Yo-Kai Watch is a big deal in Japan, very quickly becoming an incredibly lucrative franchise for Nintendo and developers Level 5 in the land of the rising sun. The first game in the franchise released two years ago and placed itself at the summit of Japanese pop culture. With the game’s recent arrival in New Zealand, it’s time to find out what all this commotion is about.
Yo-Kai Watch begins with the player discovering a mysterious vending machine on a walk through the woods. After Yo-Kai butler Whisper emerges from the machine, the player is quickly thrust into a world where spirits interfere in human life. The story involves mysterious incidents of mischief making Yo-Kai that must be investigated around the town of Springdale, as the protagonist is one of the few who can see these mysterious creatures.
Each and every Yo-Kai has a unique personality that reflects their effect on others. Hungramps has an insatiable hunger, Tattletell inspirits people to reveal their secrets, and Dismarelda’s glumness is infectious. A large part of the joy of the game comes from discovering new Yo-Kai and learning about their abilities through the palpable impact they have on people in their vicinity.
But of course that isn’t all you can do with Yo-Kai, with over two hundred companions to be found and captured. A fairly decent team can be built purely from the creatures befriended during missions, with many more able to be found around Springdale. Capturing and raising a team of Yo-Kai is at the centre of the experience, with frequent use of attacks boosting their power as well as stats through level up. Certain Yo-Kai can change when reaching a certain level, or be fused together to create more powerful creatures.
Yo-Kai Watch features its own unique take on turn based battles that I have to admit didn’t immediately win me over. Combat initially felt like a passive version of systems I had enjoyed in other games that executed it far better. This is because, aside from Soultimate Moves, attacks cannot be chosen, with each Yo-Kai acting independently.
The more I played, however, the more this system endeared itself to me. It quickly becomes apparent that Yo-Kai have minds of their own and do well to select the best approach in battle. Depending on a Yo-Kai’s attitude (which can be customised), they will be more inclined to attack or provide healing and stat boosts. Being in charge of which three are in battle can be a challenge unto itself, with Yo-Kai needing to rest, be purified, or taken out of harm’s way and healed the player’s responsibility.
This quality is best evidenced in the game’s boss fights. Boss characters can very quickly rack up massive damage and inspirit (inflict negative status) all three active Yo-Kai at once. They also possess hidden weak spots, with careful targeting and planning needed to expose them. Managing all of this is a great deal to keep on top of, especially in boss battles which become marathon struggles as opposed to the sprint of fighting regular enemies. They are not necessarily hard, like much of the game as a whole, but require concentration and tweaking approach to secure victory.
That combat in Yo-Kai Watch is not particularly challenging didn’t bother me greatly, though there was one thing I didn’t like. Soultimate moves and purification are done by completing a random selection from a shallow pool of mini games. As this is the crux of combat the lack of variety here is disappointing, especially in the context of a game with such polish and abundant content.
Springdale, by contrast, emerges as a delightful environment filled characters with relatable issues inhabiting it that are either exacerbated or solved by Yo-Kai interference. In typical Japanese style, it can also get very bizarre and outlandish with its humour. A particularly memorable encounter with a giant pig-like Yo-Kai who has taken an old man’s underwear is a mission I’m unlikely to forget.
There are also some charming touches, like shoes that magically leave themselves at the door or cars stopping at pedestrian crossings that made this feel like an idyllic and wholesome place that would be a joy to visit. The narrative is pleasantly split into episodes, containing self contained arcs that develop the wider story and expand the world. There is also a lot of heart to the game, with a number of sadder moments (Jibanyan’s past being a notable example) making it all the more gratifying to solve problems and develop bonds of friendship.
Yo-Kai Watch has a theme song I found rather painful to endure in the game’s opening montage. Thankfully, this is not representative of the wider soundtrack, which is a blissful experience from beginning to end. The cycling theme is especially cheery, making it a joy to breeze through Springdale’s streets on two wheels. A bright and merry visual style helps to capture those ideas of the childlike fun of going on adventures during summer holidays with friends both old and new.
While not a revolutionary game, Yo-Kai Watch is testament to Level 5’s ability to breathe new life into familiar concepts. More than any game in recent memory, Yo-Kai Watch as a whole is an experience that I enjoyed more the longer I played it. While combat was initially off-putting, taking the time to acclimatise revealed a far more complex set of systems than were initially apparent. With delightful characters, beautiful scenery, and missions both intriguing and bizarre, I can see why Japan has fallen in love with Yo-Kai Watch.