Even something as monumental and long-lasting as Pokémon needs a successor, and Yo-Kai Watch aims to be just that, or at least that’s how Nintendo has been positioning this recent release from Level 5 which has garnered a massive fanbase back in Japan. While obviously it’s still too early to tell if the game will take hold here in North America as strongly as Nintendo’s previous monster catching franchise, I can say that in terms of sheer gameplay and ambiance, Yo-Kai Watch manages to succeed in this very lofty goal. In fact it even surpasses Pokémon in some key ways that I think make the game a lot more enjoyable and charming, allowing it stand toe-to-toe with my long faded memories of first playing Pokémon Blue on a hideous looking transparent purple Gameboy Colour (what can I say, it was the ’90s, there was no accounting for taste).
Probably the big thing that makes this game stand out from its forebears, is the fact that it actually has a fairly decent little with a solid setting and interesting characters that really help endear you to the world. The basic premise here is that one day while out catching bugs in a local forest, your protagonist finds an old abandoned capsule machine stationed by ancient looking oak tree adorned in shrine decorations. Turning the dial spits out a capsule containing a Yo-kai watch, a magical device that allows the wearer to see Yo-kai, which are ghost-like beings that share our world with us. In addition to the watch though, the machine also spits out a friendly white ghost named Whisper who decides he’s now your butler as thanks for saving him. From there you and Whisper go out on all manner of adventures throughout your hometown of Springdale; solving problems caused by rogue Yo-kai, learning about how these magical beings work, and making friends with people and ghosts alike. There isn’t necessarily a strong driving goal that runs through the core of the game, and the central plot doesn’t really kick into gear until the last act, but the slower pace and sedate summer vacation attitude of it all gives the game a very pleasant and relaxing quality. The fact that the game is contained entirely within Springdale helps that as well, and they make a strong effort to imbue a lot of life into the town with tons of side quest to complete, NPCs to chat with, and just random areas and shops that help make the town feel very large but at the same time intimate and unique. There is one little niggle I have with the story though and that’s the fact that the localization seems to be a tad inconsistent, especially for a game that ends up playing very heavily upon a lot of Japanese cultural touchstones. Things like bug-catching, forest shrines, and capsule machines all fall within that specific cultural milieu and are big parts of the game which are left untouched, but then you remember that the town is called “Springdale” and it starts seeming weird. There are a number of odd cultural incongruities like that on display, and while I get that this game is intended for younger audiences which are not exactly known for being worldly, I still would have preferred that they’d gone full Persona and just left it set in Japan with all the cultural references intact, because as it is it feels a little condescending.
Another place where Yo-Kai Watch has a surprising number of fresh ideas is in its gameplay. Rather than working on a traditional turn-based system like Pokémon, the base combat here is entirely automated. Your Yo-kai will attack, guard, and fire off spells completely of their own accord with their battle strategies depending upon their personality. Your role in combat is to throw healing items at them, trigger their super attacks, cure their status ailments, and switch around the active line-up to best fit the situation. While this may sound boring, it actually ends up being a lot of fun as they’ve balanced all these actions really well and they play into each other fantastically. The super attacks and curing of status ailments are done via quick little mini-games, and switching around your active party is done by rotating a wheel containing your six active Yo-kai; super attacks can only be done with the three Yo-kai in the front row, and curing status ailments can only be done to the three Yo-kai in the back. This turns the combat into a fun push and pull of rotating key Yo-kai in and out of the fray, desperately trying to complete the mini-games as fast as possible so you can get to the next action before the enemy can disrupt your tactics. Of course there’s also plenty of stuff to fiddle around with outside of combat to make your Yo-kai more effective, such as applying books which will change their personalities, slapping on equipment which alters their stats, and even doing the odd bit of fusion and evolution, though those things didn’t play as large a role as I would have liked. One thing this game does have, which I did not expect but ended up fitting in quite well, is proper boss fights versus big baddies beyond the scope of the Yo-kai you’re able to befriend. These fights are almost always at the end of any given chapter and they’re quite the spectacle, with bosses not only being much larger than the Yo-kai you’re used to fighting, but also requiring special tactics to overcome. It’s not the sort of thing you normally expect from the monster-catching JRPG sub-genre, as boss fights in that sphere generally tend to be against nothing more than a stronger monster of little story significance that you’ll end up being able to recruit later. Overall it’s a very enjoyable system that bolts onto the traditional JRPG story and quest framework beautifully, creating a pleasantly familiar difficulty curve and at the same time providing a JRPG experience that feels entirely new.
Lastly we have the presentation, which has a nicely quaint feel to it. I’ve already talked about how a lot has been done to make Springdale feel special and that is only heightened by a great sense of world design that once again keeps things feeling vast but not too spread out. It also feels very homey thanks to a lot of little touches, like the main character taking off and putting on their shoes whenever they enter someone’s house, as well as a very warm and inviting palette that drives home the late summer suburbs setting. As for the designs of the actual Yo-kai, they’re perhaps a tad more cartoony than some might have expected, but I think that ends up working in the game’s favour as it gives the designs a nice feeling of life and joviality, whereas in comparison I’ve found many of the Pokémon designs can sometimes end up feeling a bit cold. As for the sound design, the voice acting is pleasant enough when present and there’s a decent pop to the sound effects, but it’s the soundtrack that really stands out. Level 5 has always put together some very nice music for their games, with heavy emphasis on nailing down a game’s theme within its OST, and Yo-Kai Watch is no different. Walks through Springdale’s streets are strung along with jaunty little tunes that are bubbly but never annoying and encounters with mysterious Yo-kai are underlined with spookier, almost Halloween flavoured, melodies that play up the supernatural angle of the story. Overall it’s just a very peaceful and pleasant experience in terms of presentation.
While Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t necessarily have the immediate marketing power of Pokémon, I think at its core it has all of the same traits that ended up making that series so successful; it’s just a matter of seeing whether it catches on here in the West. Even if it doesn’t, I hope they decide to bring over the sequels, because this game provided a comforting sense of warmth and friendliness that can well serve children and adults in equal measure. It’s not without its issues: the story is a little muddled and oddly paced, the combat is enjoyable but more hands off than some might like, and the tone is decidedly more cartoony though not childishly so. Personally though it ended up fitting my tastes just fine and I quite enjoyed the 20 or so hours I got to spend with the game; as such I wholly recommend Yo-Kai Watch and give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.