Completing each of these ten chapters increases your rank, which in turn levels up your House with new functions. Alternatively, you can go on Patrol, which takes away the timer and lets you farm Oni orbs, defeat Yo-Kai and collect items en masse. Each area has its own distinct set of creatures so when you get the chance to befriend one (which now uses a QTE where you fill a bar full of hearts) you shouldn’t have much trouble.

Finally, there’s Big Boss mode, where you can go back and face down any of the giant big bads you’ve defeated so far in Story mode. With a mix of difficulties, there’s the chance to unlock some rare items (such as coins to spend in the Crank-A-Kai, and items for Fusions) so there’s another layer of replay value to keep you playing. Oh, and you can now play both solo and in co-op. Whether locally or online, you and some friends can fill up a squad of four and head out to farm orbs and items. And considering some Yo-Kai are exclusive to each version, linking up with other players means you can swap them to complete your collection.

Combat is, for the most part, relatively basic, with each character boasting a basic attack and a further two special attacks/abilities (such as Jibanyan’s ability to dodge and perform a quick Triple Attack) with brief cooldowns attached. However, there’s not a huge amount of tactical depth about these encounters outside of boss battles, and most of the time you’ll probably just opt for a Fighter, run around the back of the enemy Yo-Kai and grief them until they fall. You can also revive squadmates when they fall, hammering or holding ‘B’ to stop them ‘ascending’ and out of the fight. They won’t die permanently though - don’t worry, this isn’t XCOM.

Truth be told, Blasters’ combat can get very repetitive after a while, but there are a few extra tweaks in there to mix things up. Using your dash to avoid AOE attacks such as slams adds a little extra space, as does your character specific-Soultimate attack. There’s also a slot for two items, but it’s quite limited considering this is all the space you have for health-restoring pieces of food and Battle Items. You can also switch to another member of your squad at any time, should you want to swap roles mid-fight.

There are a few issues that do detract from what should be a smooth spin-off experience. The game’s camera can be very temperamental at times, sometimes drawing back or zooming in to an awkward angle so a building is blocking your view (so you have to aim for the on-screen marker that denotes an enemy and hope your chosen Yo-Kai is actually hitting them) or getting stuck pointing in one direction during a boss fight (despite the fact you’ve manually locked on to them). It doesn’t break the game, but it can pull you out of the moment from time to time.

There’s also the occasional spike in difficulty. There’s no real gradual increase - it’s actually an enjoyable ‘easy’ game for the most part - but certain missions (such as those including areas full of rolling, health-draining gachapons that force you to fight right next to the road, killing you outright most of the time) and boss fights seemingly ramp up the difficulty just, well, just because. There are ways to work around this - grinding though side-missions and heading out on Patrol can really help - but it’s a little off-putting, especially for younger players trying this kind of game for the first time. There’s no saving between sandbox exploration sections and boss fights, either (although you can escape with your bounty if you so wish, but you’ll have to abandon facing the boss), so if you do fall foul of those difficulty spikes in a boss encounter you will lose it all - so be warned.

Conclusion

While its rinse and repeat Diablo-lite gameplay can get a little repetitive after extended play, there’s no denying how much fun it is to return to the world of Yo-kai Watch. Whether playing solo or via local or online co-op, Level-5 has taken all the hallmarks of the series and made it even more accessible to newcomers and seasoned monster hunters. A fine way to see off the series on 3DS, and proof the Yo-Kai series is strong enough to tweak its formula with a spin-off and still maintain that quintessential Japanese magic.