Positioned as the first true alternative to the ever popular, Pokémon, Level-5’s outrageously successful, Yo-Kai Watch arrives in the West two years after its initial bow in Japan. In those two years, Yo-Kai Watch has spawned numerous video games (the third mainline release is due in the next few months), a TV show, a cinematically released movie and an absolute metric ton of merchandise. It might not be Pokémon massive (what is?), but make no mistake, Yo-Kai Watch is something of a cultural phenomenon in its home country.
Will the same be true of the West? Can Yo-Kai Watch make the same kind of impact in Europe and the States that Pokémon did nearly twenty years ago? Well, probably not to be honest. It’s arguably a little bit too Japanese for its own good, but regardless of whether it’ll be the monster hit that Level-5 and Nintendo want it to be, the fact remains – Yo-Kai Watch is a fantastic game in its own right and a genuine alternative to Game Freak’s mass market juggernaut.
Despite having its own tone and comparatively unique world, there is no getting around Yo-Kai Watch’s structural similarities to Pokémon. As a young boy or girl (you get to choose your gender and name at the start of the game), you are essentially dragged into the mysterious world of the Yo-Kai – spirits based upon Japanese folklore that inhabit our world but are ordinarily invisible to us. Rather than being the traditional representation of the recently deceased, these mischievous ghostly apparitions are built around every day emotions and are often seen as being responsible for specific moods or day-to-day actions – heck, there is even a Yo-Kai for jaywalking.
Like Pokémon’s infamous collection of catchable monsters, Yo-Kai Watch is home to an impressive selection of brilliantly crafted, wonderfully unique and surprisingly memorable Yo-Kai. Heading off on your adventure with Whisper (the most artistically clichéd ghost of the bunch), and your adorable feline Yo-Kai, Jibanyan, you will explore the surprisingly diverse town of Springdale (it’s a lot more Japanese than it sounds), as you look to help out your friends and solve the problems being caused by some of the more troublesome Yo-Kai dotted about town. Whether it be defeating Yo-Kai or recruiting them via their favourite snacks (Yo-Kai love a good snack), this gentle but undoubtedly addictive adventure proves to be another exceptional addition to the 3DS’ criminally underrated selection of top-tier video games.
While the concept of a magical watch that allows you to see the ghostly Yo-Kai hidden throughout Springdale is all a bit silly, the game, the world, it all, well, it just works. That combination of Saturday morning cartoon charm and its memorably unique Japanese aesthetic work together beautifully, and while the dialogue is inevitably childish, the delivery throughout is conveyed with such earnest gusto, that its difficult not to be dragged along for the ride.
And what a ride it is; the story is ultimately rather tame and the characters, while pleasant, aren’t the most memorable bunch, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter. Like Pokémon before it, Yo-Kai Watch is driven by it’s fantastic gameplay loop, mostly brilliant battle system and addictive recruitment mechanics. With such fantastic art design and some very imaginative Yo-Kai (Yo-Kai that are arguably more interesting than their Pokémon counterparts), collecting the full set becomes an unsurprisingly compelling experience.
Of course, it helps that the game world is such a joy to traverse. They might no be the most interesting, but the inhabitants of Springdale are nothing if not pleasant, and with a decent selection of locales to explore, Yo-Kai Watch does a great job of tapping into that childlike sense of adventure and exploration. It could do with a greater sense of threat, something akin to what the Fratelli’s provided in, The Goonies, but even without that darker side, Yo-Kai Watch remains an imminently enjoyable adventure.
Many have criticised Yo-Kai Watch’s battle system for being somewhat repetitious, and while that is true to an extent, I found it consistently compelling, with it only being let down by a lack of tangible challenge. Some battle are inevitably tougher than others, but once you get to grips with the nuances of the system, few encounters are likely to cause you too much in the way of genuine trouble.
Saying that, whether it be a story-driven encounter or a run of the mill show down, battling and capturing Yo-Kai is rarely anything less than fun. Recruiting specific Yo-Kai with collectible culinary treats can be a little awkward, and throwing your rice bun at a standard enemy rather than the rare Yo-Kai you are hoping to join your team can be infuriating, but it’s one of the few problems with an otherwise stellar, and somewhat unique system.
Rather than a traditional turn based encounter, battles go ahead automatically, with the Yo-Kai in your team happy to throw standard attacks without the need for prompting. This allows you to charge up special, ‘Soultimate’ attacks that are initiated via simplistic but engaging mini games. Whether it be putting together special attacks, swapping Yo-Kai in and out of your core team of three or using items to improve your chances of victory, Yo-Kai Watch delivers a relatively straightforward but nonetheless distinctive, and hugely enjoyable battle system.
With its fantastic soundtrack, gorgeous visuals and sky high production values, Yo-Kai Watch belies its years to deliver one of the better looking game on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s unlikely to match Pokémon’s success in the West, but judged upon its own merits, this is one of the better 3DS games released in the last few years and a genuine match for the ever-popular Pokémon franchise.
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