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If you’ve seen any of the coverage given to Level 5’s new game Yo-Kai Watch, you’ve likely heard it referred “the next Pokemon”. While it is certainly part Pokemon, it’s also part Shin Megami Tensei, part Digimon, and even part Mega Man Battle Network. It’s an odd amalgam that, while well made, could use some fine-tuning and tweaking. Still, at its heart, Yo-Kai Watch is a fun and entertaining monster collector that rises above a few eccentricities.
After a short intro involving bug collecting, the game throws you into the world of Yo-Kai by introducing you to Whisper, a helpful Yo-Kai butler who befriends you and gives you the titular Yo-Kai Watch after you free him from an ancient gashapon machine. He then teaches you all about Yo-Kai, mischievous spirits who use their powers to cause trouble for humans who can’t see them. Your primary goal is to stop them from causing trouble and befriend them in the process.
One of the keys here is that you befriend these monsters instead of capturing them in some supernatural Pokeball equivalent. Instead, you try to earn their friendship during battle by offering them different types of food. This feels closer to a simplified version of the demon negotiations in SMT or recruiting Digimon in games like Digimon World 2. If you do manage to befriend them, they’ll give you a Yo-kai medal, allowing you to summon them when needed. Figuring out which food is a Yo-Kai’s favorite can be a bit trial-and-error, but even other foods will increase their likelihood of befriending you.
Even though you still have a team of six monsters fighting other monsters in 3 on 3 battles like in other games, the actual combat in Yo-Kai Watch is anything but business as usual. One major difference is that you literally rotate your Yo-Kai in and out of battle, with them arranged strategically in a large circle. You also don’t directly choose the actions of each Yo-Kai, with them automatically attacking in real-time combat. This puts you in more of a coaching position where you help by changing their position, what they target, using items, dispelling negative status effects, and activating powerful “soultimate” moves via the touchscreen while your Yo-Kai fight it out on the top screen. These soultimate moves require you to both fill a meter and complete a small minigame to use, and cause a variety of effects ranging from massive damage on enemies to powering up your entire team. You can also give them reading material outside of battles that will change their behavior to better suit your battle strategies, i.e. making your party’s healer more inclined to heal others instead of attacking enemies.
While this kind of combat is unique, it’s not necessarily for everyone. The different mechanics involved can make it both unusually easy and complicated at the same time if it doesn’t click right with you. The fights in general aren’t especially hard, and the penalties for losing are fairly low. This allows you to explore the world and story without worrying too much about ever getting stuck on a specific part. If you’re looking for a deep and complex meta-game then you’ll be let down, but if you can get past that just hit X to fast-forward the combat on lower level enemies and get back to exploring the world around you.
Even if the combat isn’t your cup of tea, Yo-Kai Watch is a game that is constantly oozing pure charm. The world of Springdale feels like a real town scooped up out of Japan and dropped into a video game. There’s no shortage of things to do or areas to explore. Maybe it’s the vast population of fun characters, or maybe it’s the functioning crosswalks and actual inclusions of bathrooms and bedrooms in buildings, but something about this game’s world manages to feel more real than a lot of its peers.
The game doesn’t really tie together a proper central conflict until the last minute, but the way each chapter feels like a self-contained goofy adventure arguably works in the game’s favor. The many silly sidequests you can take on along the way from both humans and Yo-Kai are both humorous and a great way to explore around Springdale. This format combined with the more concentrated world map actually reminded me of the Mega Man Battle Network games, with each chapter feeling like an anime episode. Indeed, some even directly mirror actual episodes of the Yo-Kai Watch TV show, featuring the same voice actors as well.
The localization team also does a great job here, leaving all the Japanese flavor intact instead of trying to hide it away like in the days of yore. You’ll find no “jelly donuts” in place of rice balls to be found. The numerous vending machines, automatic shoe removal when entering houses, kimonos, and celebration of Japanese holidays are just a small part of the game’s Japanese charm. One sidequest even introduces you to a character hunting for Metal Gear Solid’s favorite cryptid, the Tsuchinoko.
One of Yo-Kai Watch’s brightest points is its writing and sense of humor. The dialogue between characters, especially with Whisper, is smartly written in a way that’s funny for both younger and older players. The game doesn’t pretend that kids don’t know about death, with Yo-Kai very explicitly being spirits who used to be alive that passed on. The game’s mascot, Jibanyan, is a cat that died after being hit by a truck, causing him to seek revenge against trucks from beyond the grave as a Yo-Kai. I never felt like the game was ever talking down to me or its younger target audience, treating kids with a certain level of respect instead of underestimating them like other kid-targeted media tends to do.
Yo-Kai Watch is a game that is equal parts unique and unusual. For me, this was a breath of fresh air from the fun but somewhat stagnant Pokemon series. Not everything is perfectly executed, but like the Yo-Kai in the it, this game is lovable in spite of a few flaws. Its battle system may not have the same level of control or depth as its peers, but it more than makes up for it with clever writing and pure unadulterated charm. It’s definitely not “the next Pokemon”, but it does enough to stand out from the crowd.