Since its debut in 2013, Yo-Kai Watch has become a huge hit in Japan, with Yo-Kai Watch 2 even outselling Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Red in 2014. With Yo-Kai Watch 3 set to release in July, Level-5 and Nintendo are finally releasing the first instalment of the franchise in Europe.
At first glance, Yo-Kai Watch seems an almost exact copy of Pokémon; running around in a world inhabited by monsters which you can capture, level, and fight. Where does Yo-Kai Watch differentiate itself from Pokémon? But first, some history.
The term 'yokai' may be something you're unfamiliar with. Legends about yokai have been around since ancient times and are a big part of Japanese folklore. There isn't an English equivalent - they're probably best described as supernatural spirits or monsters. They come in many shapes and sizes; they can look like demons, animals, humans, or even inanimate objects. They possess a supernatural power, with shapeshifting being the most common. Yokai can be mischievous, malevolent even, but can also bring good luck and fortune to those who encounter them. Normally, Yokai aren't visible to humans, meaning they can freely wreak havoc, for example cause car accidents or even possessing humans to make them do their bidding. Fortunately, most yokai keep to themselves or play harmless pranks at most - overall, they aren't ill-intentioned and cause no serious damage. But when a lot of strange incidents occur, yokai are almost always to blame - at least according to Japanese folklore.
Yo-Kai Watch brings a new look to the old legends of yokai by intertwining them in a Pokémon-esque game.
At the start of the game you're given the choice to play as either a boy or a girl. There are two standard characters with no customisation options apart from giving your new alter ego a name. As it's summer vacation, you decide to visit an old shrine for some good ol' bug catching. Whilst venturing further in the woods, you encounter a sacred tree, which surprisingly has a capsule machine at the bottom of it. When the machine starts rattling and you hear a voice asking you for help, your thirst for adventure wins out over your fear and you turn the handle, only for a ghost-like yokai named Whisper to sprout from the machine. Whisper becomes your guide to the world of yokai, referring to himself as your butler, from then on following your character throughout the game. He gives you a device called the Yokai Watch, which allows you to pick up the presence of unseen spirits and objects. In a "you're getting warmer" way, a small radar in the top-right of the screen will let you know when you're close enough to shift to the yokai lens. Once engaged, it enables you to scan the area for yokai using your stylus. When you encounter a yokai, you must follow it with your stylus until the meter is full, triggering a battle or conversation.
The battle-system is where Yo-Kai Watch differentiates itself from Pokémon; where in the latter you have to pick moves in a turn-based fight, yokai will fight entirely on their own. You can, however, enhance your chances of winning by tapping Soultimate on the lower screen, which prompts a very quick mini-game, for example popping a load of bubbles that appear on the screen. If successfully completed, the yokai will charge up and release a more powerful, special attack on its foe. Similarly, you can also purify your yokai from enemy curses with another short mini-game. Occasionally you may find yourself furiously spinning your stylus to generate a special attack or tapping away to purify your yokai, only for the fight to be already over, prompting you to try even faster next time.
Like Pokémon Safari, you can also try to convert a creature into liking you by throwing food at it. If not instantly convinced into befriending you after being provided a snack, it will at the very least make battling easier depending on how much your enemy liked the food. Winning a fight will reward you with money (the currency used in the EU version is £GBP), food, items, and XP. The opposing yokai may also offer you their medal as a token of your newfound friendship, enabling you to summon that yokai for battles. No capturing and confining creatures to tiny balls - in Yo-Kai Watch, all monsters remain free to roam, instead offering friendship and a helping hand when you must battle mischievous yoke that are causing trouble. This is another huge difference from Pokémon - despite the fact you are able to collect a bunch of peculiar individuals, they do not become your personal army of soldiers forced to battle or get stored away never to be looked at again. Instead, you collect their medals and the ability to summon them when needed, which works very well for this game - since all yokai can talk and some look very human-like, it would be creepy to capture and store those. You don't Gotta Catch 'Em All, you gotta befriend them all.
Medals will be kept in your Yo-Kai Medallium - a coincollecting-style book that stores all medals you have acquired by befriending yokai. You can carry six medals with you at most. Medals can be changed in your bedroom or at convenience stores, where a yokai called Eyepo also heals your team much like a Pokémon centre.
In total, there are supposedly over 200 different kinds of yokai, including rare legendary ones. Most can be found using your radar, but can also be acquired through capsule machines and quests. When you've gathered a particular set of medals you'll be rewarded with the friendship of a legendary yokai. You can collect duplicates of yokai if you desire, but despite looking the same they will have a different personality than their kin.
After you've befriended a few of them, you'll notice you can have a team of up to six yokai at once. When engaged in battle, three yokai will be on the fighting grounds at once. You can very easily shift your team by simply spinning the wheel of the innovatively named Yo-Kai Wheel on your watch in the bottom screen. Foes will often bring their buddies and almost always appear in a team of three as well. You can choose to target one of your three foes, or let your yokai hit whoever. The simple and quick shifting system will come in particularly handy when your yokai needs to be taken out of battle, if it needs purifying or if it's low on HP. After a battle, all six of your current team members are granted XP whether they fought or not, making levelling them a quick and painless process.
Yokai can evolve into more powerful versions of themselves when they reach a certain level, or can evolve with specific items (they can even merge with other yokai). There are eight different classes, called tribes: Eerie, Slippery, Brave, Mysterious, Shady, Heartful, Charming, and Tough. Each class comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, much like a game of rock-paper-scissor. Teaming up certain tribes of yokai will make your team stronger and their attacks more powerful.
If all of this seems a lot to take in, that's because it is - despite the target audience being quite young, Yokai Watch bombards you with information. As yokai battle without instruction, a lot of the strategy takes place outside of the fight; it's up to you to find out which tribe, rank, item, or team works best together. Despite being older than the target audience, even we found the plethora of information a bit overwhelming at times. Luckily, you're given a Yo-Kai Pad - a tablet computer in your inventory holding all the information Whisper has told you so far.
Unlike Pokémon, where it seems perfectly acceptable for a ten-year-old to venture into the world alone, Yokai Watch keeps it a bit more realistic. The whole game is set in the fictional town of Springdale, a very normal and domestic suburb. There's an in-game day and night cycle; when you wake up, you and your ghostly companion Whisper decide on a goal and when finished, the day is over and you go home to sleep. Luckily, Springdale is a big, open environment, meaning you can run around town as much as you want before completing any quest. Springdale is a lively town with its inhabitants (human or yokai) sometimes offering simple sub-quests (requests and favours) in exchange for money, items or XP. A request is a one-time job which can potentially unlock certain yokai, whereas favours are quests that can be done again and again. You can also choose to track down yokai to battle and befriend, or simply go bug catching or fishing. This open world allows you to play at your own pace - if you don't want to plough through the main plot but focus on finding yokai or completing requests and favours, that is entirely up to you.
Despite being young, you are also recruited to fight yokai-crime, basically defeating yokai who are up to no good to collect passwords you can exchange for items online. When levelled enough you can even enter certain 'dungeon' areas; dark alleys behind shopping streets or secret paths where you solve puzzles, find items and of course encounter yokai otherwise not found in sunny Springdale.
If you want to progress the overall story and unlock all areas in Springdale, you'll need to play the main quest, which consists of eleven chapters, getting gradually more difficult as you go. Without giving too many spoilers, the main storyline predictably consists of saving Springdale from ill-intentioned mischievous yokai. Unlike Pokémon, Yokai Watch keeps an overall light and humorous theme. For example, one of the main characters, a cat-like creature named Jibanyan, was run over by a truck before becoming a yokai, and his owner simply referred to his death as "lame".
After completing the main storyline, you can still entertain yourself with the many Requests, Favours, or focus on collecting all yokai if you haven't already. PVP battles are possible, however not yet available at the time of writing this review. Further options such as Streetpass or connecting to the internet to exchange passwords for prizes are also not available yet, but will no doubt be a fun feature to enhance gameplay.
Whilst playing through the game, you'll quickly notice how it's aimed at a young audience. For example, your virtual mother emphasises that you must be in before dark, and your yokai butler Whisper praises you for waiting for the green light before crossing the street - disregarding the rules may even trigger the appearance of a powerful demon yokai chasing you down. Sometimes you can play an event called "Terror Time" where you enter a nightmare realm. All the while a powerful demon yokai who can easily wipe your whole team out is lurking, so you better be quick. The moral? Obey your parents and don't venture out after dark, kids!
Graphics-wise, Springdale is a pleasure to visit. Visuals and cut-scenes are of a high quality. Everything runs smoothly with little to no loading times. The music and melodies are fun, and every yokai has a unique voice. Despite being aimed at kids, the dialogue is sometimes hilarious, and there's riddles with jokes that probably only adults will get.
With its unique battle system, big open world and a more comedic approach, Yo-Kai Watch is a game that manages to stand out and even rise above the original monster-collecting JRPG. One might wonder why it took several years to bring one of Japan's biggest and best-selling hits to Europe, and the answer is that it, boldly put, it may be too Japanese.
As mentioned before, yokai are deeply entwined in Japanese history and culture to this day. There isn't even a proper English translation for the term yokai, as many Japanese people will tell you 'a yokai is just a yokai'. A lot of the yokai names are Japanese wordplay, which also doesn't translate to English. The game also depicts a very realistic summer vacation experience for Japanese kids; whereas western kids need their parents to drag them around, Japanese youth are much more independent, spending their summer vacations with activities like bug-catching, fishing, or visiting shrines. Some of the humour (such as a side-quest where you, a child character, must obtain an old man's underwear at the public bath - yes, really) may also go entirely over one's head.
That being said, this doesn't necessarily mean the game will fail in the western market. Sure, we may not fully understand what certain yokai represent, some may look outrageously odd, and we miss out on a lot of the jokes. Despite all of this, you can still thoroughly enjoy Yo-Kai Watch even if you aren't familiar with Japanese lore and culture, and that is all that counts.