Your journey into the world of Yo-Kai Watch begins in earnest after a simple character creation process that involves selecting between the two main protagonists of the story, Nate or Katie, and naming them whatever you like (although whatever you name your character, the cutscenes will still refer to them as Nate or Katie). It is a warm summer day and you and your buddies are on the playground, soaking in the sun, catching butterflies and having a great time. It may seem like the start of a bad after school special, but in reality in lays the foundations of a fun, family friendly game that’s filled with nostalgia, whimsy, and humor.
As the narrative goes, Nate (or Katie) is nonchalantly walking through a rather lush forest soon after meeting with some friends, butterfly net at the ready, on the lookout for rare bugs. Presently he happen’s upon a rather large tree in the middle of a grassy clearing. Also alongside the tree, he comes across a rather ominous looking coin operated capsule machine; you know, the kind that are usually placed in stores that feature small miniature plastic “capsules” that traditionally contain random trinkets and toys.
Whereas most capsule machines are brightly colored and full of interesting little trinkets that can be seen through the plastic window, this one, in a sharp contrast to the game’s rather lush visuals, almost looks as if it’s covered in a thick layer of soot, as it is black in color, with any contents within well hidden from view. Perhaps borrowing a page from the Little Shop of Horrors school of game design, a voice from within the machine seems to cry out, “Feed Me!”, startling our young protagonist and setting the story in motion.
Well our young protagonist pops in a coin and out flies a friendly Yo-Kai (see: spirit). After a bit of a lengthy introductory speech, of sorts, Nate meets Whisper, an unofficial guide to the world of Yo-Kai. Whisper also gives you the upgradable Yo-Kai Watch. More than a simple plot device, the watch actually has a few practical functions in game, from tracking down hidden Yo-Kai, to tracking the day-night cycle in game and eventually unlocking progressively leveled doors.
Yo-Kai Watch is interesting in that it utilizes a number of gameplay mechanics that sound good on paper, but when put into practice as actual gameplay elements, fall flat, coming off as too frustrating or tedious or random. For example, other games centered around the idea of catching monsters simply have you engaging said monsters in different locales, and utilizing some sort of capture device to collect these creatures. Historically, it’s a proven effective method, even if it has been criticized heavily for its simplicity and lack of innovation.
Level 5 has opted for a more interactive approach of encountering and befriending Yo-Kai. Playing off the premise that most Yo-Kai are hidden from humans, your Yo-Kai Watch will lead you to these hidden Yo-Kai, nonchalantly scattered about town in out of the way places, such as trees, garbage cans, under parked cars, behind vending machines, and even in rivers, ponds, and streams.
Once you’re in the presence of a hidden Yo-Kai, you have to “chase” them around the touch screen, using the 3DS’ stylus and an onscreen magnifying glass. Usually appearing as a hazy mist, the object is to keep the Yo-Kai centered within the magnifying glass until an on screen meter fills up completely, resulting in a battle with said spirit. This is easier said than done, as these Yo-Kai will run and amble and saunter their way across the screen and back attempting to evade capture.
Battles take place in a 3 on 3 environment and are a rather dynamic affair, compared with previous titles in the genre. You can have six Yo-Kai with you at any given time and you can arrange them on a “wheel” of sorts in any order you like. When you need to switch Yo-Kai in and out of battle, you don’t do a direct swap, but you spin this wheel, altering your currently active party by seemingly nudging Yo-Kai at the edges of the wheel off screen and prodding certain other members on screen. This is necessary to remove afflicted Yo-Kai as well, as you can only effectively cure those while they’re offscreen, by rubbing the touchscreen.
The wheel mechanic, as its used in battles is interesting as it gives a more strategic feel to encounters. Since Yo-Kai can fall into several different categories, dependent upon their nature, such as charming or brave or mysterious, and earn a bonus when two or more Yo-Kai of the same type are active, the potential possibilities of various group dynamics often come into play, depending upon the situation. Another dynamic element to battles involves using “soultimate” moves (so ultimate, get it?) that work in a similar fashion to finishing moves, allowing for a huge burst of damage to any single target or entire group of enemies. Healer types in your party can also use these moves for bestowing large heals, typically affecting your entire party.
These finishing moves, which have a limit in the way of a slowly recharging meter, often require you to use the touchscreen in various ways such as tracing a number of different shapes, popping a variety of balloons, or simply making repeated circular motions until each move is fully “charged.” Interestingly, while you’re attempting to charge these moves, enemies can and will attack the party member trying to power up, but this works both ways, as enemies (especially bosses) can and will try to use these finishing moves as well and a well-timed attack by you can often leave them reeling.
The act of befriending Yo-Kai, however, after possibly heated battles, quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, thanks to the gameplay mechanics. Feeding a Yo-Kai its favorite treats, in a practical world, would ensure it warms up to you and at the conclusion of a battle wants to join your party. This hidden rating of how likely any given Yo-Kai is to join you can even be boosted a bit, thanks to the innate abilities of certain specific Yo-Kai, should they be on your team.
Like most games with a degree of chance, the random number generator (RNG) plays a part in determining which and if a Yo-Kai joins you after battle. However, the RNG in Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t just affect the rate at which Yo-Kai join you, it completely dominates the process. This results in potentially feeding Yo-Kai numerous high priced treats in game that end up having no effect, or having a completely different Yo-Kai than the one you’re focusing on asking to join you. For a game in which one of the central themes is collecting these various spirits, it seems an odd choice to implement a system that makes that act as random as possible.
Visually, the bold, bright colors really pop and special effects in battles fill the screen with appropriate flair and panache. The lush suburban setting is quaint, almost to a fault. The kid friendly atmosphere is showcased by the lack of any objectionable material, both in the game world and in battles; as well as by the familiar, relatable themes, such as getting home before it gets dark out and only crossing the street at intersections when the traffic light is green.
Narratively, the game unfolds in a series of “chapters” which take place as you complete the main story quests. Your little neighborhood gradually expands as you progress in the game, giving you access to downtown areas, uptown areas, forested coastal regions, etc. There’s quite a bit to do if you’re in no hurry to rush through the story, including a ton of side quests offered by many of townspeople, and completing these often opens up more side quests.
There’s also an interesting diversion if you happen to stay out too long adventuring. Known as “Terror Time,” you enter a noir inspired black and white dream world where you are searched for and then pursued by a huge, giant red demonic Yo-Kai. He has smaller monsters patrolling the screen for you as well and if they see you, he speeds to your location. The only way to win is to make a mad dash to the large glowing door that’s randomly placed in the world somewhere. An interesting twist to this mode is that also littered around dream world are treasure chests which can often hold some of the game’s most powerful items. Essentially this turns it into a frantic game of hide and seek meets capture the flag, of sorts. There is no “penalty” for getting caught, except that you’re back in your room in bed (minus any items you may have gathered) as if nothing had happened.
In the end, Yo-Kai Watch falters not on its lush visual appeal nor on its plethora of side dishes to keep you busy while you slowly digest the main course, but perhaps on its rush to innovation. It’s almost a tragedy, as so much of the game is pure and simple fun, that many of the underlying gameplay mechanics fail to live up to the lofty standards promised at the outset. Better than the sum of its parts, yet not exactly a complete package, Yo-Kai Watch is ultimately a comedy of errors, set adrift in an ocean of games of a similar genre. With no prevailing wind at its back, nor leaks in its frame to sink it, it may be destined to float on the river of time, existing in that horrible state between mediocrity and greatness in which too many games find themselves.