Review: Yo-Kai Watch

 On the watch to befriend them all.

Console: Nintendo 3DS

When Yo-Kai watch first launched here in the West around 2015, I didn’t pay any attention to it. I was more focused on the likes of Pokémon, Zelda and Fire Emblem and the like. Yo-Kai Watch was only something I saw in toy-stores and or heard kids playing in the park when I walked my dog. Sometime last year, however, this changed. The game was on sale at a game store I frequent, saw that it was made by Level-5 (which I didn’t know before) and I thought to myself: “you know, why not?”. Level-5 is a good game developer and the game is not that expensive, so I won’t be wasting a lot of money if I end up not liking it. To get to the end of this review real quick: I did like Yo-Kai Watch. More than I expected I would actually. While Yo-Kai Watch’s best time as a franchise might be behind it, the game that started it all is an enjoyable very well made game that deserves your attention. 

Let’s dive in.

In Yo-Kai watch you play as either Nate or Katie, a young boy or girl living in the suburban town of Springdale in Japan who are currently enjoying Summer-break along with their friends. After Nate or Katie gets jealous by one of their friend's bug collection they go into the woods near the town to find some impressive bugs for their own collection. The end up near a giant and old tree where he finds a mysterious Capsule Machine just standing there. After feeding it a coin, a ghost-like creature pops out. His name is Whisper and introduces himself as a Yo-Kai, a spiritual creature from Japanese Mythology. He gives Nate or Katie a Yo-Kai Watch, a device that allows people to see and befriend Yo-Kai and pledges to be their Butler. Together, the two go around with their Yo-Kai Watch helping people with their problems using the Yo-Kai they befriended.

That’s basically all she wrote for the story. There is something more sinister going on beneath the surface regarding some outright evil Yo-Kia but for most of the 20+ hour story campaign, that’s on the background. For the majority of the game, it’s all about helping people out with some of their day-to-day struggles. From bringing your father some important documents he forgot while he’s at work to find a lost ring. I quite enjoyed this more down to earth, small scale approach. It’s something different from other games in the monster-collecting RPG genre which often have stories that are often much grander in scale. The story of Yo-Kai Watch reminds me more of little kids exploring their neighbourhood and coming up with all kinds of stories and turning minor events and tasks into the most epic of stories. It really captures that atmosphere and I appreciate it all the more for it.

Whisper, your partner Yo-Kai and your 'butler'
 

The gameplay of Yo-Kai Watch is divided into two sections: overworld exploration and battling. Shocker, I know. In the overworld, you control Nate or Katie while exploring Springdale and the neighbouring areas. From your school to the local woods to a haunted hospital. The town might seem small, but there’s actually quite a bit of variety and a lot for you to do. The game crams a lot of different things in the space it has, not least of which is due to the side-quest. Yo-Kai Watch has a robust side-quest system that’ll keep you busy long after you finished the story. There are also some surprises in the overworld that, on occasion, shakes up the gameplay. I'll leave it to you to find those out for yourselves.

There are three types of side-quests: request, favours and story quests. The latter is self-explanatory, requests are just your standard one-and-done quests while favours are quests that can be repeated multiple times. The quests are fun and have more variety then you’d think, though they are not the clearest to finish. The explanations given are often not sufficient to nail down where you need to go exactly or what it is that you need to do precisely. Add in that the map is also lacking in features and completing a quest can be quite a pain at times.

Once you find a Yo-Kai, you enter the battle screen. Battles are thought with 6 Yo-Kai, with 3 Yo-Kai out on the field at any given moment. Yo-Kai attack, defend or support their fellow Yo-Kai automatically based on their personality. The players can activate a very powerful ‘Soultimate-Attack’ for their Yo-Kai in which the players have to do a mini-game (like drawing a specific pattern on the 3DS touchscreen) to activate. A Yo-Kai can also be inspirited by an enemy Yo-Kai, which hinders them from performing a Soultimate-Attack as well as potentially hurting themselves or their allies. To purify your Yo-Kai, you need to switch them out of active battle and perform yet another mini-game.

It’s a solid battling system, though one that is barebones and lacks depth. It’s easy to understand and doesn’t require much input from the player when fighting weaker Yo-Kai (very helpful for grinding) but it can be rather boring at times due to this as well. If you were, for instance, capable of adjusting a Yo-Kai’s behaviour during battle (if they favour attack, defence or support) then I think the battles would have been more engaging. Befriending Yo-Kai, which is done through battling, can also be a pain. This is done after a battle and is completely random. You can influence it in ways, like giving Yo-Kai food, but the rates are so low that befriending is an Yo-Kai unnecessarily long and tedious.

A look at the battles of Yo-Kai Watch.

The main attraction of Yo-Kai Watch is, of course, the titular Yo-Kai themselves. They are based on traditional Japanese yōkai, but often with clever twists. Design-wise, Level-5 did their best to make the Yo-Kai designs both appealing and recognizable look. You have your typical ‘hyper-acute & marketable’ designs such as Jibanyan and Komosan but also some very cool designs such as the two-headed canine Yo-Kai Multimutt to some designs that are really ‘out-there’ like Sproink and Slimamander.

My gripe with them is that the Yo-Kai don’t really have those designs that are universal. What I mean by this is that the Yo-Kai, and the entire game now to think of it, is very Japanese in style and execution. It’s very DNA is ingrained in Japanese culture which makes it something that doesn't easily translate, isn't easy to understand to people, here in the West. An example for you. The Pokémon Magikarp and Gyarados are based on the folklore that a fish swam up a waterfall and became a dragon. It’s a story that’s well known in Japan, but unknown to us here. Even so, Magikarp and Gyarados are Pokémon that still have appeal to us here in the West. It’s a usual Fish that, against all odds, evolve in a giant sea-serpent. That’s a twist that everybody can understand and appreciate.

Yo-Kai Watch meanwhile has creatures such as Tublappa a Yo-Kai with a giant tongue in a bucket. Starting to see my problem now? A creature that carries its own tongue around in a bucket isn’t as easy to understand/appealing on its own in the same way that Magikarp/Gyarados is. It relies more on the backstory to be understood, it’s based on a yōkai that uses its tongue to clean. Learning that is certainly interesting but it’s still not that strong I feel. The other is that Yo-Kai Watch goes the Digimon route with its creature. AKA reusing the same designs but with a different colour and calling it a completely different Yo-Kai. I don’t like this practice because I feel is a lazy way to up the number of Yo-Kai into the game as well as devaluing the Yo-Kai where the design originates.

Lastly, let’s talk about the presentation of the game. It’s very good. From the graphics to the soundtrack, to the in-game cutscenes and (occasional) voice-acting it's all done very well. It all contributes to the game’s aforementioned atmosphere. It does have a bit of a problem when it comes to English translation. That’s not to say that the translation work is bad, not at all, but again Japanese culture is very much hardwired in the game’s identity. Not everything translates well, meaning that some jokes, lore and traditions can get lost in translation. On the flip-side, this does make the game a neat little window in Japanese culture and I’m never against broadening someone’s, especially children’s, horizon like this.

Conclusion

Yo-Kai Watch is a good and enjoyable game that kids and fans of the ‘monster-hunting RPG genre will thoroughly enjoy. It has a cast of loveable creatures, a cosy atmosphere with great music, a barebones though enjoyable battle system and more than enough content to keep you busy for quite a while. If you’re even mildly interested in the game, it’s pretty cheap at most outlets at the moment, so I’d definitely consider picking it up and have a crack at it yourself. I’m almost certain you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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