At first glance, Yo-kai Watch resembles Pokemon: you collect cute--and sometimes terribly ugly--critters, battle them against other critters, and use your newfound masterdom of said critters to defeat your nemesis. But Yo-kai Watch adds some interesting wrinkles to the formula, resulting in a quirky, engaging experience that brings a smile to your face.
Yo-kai Watch's is designed for younger players--but don't that let discourage you from giving it a go. You play as a little boy or girl who releases a ghost named Whisper, a self-professed "Yo-kai butler," from his enchanted prison. He gives you the titular Yo-kai Watch, a piece of equipment that allows you to see and speak with Yo-kai. These Yo-kai are everywhere you go--under vending machines, in trees, harassing your parents and friends--and after a while it becomes apparent that something sinister is going on with the more evil-minded of these beings.
You find Yo-kai by following your watch's radar and closely examining areas where it frantically beeps like a metal detector. Using the stylus, you move a lens, like a magnifying glass, over the screen until the Yo-kai appears in your sight. In order to bring it into the open and initiate combat, you have to keep its image in the lens for a few seconds; however, they will try to run away, making the simple act of initiating contact a brief, exciting challenge.
Along the way you collect these Yo-kai by befriending them, allowing you to call upon them in battle against other Yo-kai. Instead of ensnaring them in a trap, you try to befriend Yo-Kai by giving them foods they enjoy at the start of battle and then defeating them. If you're successful, they ask to be your friend when combat ends. Unlike Pokemon, which you have to forcibly capture and do little more than chatter their own name when not in combat--Yo-kai are more engaging. They speak your language and will banter with your and their opponents.
What makes them so entertaining are their individual personalities and the different effects they have on humans; Dismerelda is an unkind giant purple blob that makes people fight for no reason; Hungramps is a tiny old man that gives people the junk food munchies; Noway, a walking stone wall, makes someone stubborn. I was tickled to discover Cheeksqueak, a Yo-kai that had a butt for a face and a fart attack to match. Additionally, you can only find certain Yo-kai in specific areas or if your Watch Ranking (read: how well your watch can find more powerful Yo-kai) is high enough. This encourages exploration of your town as you search to find and befriend them all.
Combat in Yo-kai Watch is in real-time and battles move very quickly. For combat, the 3DS bottom screen displays a wheel with six spokes, with each spoke being an available Yo-Kai in your active party. You have three Yo-kai at a time on the battlefield, and can rotate this lineup by spinning the wheel. The placement of each Yo-kai on the wheel has major effects on combat, as setting Yo-kai of the same type next to one another grants a stat boost to the party, such as higher attack speed or stronger hits. Your Yo-kai will randomly attack on their own--you can't choose which moves to use--and each hit slowly fills up their Soultimate gauge. A Soultimate is a powerful signature move that deals much more damage than a regular attack. Depending on Yo-kai placement on the wheel and the boosts they have, you could have most of your six creatures ready for their big attack at any given time and rotate them in and out as they are ready.
The ability to rotate your Yo-kai on and off the field is an excellent feature because it allows you to stock your wheel with Yo-kai equipped to combat any kind of enemy. Think you'll run into a fire Yo-kai? Keep an ice Yo-kai handy. Is there a big boss coming up? Keep a few heavy-hitters in your line-up and keep them in reserve until the boss is weak, then bring them out swinging. It allows for a deeper battle strategy than simple one-on-one combat can offer, and being able to switch on the fly keeps you thinking and on your toes.
The Soultimate gauge and rotation abilities keep you on your toes during combat, but it's how you execute those Soultimate attacks that really makes you sweat. To use a Soultimate, you complete a number of minigames on the bottom 3DS screen. Minigames include using the stylus to quickly trace three shapes, pop gold bubbles, or rapidly spin a dial. The seconds in which you complete these minigames sometimes mean the difference between life and death; if you're fighting a powerful Yo-kai, there's always the chance he will target and knock out the Yo-kai you are prepping to Soultimate while you're mid-charge. Using minigames to charge and execute an attack is way more fun that simply mashing a button and biding your time.
In addition to the Soultimate attack, Yo-kai can Inspirit each other, an attack that hampers attack speed and effectiveness. Sometimes Inspirited Yo-kai won't attack at all. Your Yo-kai can Inspirit enemy Yo-kai, but opponents can also Inspirit your Yo-kai. When your Yo-kai is Inspirited, you have to bring him off the battlefield and "purify" him using the same minigames you use to launch a Soultimate. This adds another layer of strategy, but it gets frustrating against stronger enemies that are constantly Inspiriting your party. It's exhausting whipping through your rotation for minutes on end, purifying constantly without being able to squeeze in a Soultimate, but it does add a greater sense of urgency to battle.
While you can't choose attack order in combat, you can train your Yo-kai to behave a certain way. Leveling them up adds to basic stats like health and how powerful a Soultimate is, but using certain items can completely alter their personality. For example, Yo-kai who are prone to "loafing," or refusing to attack, can be "read" a book item that makes them more proactive. Yo-kai that are timid in combat can be taught to be cruel and aggressive, executing double the attacks they previously did. You can equip Yo-kai with items as well, like bangles and bells that boost basic stats like speed. The depth of customization for Yo-kai is one of the game's most enjoyable aspects, as it allows you to truly personalize your team to your tastes.
While Yo-kai Watch's sidequests are often monotonous affairs--most of them scouring the corners of town searching for three Yo-kai to beat up--the main story quests play out like traditional role-playing game dungeons. You explore multi-floored construction sites, museums after dark, abandoned hospitals, and sewers, picking up rare consumables and battling new kinds of Yo-kai. Every main mission ends in a boss battle as unique as the location of the mission itself. The abandoned hospital end in a chilling encounter with a demon disguised as a doctor, who gets you on the operating table for a "change of heart." A search through a construction site reveals the presence of a Yo-kai so massive, you only battle his face--that's all that fits on screen. No story segment ends in the same way, and each boss demands different combat strategy, making for a delightfully unpredictable time.
But the map is not good; it shows pictures of streets and buildings but labels nothing. You only know where you are once you enter the area and a text box pops up, and without some semblance of directions it can be tedious and frustrating completing more involved quests. You can set a waypoint towards story missions, but not side quests.
Despite an odd map system, Yo-Kai Watch features a few small touches that give it a quirky flair. If you don't obey the town's traffic laws, running into oncoming cars and blowing through crosswalks without a walk signal, a powerful Yo-kai appears and punishes you by knocking out all your Yo-kai if you're not strong enough and giving you a game over. Some stores and side quests are only accessible during the game's day/night cycle, encouraging you to circle back around at different times of day. And the writing is smart and cheeky, with characters that banter, bicker, and develop playground crushes on each other. Whisper, your constant companion, chatters constantly, offering you advice or cracking a joke often at your expense.
My only big gripe with Yo-kai Watch is that even if you meet the conditions to befriend a Yo-kai, capture isn't guaranteed. In theory, you give a Yo-kai its favorite food at the start of battle to win their friendship. I found which food Yo-kai liked through trial and error (or, since the game has been available in Japan for two years, checking the internet). If you give them their favorites, after defeat, they should approach you to be friends. I did this repeatedly with several Yo-kai, but success was inconsistent. Sometimes I didn't feed a Yo-kai, but they befriended me anyway. Some Yo-kai also only appear in certain places in limited numbers at certain times of day, so failing to catch them the first time around means a long wait until they appear again. Capturing is left mostly up to chance and it forces you to grind in an unfun way.
Yo-kai Watch is driven by the personalities of its Yo-kai, and it's easy to get wrapped up in training your Yo-kai to your specific tastes and tackling tougher demons. The writing is delightful, combat is unique and entertaining, and even though the map leaves much to be desired it's fun to follow along with the story looking for the paranormal. Although navigating the world can be tedious and frustrating, the allure of building a diverse team of exotic Yo-kai pushes your exploration forward. You're constantly moving, searching for a specific Yo-kai, hunting down a mysterious item, or working your fingers muscles executing Soultimates. It's a neat twist on the creature-collecting game with a lot of heart.