Yo-Kai Watch Review: Phantom Lord

The simplest way to describe Level-5’s Yo-Kai Watch is as Pokemon crossed with Ghostbusters by the talented folks behind Professor Layton. The comparison isn’t perfect, though.  There’s a greater focus on narrative and slightly darker tone than any of the above offerings, not only in the game’s story, but the design of the games collectable Yo-kai. There’s also a focus on befriending the critters rather than capturing them, which makes me feel that it has more in common with Level 5’s own Ni No Kuni, while the small-town strange goings-on are reminiscent of Earthbound.  Maybe there’s no really good way to describe Yo-Kai Watch.  It’s certainly an original title.

Players take on the role of a young boy called Nate or girl called Katie, who during a fateful walk in the woods by the towns’ shrine releases a spirit called Whisper from an enchanted capsule toy machine. Referring to himself as the Yo-Kai butler”, Whisper acts as the player’s guide to the secret world of the Yo-Kai (which have their roots in Japanese folklore), spirits that have the power to possess objects and influence the emotions and actions of the living. It’s up to Nate/Katie and your band of friendly Yo-Kai to help the local townsfolk by stopping mischievous spirits from harassing the townsfolk, and ultimately befriend them too.  It’s a pretty cheesy concept and opening, but it’s a simple and endearing premise. The game does a brilliant of job introducing players to the game’s various systems, increasing in complexity while the Yo-Kai you face become increasingly more sinister and powerful as the narrative stakes increase.

Despite the cutesy facade, there’s an air of morbidity to even the game’s most endearing characters. For example, Jibayan, one of the main Yo-kai in the game’s accompanying anime series, is the lost spirit of a cat who died after being run over by a truck at a busy intersection. Others simply follow a moribund aesthetic, such as boohoo, a Yo-kai which causes depression in humans and looks like a strangled pigeon. Rather than actually shocking, it’s about the level of morbid overtone that you’d expect from a 13 year old taking the early strains of puberty poorly, and each of the games, 250+ Yo-Kai are, bright, colourful and strangely adorable lost souls.

Discovering new Yo-Kai isn’t as simple as going for a walk in the long grass for a bit (though you will get attacked by them in alleyways and other abandoned places). Instead, players use the titular Yo-Kai Watch, which features a radar that reacts to spirit energy, presumably in a similar way to the spectrometer in Ghostbusters.  It’s a fancy excuse that enables the player to track down Yo-Kai, beeping more frantically when you get closer to a source of spirit energy. When the meter in the corner of the screen is in the green, you can use your stylus to scan the area until you can lock in on a Yo-Kai. If you can keep one in your sights for long enough, it will be revealed and engage you in battle.

Yo-Kai Watch’s battles are speedy affairs which play out in real time, and with your party attacking automatically. Though all 6 are summoned, only three can fight at a time. Your Yo-Kai are laid out on a wheel on the bottom touchscreen, allowing you to rotate them in and out of battle when needed. Putting Yo-Kai of the same type next to each other provides buffs to damage and speed while fighting. Likewise, you need to be mindful of which Yo-Kai you use, as each have different elemental characteristics which act as you would expect (fire beats ice, etc etc).

Though Yo-kai attack on their own, it’s up to you to trigger each Yo-Kai’s soultimate move, which can be activated after their soultimate gauge is full. Once activated, you’ll need to successfully complete a quick minigame on the touch screen in order to successfully perform the move. These take the form of tapping, tracing shapes or spinning a wheel with your stylus. Screwing these games up can cost you the battle in tougher fights, ratcheting up the tension giving battles a more tactile feel, making an already solid system all the more engaging.

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Certain soultimate moves allow you to ‘inspirit’ enemy Yo-Kai, which stops them from attacking. If you can strike first, it’s a great offensive move. However, enemies can do the same to you. In order to heal them, you need to put the Yo-Kai on the bench for a while and ‘purify’ them, in order to make them fighting fit again. These are, again, activated with mini-games that work in an identical manner to the soultimate moves, but also provide you with a little bump to the XP you earn from the battle.

Though the fighting is fairly straightforward, adding new Yo-Kai to your party is decidedly hit and miss.  Rather than trying to cram the poor buggers into a ball after you’ve worn them down enough, like you would in Pokemon, you need to befriend Yo-Kai. Which, like most creatures, requires you to feed them their favourite food. It sounds easy enough, but for a start you need to figure out what their favourite food is, which itself is often a case of trial and error. Even if you do get it right, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will instantly join your party once the battle ends.

Instead, befriending Yo-kai (save for ones that join your party as a reward for finishing a quest or found at the capsule machine in the woods, which will occasionally cough up rare spirits if you feed it enough play coins) seems to involve just as much luck as it does judgement. Sometimes the Yo-Kai you wanted will join your party and other times the spirits accompanying them will randomly ask to join you instead (though this usually happened after I’d wiped the floor with them). It can be a little irksome at times, especially when you need to befriend a specific Yo-Kai to finish a side mission, but it doesn’t break the game by any means.  It just slow it down a bit.

Speaking of side-quests, Yo-Kai Watch Is packed with things to see and do. The town of Springdale is huge, especially considering this is a handheld game, and the residents have plenty of problems for you to help them with, whether it’s a local idol wanting a break from their fans, helping find a lost wedding ring or simply bringing someone some groceries.

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Though the sidequests themselves are of a high quality, and effect the main story in interesting ways at times, tracking them is a little trickier. You can see what side quests are currently active in your handy diary, but there are no way point marker on the map to tell you where to go (only main story missions are shown on the map). This can lead to a lot of aimless wandering, especially if you need to find a place you haven’t been before. This would be fine in a game where exploration is key, but again, like the problems with capturing Yo-Kai, it just seems to slow everything down, and ruin any kind of pacing the game had.

It’s been a long time coming (Japan is eagerly awaiting the release of Yokai-Watch 3, and North America got the game back in November), but after seeing what all the fuss is about, I am impressed. Though it’s not particularly innovative, it’s still a refreshing take on the monster-hunting genre, a fine JRPG in its own right, and has fast become one of my favourites on the 3DS. In fact, I think I like it more than Pokemon… I know, blasphemy, right?

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