Yo-kai Watch review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 3DS
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Level-5
Release Date Nov 6, 2015

Yo-kai Watch was engineered to be the next big thing.

From the very beginning, Yo-kai Watch seems as though it was designed with a specific purpose in mind: to become the next Pokémon-level franchise.

This is evident from its frequent anime-style cutscenes, monsters brimming with distinct personalities just waiting to become action figures and its episodic narrative, which is often borrowed directly from Yo-kai Watch's television companion. Yet in developing the monster-collecting role-playing game, Level-5 has brought a surprising amount of depth, without sacrificing an entertaining cast of characters or a refreshingly lighthearted tone.

Yo-kai Watch seems as though it was designed to be the next Pokémon

Yo-kai Watch lays out its simple storyline quickly. You play as a young boy or girl who gains the ability to see various spirits, called Yo-kai, inhabiting a suburban town. Aided by your self-proclaimed "Yo-kai butler," Whisper, along with your titular monster-tracking watch, you set out on various adventures around town. You'll have to collect and fight Yo-kai in order to help out townsfolk who are suffering from the spirits' various negative effects. These events range from warding off the memory-blocking Yo-kai Wazzat, who renders your father so forgetful as to almost botch an important work meeting, to taking down a boss monster who stole an old man's pair of underpants.

Yo-kai Watch doesn't take itself seriously, and that sense of humor sets it apart from just another creature battler. Superficially, the core premise and battle mechanics resemble not just Pokémon, but similar series like Digimon and even Shin Megami Tensei to an overwhelming degree. You fight off Yo-kai using other Yo-kai, which you acquire by hunting them down with help from your watch's sensor. At some points, Yo-kai will volunteer to join you after you help them with a task. Once you befriend them, they'll offer you a medal to either take around with you or store in your monster encyclopedia for safekeeping and future reference. You can carry up to six medals at a time to be used during battle, and Yo-kai can level up and eventually evolve into stronger monsters over time.

Yo-Kai Watch - Jibanyan artwork 480

Every monster has a specific nature, such as Charming, Mysterious or Tough. These generally refer to the types of abilities these characters have to offer in battle — a Tough Yo-kai is more inclined toward physical attacks, while Charming types are generally small and cute, and have attack animations to match. These differences are small, though, and other than providing a minor stat boost upon sending out an identically typed trio into battle, I rarely paid attention to which natures my Yo-kai belonged to. While you are able and encouraged to build a team based on your personal preference — offensive-based, defense-heavy, etc. — I found it just as easy to get through the game solely using the Yo-kai I found most appealing.

That is, when I was able to catch them: You must compel monsters to join your crew by offering them certain items. It took a lot of trial and a lot more errors, and I still wound up with limited team options at some points. It was incredibly frustrating when there was a particular monster I wanted and I had no idea how to tame it.

It's important to solidify a core team, because much of Yo-kai Watch is spent using your six fighters in battles against other Yo-kai, Big Bads or otherwise. All matches are conducted three-on-three, and instead of inputting commands directly, you control a wheel on the 3DS's lower screen. You spin the wheel in order to select which members of your party are leading the charge.

The lack of direct control left me feeling disconnected from the characters I had spent time collecting and assembling into a suitable team, especially since the bulk of the player's time in battle is spent focusing squarely on the lower screen, where special attacks, healing and other mechanics are controlled.

Not only is the touchscreen used for cycling through fighters, it also serves the purpose of gauging a Yo-kai's health and unleashing its special attack. In addition to a standard health bar, each Yo-kai has a Soultimate meter.

Yo-Kai Watch forest artwork 1920

Paying attention to the touchscreen is critical, the Soultimate gauge especially. The meter fills up gradually as a battle carries on, and once it's full, the option to launch a minigame of sorts appears on the bottom screen. You must successfully complete the minigame to actually unleash the Yo-kai's special attack.

The Soultimate system is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, every single character in the game has its own Soultimate attack, which is impressive and makes each one distinct and fun to try out in battle. On the other, the process of charging the attack can be tedious. Using the touchscreen, the minigame requires one of three things: spinning circles around your monster, tapping orange energy bubbles or tracing a selection of symbols. The required minigame is always chosen at random. It's a test of endurance over actual strategy. Spinning circles with the stylus as fast as possible during a particularly long boss battle isn't just tiring, but painful.

This isn't the only part of Yo-kai Watch that suffers from repetition. The game's boss battles require a strategic deployment of your team's skills, and they're consistently entertaining and memorable. But Yo-kai Watch has a terrible tendency of forcing the player through dreadful fetch quests in the lead-up to these chapter-concluding fights.

One particularly awful episode made me please a Yo-kai in order to unlock access to the chapter's final boss. He wanted a rare bug, and I was given a vague idea of where to find it with no other hints or help with catching it. In a game that prides itself on taking its heroes through hoops of menial tasks, missions like these are especially frustrating. I felt lucky to find the stupid aforementioned bug in just under half an hour of searching.

Yo-Kai Watch - Nate/Katie art 480

Yo-kai Watch's plethora of optional side quests work far better. Because I could complete them at my leisure, I used the side quests as a way to become better acquainted with the world map. The game takes place almost exclusively in your town of Springdale, but its areas are large with plenty to explore. I was able to learn the nooks and crannies of the town via these side quests, and I had no problem leaving them unfinished when they got annoying.

More than anything, the side quests are just one of the many showcases for Yo-kai Watch's pervasive sense of humor. Creatures make jokes about government bailouts, neighbors talk openly about their unattractive spouses — the tone is refreshingly self-aware and completely lacking in pretense. This adventure isn't a grandiose, epic RPG, and I didn't feel like a hero after it ended; I enjoyed leading the life of a normal girl in slightly extraordinary circumstances.

That sense of everyday normality amid the wackiness is something Yo-kai Watch shares with its anime counterpart, a similarity that is striking and blatant. Not only does each chapter function as an episode, replete with "To Be Continued"s and occasional anime cutscenes, but some of them mirror actual episodes from the television series. Level-5 even goes so far as to include a preview of the actual Yo-kai Watch manga inside of the game. There are constant reminders that this game is meant to sell you on a line of toys and other merchandise.

Wrap Up:

Yo-kai Watch's charm overcomes its repetitive nature

It's a wonder, then, that Yo-kai Watch kept me entertained despite its shamelessness in advertising other products. With a combat system that really shines during the slower-paced, strategic boss battles, Level-5 has created a game that's successful in its own right, and not just as an advertisement for a broader product line. Yo-kai Watch offers a lot to really, really like, even if it doesn't exactly revolutionize kid-friendly, monster-collecting RPGs.

Yo-kai Watch was reviewed using a retail Nintendo 3DS copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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7.5 3DS