If you haven’t heard of Yo-Kai Watch, I don’t blame you. That is, unless you live in Japan where Yo-Kai Watch is the latest sensation.
Some are even calling it the next Pokémon—a lofty claim, considering how Pokémon has permeated modern pop culture, not just in Japan, but worldwide. If Nintendo can make Yo-Kai Watch a worldwide phenomenon, then it would be a huge win for the house of Mario.
Nintendo took that bet this week, debuting Yo-Kai Watch for the 3DS in North America.
So what is Yo-Kai Watch? Well, it’s best to first establish what Yo-Kai are. Yo-Kai are a type of apparition in Japanese folklore that play an interesting role in Japanese culture. A simplified explanation is that they’re spirits, either of deceased humans or of objects of significance. Some can cause mischief or some can cause great harm. For example, if you’re feeling particularly forgetful one day, you can facetiously blame it on a Yo-Kai.
In Yo-Kai Watch you play as either Nate or Kate, in the town of Springdale. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, Yo-Kai roam the world causing trouble. Your character comes upon a gachapon (toy vending) machine in the depths of a forest and is introduced to Whisper, your sidekick throughout the game. You are given a watch that can help you see and interact with Yo-Kai. From there, your adventure begins.
The game is laid out episodically. Developer Level-5 wanted players to feel like they were inside of a Saturday morning cartoon. Each episode has an introduction, conflict, and resolution.
The town of Springdale is very pristine. It’s sunny, the people are jubilant, and streets are spotless. The background music is whimsical, constantly upbeat, with many bright instruments. You’re essentially inside a children’s anime.
Though the western version of the game gives the town an American name, the surroundings still feels very Japanese. From bathhouses to convenience stores with rice balls on sale to even the chirping cicadas, it’s very obvious that this game takes place in Japan.
As for the localization itself, they keep it to the basics. I have yet to notice any meme references, like those that were mentioned in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, which is a good sign. I did notice one topical reference in which a Yo-Kai said, “I’m not the government, so don’t expect another bailout next time.” But other than that, characters are bubbly, and cringe-worthy dialogue is kept to a minimum.
The parallels to Pokémon are immediately noticeable. The game starts you off by collecting bugs, something that the creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, has said was a favorite hobby as a kid and was a driving force behind the series. Just like in Pokémon, you can battle Yo-Kai, some will become your friends and can evolve too. But it was in battle that the parallels quickly ended.
The combat is not like Pokémon in the slightest. It feels more like a simplified version of a Japanese RPG mixed with some tower defense zaniness. It also feels like a product of a world dominated by mobile games.
Your party contains six Yo-Kai. The six Yo-Kai are displayed on a wheel on your 3DS’s touch screen. Three Yo-Kai can be out at any given time. You can spin the wheel to switch Yo-Kai on the fly. If your top three Yo-Kai are running low on HP, just spin the wheel and send out the other three. Although the game is turned based, you wouldn’t know it considering the Yo-Kai do the battling themselves. As they battle it out, you can assist them by giving them rice balls or playing a small “Soultimate” mini-game to launch a powerful attack.
To put it bluntly, the combat is frenetic. It’s constantly moving, and you have to keep pace, especially with powerful foes, by constantly monitoring HP, seeing which units need help, and quickly using Soultimate to launch a large attack.
I can now see why Yo-Kai Watch is such a hit in Japan, especially with the younger audience. The mechanics are very simple and don’t require much strategic skill or knowledge. As long as your Yo-Kai is an adequate level against an opponent, it’s a lot of tapping, spinning, and rubbing with your stylus.
And yes, be sure to have a screen protector on the bottom screen of your 3DS. I can definitely see some gamers ripping it to shreds.
Beyond combat, players can catch bugs and go fishing. Sadly, bug catching and fishing, as well as finding Yo-Kai, come down to a less-than-stellar mini-game. You know that one boring arcade game in which you have to press the button at the right time to stop the light. Yeah, it’s that.
Although the combat is fun and has a good pace, by its very nature it can never be as in depth as in Pokémon. Pokémon is a far more strategic game, in which each move plays a pivotal role. Yo-Kai only have one move, which they throw out automatically. Pokémon doesn’t have you playing mini-games to pull off a solar beam or hydro pump. Think of it this way: Pokémon is played competitively on a global scale, and Yo-Kai Watch just was not created with that in mind.
Eventually you will find yourself against a really tough boss in Yo-Kai Watch requiring you to grind to level up your party. You can do it by battling wild Yo-Kai or completing side quests for townsfolk. Oddly, you really won’t have a sense on how much you need to level up, because the level of your opponent is never stated. Either way, many side quests just devolve into fetch quests or set-ups for battles, sometimes with very little reward. For example, you may learn that your classmate is acting rude. You will discover that it’s most likely a Yo-Kai messing with him or her. Defeat the Yo-Kai and collect your experience points.
Sadly the map system is a mess in Yo-Kai Watch. Either it’s zoomed in too far, or zoomed out to the point of uselessness. Considering that Springdale is a decently sized city, you may find yourself actually lost. It all falls apart when you try to reference the map to complete a side quest. The side quest menu has its own separate map. You can see your objective on this map, but not on the main map found on the bottom screen. This forces you to constantly switch between maps.
I’ve never played a game quite like Yo-Kai Watch, which is both its saving grace and its shackle. I can see kids really falling in love with the world of Yo-Kai Watch. The gameplay is fast and involves a lot of interaction, much like many mobile games kids find themselves glued to. Some older gamers may be turned off by its unsophisticated nature and the constant tapping of the stylus.
Will it dethrone Pokémon? Gameplay wise, no. As a brand, possibly, but very unlikely. One anchor holding Yo-Kai Watch down is that Yo-Kai just aren’t as cool as Pokémon. Charmander is cool, Jibanyan (pictured above) isn’t. In many ways it feels like another Digimon, trying to ride the success of Pokémon’s brilliant formula. Even if both games are radically different, there are enough parallels for the unavoidable comparison to be made.
Yo-Kai Watch isn’t a perfect game, but does introduce enough unique gameplay elements to warrant a playthrough. Its combat system is wholly unique, and tough boss battles is where gameplay really shines. There’s a bit too much grinding for my taste, and certain scenario’s can feel cheesy, but that’s forgivable. Ultimately the appeal of Yo-Kai Watch will depend heavily on you as a gamer. If you’re interested in a light JRPG with a twist on standard turn-based mechanics, you will find Yo-Kai Watch to be a delight. If you’re looking for something deeper, you might want to stick with Pokémon.
Disclosure: Our review copy of Yo-Kai Watch on Nintendo 3DS was provided courtesy of Nintendo.