Hey, that Apple wrist thing? Yeah, that can’t help discover ghosts, now can it?
Let’s be honest: The vast majority of noteworthy RPGs can be overwhelming and discouraging to new players. For major franchises like Final Fantasy (whatever you might think of the more recent entries), the Shin Megami Tensei masterpieces (I need you in my life, Persona 5!), Etrian Odyssey's complete disregard for a player’s ego, it can be daunting to jump in and it always kind of has been. But after the success—and quality—of the first Pokémon titles, there have been more and more alternatives that aren’t so scary or intimidating. Especially on portable devices, so you’re not tied to a plugged-in screen for so many hours at a clip.
Enter Level-5 and Yo-Kai Watch, the kind of game that can help you remember how much fun those early Pokémon games were. The Yo-Kai are a unique, random, 200+ collection of different… well, ghosts/spirits that inhabit the world, and they’re the reason behind so many minor annoyances of everyday life—everything from forgetting important papers for work to causing that sudden cold at work (not the one that leads to Netflix binging either, the bad kind). Not everybody knows they’re there, so that world is invisible to the majority of people. But not you, player. You have the Yo-Kai Watch, what looks like a mix between a Power Rangers communicator from 1993 and one of those things that the magician spun around to hypnotize your cousin at that show that time.
The watch itself only displays the Yo-Kai. You still have to defeat it. And by “you” I mean “your Yo-Kai”, because like Pokemon, the Yo-Kai you have befriended along the journey will be doing the fighting for you. In what might be one of the most hectic JRPG battle systems I know of, Yo-Kai do the fighting independent of the player, while the player can use items or select any available special attacks to help in combat. Battles are usually three-on-three, but while they may have three, you have six to use in battle; only three at a time, but you can rotate your Yo-Kai watch to spin in your other three, or two of those three, or even just one.
Spinning that wheel of Yo-Kai allows for defending some that might have taken too much abuse, or are “Inspirited” which weakens them,while allowing the fight to continue. When you’re getting overpowered, simply turn the wheel, “Purify” those Yo-Kai (using the touchscreen to poke bubbles, spin the screen, or tap repeatedly to “break” the barrier), maybe use an item to power up or recover energy or just plan a new attack strategy. Likewise, you can activate a “Soultimate” attack unique to each character (only one per character), either to do larger-than-normal damage or to Inspirit your opponents into slowing down or harming themselves. It sounds more complex than it really is, and in practice, it keeps fighting busy and the fights themselves fresh.
The Yo-Kai themselves are all kinds of random. Again, like Pokémon they all look to be a combination of consciousness and either animals or normally-inanimate objects—cats, skeletons, demons, even a round bathroom mirror make up the ranks. Hell, early on you have what appears to be a tiny old Japanese woman fighting you, before joining your team (if you choose to keep her, which I recommend). All of them even have wacky names a la Dragon Quest monsters: Buhu is a sad-looking bird, Wazzat is a monster bent on memory loss, and Snotsolong is a bird with… long snot. That last one I kinda wish I was kidding about, but I’m not. At all.
And, nearly all of the Yo-Kai—yet again like Pokémon—have at least one evolved form as well. Once they reach a certain level you can choose to let them evolve, which changes their Soultimate attack along with their appearance. This can change your entire strategy in battle, so it’s not as simple as Squirtle beefing up into Wartortle with the same moveset but better stats, but more like Caterpie becoming Metapod. And that’s everybody.
Each of those character names, from the funny to the… well, Snotsolong, are indicative of the wordplay throughout the story. Nothing about this game is taken too seriously, from the cheeky characters poking fun at each other to the silly puns (both for names and in dialogue). One character that eats dreams, for example, was speaking to my protagonist and promised not to eat them, but did point out how delicious faces were when doing so. The tongue-and-cheek nature makes me question just who this game is for; I appreciate it, but I have a dark sense of humor, and for a game rated E10+—even though many kids may not get all of the jokes—it comes off more adult the more often those jokes come up.
When it’s for the kids, there are bound to be some heavy-handed “for kids” messages as well. Getting a happy little chime when you press the button at a crosswalk before crossing the street, talking to an Inspirited student about how healthy food will make them feel better (by the way, I’m writing this after finishing most of a large pizza by myself, so what does “healthy” mean, anyway?), it feels like what that “hip” camp counselor would try to tell campers while wearing his hat on sideways. When it’s balanced with arguing parents who are likewise inspirited and talk about death—these are ghosts, after all, some of them more ghostly than others—the messages can feel unfocused even when they’re funny.
That’s a minor pet-peeve, though. Like I said, at least they’re funny. What isn't funny are the occasional necessary quests to move ahead with the main story. Later story portions require the upgrading of your Yo-Kai watch, but instead of helping to point at all where to go to fill the requirements, some locations are a guessing game, sending you all over the map until you vaguely figure out the general location of one or another required bad guys. What’s more bothersome is that the required mission is still and always the focus, so while you search around for needed requirements, there’s a constant arrow pointing to where you “need” to go. It’s less helpful and more sarcastic when you can’t change the focus of your mission to what actually needs to be done.
There are some little things that break up the main game, like the Yo-Kai Cam, which takes advantage of the 3DS camera to take pictures of you and your friends with random Yo-Kai characters, and Terror Time which seems to happen at random when playing during night sequences, involving the streets flooded with demons with the goal of getting rare and unusual items without getting discovered until you can escape. But they’re only additions to the main game, and have no concrete bearing on the way anything will play out. I mostly found the chase of Terror Time to be annoying when it did happen, due to the entirely unnecessary nature of it; the tension to run and hide is there, but it just isn’t interesting. The Yo-Kai Cam is fun, though, and taking more pictures can earn you prizes in-game which is a nice addition.
By and large these are all minor gripes. The battle system is a lot of frenetic fun, the writing is sharp, and visually the game is that Level-5 cel-shaded colorful anime that looks fantastic. The 3D is unnecessary, but they appear to have learned from what was irritating in a game like LBX (recent as it was) and really worked to smooth out the rough and awkward edges. Aside from a few clumsy design choices, mostly regarding side mission requirements and scrounging around awkwardly for the few required missions, Yo-Kai Watch is a charming gem that’s only helping bolster the claim that fun and full RPG experiences are only getting better on portable hardware. And it’s a great and action-ish way to invite newer RPG players into the party without entirely scaring away the more hardcore fans. Just because it’s cute and funny doesn’t mean it doesn’t get tense, like seeing a g-g-g-GHOOOOOOST!