Twenty years ago, the dam broke in the gaming industry with the release of Pokémon Red and Blue. RPGs of a new breed, Pokémon introduced audiences to a novel idea of not only battling monsters in an RPG setting, but capturing them as well on a massive scale. When Pokémon went big, everyone wanted a slice of that pie. And that’s when things truly got crazy.
Digimon, Medabots and a whole host of other pretenders to the throne came through. Some of them actually weren’t bad, but even after two decades, Pokémon is still the king. And then there’s Yo-Kai Watch.
On the surface, it looks a big franchise that was designed to be a Pokémon-killer. If you had to whip up a checklist of arbitrary points to cover, Yo-Kai Watch has all the ingredients and then some. Anime cutscenes? Check. Plenty of monsters to collect? Check check like a mic test. A creature who happens to be equal parts powerful and absurdly cute? You better believe it.
And it’s not bad to have that level of ambition. The danger however, comes in the form of fans seeing through the facade of being a platform to shift merchandise instead of a genuinely entertaining franchise that grows out of that fan admiration. Yo-Kai Watch is equal parts that. It’s a big push to be the next big thing that will have children throwing tantrums when they can’t get their hands on a Whisper or Jibanyan action figure.
It’s going to sell buckets however, because the characters themselves are actually downright charming. Sometimes in a disturbing way as well, because Jibanyan is essentially a cat ghost that spends its afternoons trying to murder trucks after it was run over by one in a previous life. But the fact that Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t take itself seriously at all is what gives it a magnetic personality.
The entire concept comes down to players discovering the ability to see and interact with phantasms known as the titular Yo-Kai. They’re everywhere, and they happen to have an effect on the townspeople. Sometimes good, sometimes for malevolent reasons. With the friendly Yo-Kai Whisper at your side it’s up to you fight, collect and smooth things over with the Yo-Kai that are causing a brouhaha in town.
It’s a story very much lifted from the tie-in anime series, with several scenes having being thrown in liberally as well for good measure. It somehow works however, as the light-hearted approach makes for an entertaining cast of characters, human or spectral. Using the 3DS as a watch sensor to pick up on paranormal activity is also an engaging feature, as you get more than enough opportunities to grow your stable of Yo-Kai friends and keep your Monster Encyclopedia up to date.
Much like their pocket monster counterparts, Yo-Kai can level up with enough battle experience, grow stronger and you can keep six of them on you at any time. Every new Yo-Kai brings some sort of quality to the table, whether it be a high physical attack or a tougher defense. The differences themselves are genuinely minor however, as you’ll probably clock your way through Yo-Kai Watch by using the team that you happen to be fond of most, instead of branching out and working on 20 different spirits to keep on a rotational basis.
Here’s where things begin to fall apart however. The core battle system of Yo-Kai Watch is based on having three of your critters on the field at any given time. Rotate the bottom screen, and you can cycle new ones in based on their position in your setup. The touchscreen is where everything happens, as you’ll activate Soultimate attacks, heal up and keep your team in check as they automatically battle on without any prompts.
Those trendy Soultimates require a quick mini-game of sorts on the touchscreen, usually spinning a dial, popping bubbles or drawing a pattern to get them going. It’s not a bad idea. It’s just not pulled off very well,a s battles tend to become tedious exercises without much depth or strategy outside of the handful of boss fights.
It’s patience over tactics, a design choice probably chosen to appeal most to the children that Yo-Kai Watch is firmly aiming its multimedia franchise merchandise at. There’s a magnificent opportunity for proper strategy and the use of skill, that’s squandered by this over reliance on quick-time events. And I haven’t even begun mentioning the scores of side-quests which consist of the most mundane of tasks between battles, more often annoying than engaging.
But here’s the thing: Yo-Kai Watch has one of the best casts you’ll ever see in a video game, that actually wants to teach kids a few lessons without being preachy. At one point, running across the road didn’t just result in Whisper telling me to actually use a pedestrian crossing, but triggered in a boss encounter with a Yo-Kai who exists solely to punish jaywalkers.
It’s a crazy world in a crazy game, that throws the mundane into the realm of madness and a fourth-wall breaking self-awareness. Unlike the Pokemon games which don’t have much of a tale to tell beyond you leveling up a dragon that can melt mountains with a fart, Yo-Kai Watch makes a serious effort to actually have some meat on its narrative bones.
Sure, it kind of is a glorified excuse to get you to buy Jibanyan merchandise, but I’m at least sold on how much I appreciate having some an actual cast of characters and monsters to emotionally attach myself to.