What happens when you take Pokémon and inject a bit of animated magic from legendary RPG developers Level-5? Well, apparently you get Yo-kai Watch, a bit of a weird game steeped in Japanese culture, monster battling and a surprisingly cheeky and endearing localization. But given Pokémon games are hardly in short supply, is there really a point in getting into Yo-kai Watch?
So we set off on our adventure as the generic protagonist – we’ll fit the shoes of a young girl or boy, and we stumble upon a strange capsule toy dispenser in the woods. Curiosity strikes, we turn the machine’s handle and poof – Yokai! Yokai are based on Japanese spirits that can inhabit pretty much anything and everything while coming in a range of shapes and sizes. It’s still early, but even so the game throws a few concepts your way that are distinctly Japanese and a bit alien to anyone not familiar with Japanese culture. Whisper, our new Yokai friend, is a ghostly yet friendly chap who is all too happy to get you acquainted with the secret side of our world that is home to the Yokai.
Much like Pokémon, and probably influenced by Level-5’s Ni No Kuni, the Yokai you fight in battle can also be captured or “befriended” in order to make them do your bidding. There are dozens of Yokai to meet and capture, with their own types and strengths, though the designs seem to be somewhat of a low point. In a game like Pokémon, each Pokémon is a unique design, even though not everyone’s a fan of Mons like “The Ice Cream One” or “Literally a Garbage Bag”. Well, in Yo-kai Watch they really dance the line between inspired and hopeless visions of death. Manjimutt, for example, is a dog with the face of a bespectacled middle-aged man who looks constantly in distress. Genuinely horrifying. Tattletell is another example, and she’s… Well, she’s a small old woman with a hair bun. I don’t know whether that’s imaginative or incredibly lazy, and I can’t help but feel that way about much of the Yokai. Jibanyan the cat is adorable at least, though pronouncing his name could be easier.
Unfortunately, these mixed emotions continue into the battle system. You have a party of six Yokai, and swap three of them into battle with a wheel on the bottom screen, swapping out if you have different enemies to face or need to heal, etc. Attacks are performed by doing nothing. Sorry, what I should’ve said is that attacks are performed passively. As in you do nothing. If this sounds like it’s annoyed me, that’s probably because it has. Instead of picking and performing attacks and techniques depending on the situation, more often than not you simply hope for the best. What you can do in battle is unleash your Yokai’s ultimate attacks, Soultimates, which you can execute by doing some sort of screen-tapping game, like “Tap the dots” or “Spin the circle”. While the whole battle system makes complete sense for a younger audience, there’s little to no nuance or strategy to the battles. Instead, your time during battles is filled with maintaining your Yokai’s health, making sure they don’t feel depressed (this is a genuine problem) and executing their Soultimates. To say that the battle system is not engaging is really an understatement, and I would often just put the 3DS down during a battle until I heard the victory music.
I hate to be such a downer on Yo-kai Watch, because in reality, this game is amazing for younger kids. The game and anime are quite clearly aimed at kids around ten years old, and the systems inside of the game are easy enough for a kid to understand and master. But what’s a shame here is that all the nuance and mastery of games like Pokémon has been entirely stripped out. What Pokémon does is offer a complex and deep battle system, that’s intuitive and simple on the surface. What Yokai Watch does is nearly the complete opposite, with a system that confused me when I first looked at it, and was revealed to be almost entirely shallow before the end. Sure, you can argue that Yokai types and the party you equip yourself with is all the depth the battle system needs, but there’s honestly not much there, and when you discover that a good portion of the 200+ Yokai are recolors of one another, well, it’s hard to get excited. Jibanyan is definitely cute, but his multiple clones who wear different costumes and colors are, well, basically the exact same.
So, is Yo-kai Watch worth it? For your younger sibling, absolutely yes, 100%. It’s charming, good looking and the localization is really quite fantastic. For you? Probably not. There’s a lot to like about Yo-kai Watch, but I imagine many fans of Level-5 RPGs will be disappointed by the simplicity and lack of depth on offer here.