It’s pretty amazing to think that Pokémon’s success has gone largely uncontested for almost two decades, but word on the street is that Yo-Kai Watch is going to change all that. Level-5’s latest franchise has long been touted as the end-all Pokémon killer since its meteoric rise in popularity in Japan back in 2013, and in that time, its merchandising clout has blossomed. Now there are toys, an anime, theatrical productions, more toys, and of course, a crazy amount of video games for a series that hasn’t even celebrated its third birthday yet.
Two years after its original Japanese release, the west is finally getting a Yo-Kai Watch video game, but will this rookie outing drive the first stake through the ever-beating heart of the multi-headed Pokémon colossus?
The short answer is no, but it’s complicated.
Yo-Kai Watch takes place in a contemporary world populated by clandestine troublemakers called “Yo-kai,” which are spiritual manifestations of modern inconveniences: insatiable appetite, forgetfulness, chronic flatulence – you get the idea. Gifted with the eponymous device, grade-schooler Nate Adams spends his summer vacation befriending these mischievous oddballs and solving a number of goofy paranormal incidents all around his hometown.
While the Pokémon comparisons aren’t misguided, Yo-Kai Watch owes a great deal to the Shin Megami Tensei games for pioneering the supernatural-themed JRPG. The otherworldly premise and first-person 3-on-3 battle system are likely nods to Atlus’ seminal series, but the most obvious homage is Yo-Kai Watch’s eerily similar if not more basic take on demon negotiation, where you persuade Yo-kai foes using their favorite treats as an incentive. By figuring out their snack of choice, you then have a higher chance of recruiting said Yo-kai.
The system can be a bit fiddly at times since items, when thrown, are arbitrarily tossed at one of three enemies, and while you can single out a target, your Yo-kai will then begin pummeling the designated foe until told otherwise. Too often when I was trying to befriend an enemy I found that my team would pulverize the opponent before I even had a chance to persuade them, which is a weirdly harsh consequence for simply trying to shower a Yo-kai with gifts.
With over a hundred different varieties to collect, there weren’t many Yo-kai I felt were reaching or struck me as wholly uninspired. Most are cute, if not clever incarnations of everyday phenomena. I’m sure some will find Yo-kai like Cheeksqueak groan-worthy, but the great lengths to which the designers and localization team went to elicit mild exasperation from players is admittedly nothing short of hilarious in itself.
The game’s comedic chops bleed into about every facet of gameplay, no matter how small – for example, jaywalk across enough city streets and a ruthless crosswalk Yo-kai will manifest to scare players straight. In doing so, Level-5 has created a rich world that invokes hints of Pikachu’s early days, but is loaded with so much blatant personality that the game rarely ever comes across as derivative. And rather than run concurrently with what its rival does so well, Yo-Kai Watch double downs where Pokémon often misses the boat.
The town of Springdale where Nate and pals reside is a bustling hub of activity teeming with recreations beyond just capturing and battling Yo-kai. There’s a hefty amount of sidequests to accept, minigames like bug-catching, hidden alleyways and alcoves, and dozens upon dozens of EarthBoundian NPCs to converse with, most of which are available right off the bat. The town’s open-ended layout rewards the player’s curiosity by sprinkling in plenty of secrets and goodies throughout its surprisingly varied locales.
While it’s hard to lose your bearings in Yo-Kai Watch thanks to the touchscreen objective marker, I cherished the brief moments when I did because it gave me an excuse wander off the beaten path and take in everything Springdale had to offer. And even though I’m very much not this game’s target demographic, I nevertheless treasured every minute taking in Springdale’s friendly faces and colorful places, simulating what it’s like to be a freewheeling kid again, goofing around on summer break.
For being a two-year-old 3DS game, Yo-Kai Watch has aged pretty well graphically. There’s an unmistakable Saturday morning charm here that brings out the best in the otherwise lower poly assets, and the cheeky Yo-kai animations go a long way in characterizing the game’s playful look. I also enjoyed the campy soundtrack, which often reminded me of Professor Layton compositions, only less orchestrated and with laughably more theremin. My personal favorite is the cheery little bicycle theme that so perfectly captures the game’s adventuresome spirit with its chattering xylophone and infectious whistling bits. All in all, Yo-Kai Watch is a classic Level-5 game: wholly unassuming, but with great production values that will continue to fill you with whimsy long after the credits roll.
But it’s not all rosy in the land of Yo-kai. While it strikes so many of the right chords, Yo-Kai Watch fumbles the one thing that Pokémon absolutely nails: combat. Basically, battles are an amalgamation of semi-automated and turn-based elements where the player assumes a supervisory role over their Yo-kai squad. You can’t sit back and let your Yo-kai wail away on opponents, though. Using the touchscreen, players must rotate the titular timepiece to quickly swap Yo-kai in and out, initiate minigame-like special attacks called “Soultimates,” clear up inflicted ailments, and use items for healing and befriending Yo-kai.
The system, at its core, functions perfectly well, yet the Yo-kai’s bumbling AI means fights often slip into ham-fisted chaos far too quickly. The rowdiness compounds as Yo-kai perform excessive status moves on staggering opponents or target different enemies from one turn to the next. Both issues can be alleviated with relative ease, though it’s a more bothersome and involved process than it needs to be, especially since players will be doing this a lot throughout their 15 to 20-hour adventure.
The biggest issue with this system is its repetitive nature where every battle follows a similar rhythm of launching specials, swapping Yo-kai out, launching more specials, healing…so on and so forth. This isn’t to say encounters can’t be engaging because, on the contrary, their frantic pace is exhilarating in short bursts, but the feeling wears itself thin over time. When coupled with the game’s kid-friendly difficulty, this means battles lack that strategic element to hook seasoned RPG players looking for a competent Pokémon clone.
Yo-Kai Watch probably won’t convince anyone to hang up their Pokédexes any time soon, but perhaps it’s best not to compare apples to oranges. Pokémon is a stalwart when it comes to the competitive RPG space and it continues to refine the genre with each subsequent release, but Level-5 set its sights elsewhere with Yo-Kai Watch and crafted a more intimate single-player experience teeming with silly wit. Few portable RPGs can hold a candle to Yo-Kai Watch’s enormous world and even fewer can claim to be as universally funny. If either of those things sounds remotely enticing, you’ll love Yo-Kai Watch from start to finish, but those looking for a real challenge are better served checking out the 3DS’s other offerings.