Yo-Kai Watch is a new IP from Level 5 that’s set to rival Pokémon in the “collect all the things” genre of video games. It even has its own anime show and, curiously, its own dance. It’s taken Japan enough by storm that next month already sees Yo-Kai Watch 3 over there. In the US, the TV show and the toys have been huge hits, and I think it’s only inevitable that they make their way to our shores. We’re just starting to get the first wave of this new craze, so I let the game inspirit my 3DS to see what it was all about. Come join my adventures around Springdale.

Yo-Kai Watch plays a lot like Pokémon set in a contemporary town, minus the pokéballs and sheer quantity of things to catch (the last iteration of Pokémon had over 700 different creatures, compared to Yo-Kai Watch’s meagre 200-odd). Much like Pokémon, Yo-Kai Watch has you hunting down and collecting spirits called Yo-Kai, some of which are mischievous, some of which are mean, and some of which just want to talk at you for minutes on end. Your guide through this world is a Yo-Kai called Whisper, and he happily explains everything there is to know about Yo-Kai. Thankfully, he’s not as overly chatty as some of the Yo-Kai can be (I’m looking at you, Babblong!), and his observations can quite frequently be funny.

Yo-Kai Watch (2)The Watch itself is your lens through which you interact with the Yo-Kai world, and you can use the Watch to hunt for Yo-Kai. You’ll seldom get into a random battle with a wandering Yo-Kai, and will have to search instead. Thankfully, the watch not only tells the time, but also acts as a radar and as a way of seeing the invisible creatures. As you progress through the game, you’ll eventually level up the watch to be able to find more and more powerful spirits.

The Yo-Kai themselves are the game’s way of explaining all the quirks of human activity, and then some. For example, a Yo-Kai named D’Wana would be responsible for you not wanting to do anything. Some of the Yo-Kai names give a lot of insight into what they do, but some are a complete mystery, such as Ben-Kei. You only find out what these Yo-Kai do once you befriend them and read up on them. The game also uses the existence of Yo-Kai to discuss some fairly adult themes despite the game being aimed at a much younger audience. For instance, early in the game, your character’s parents have an argument, and this argument is explained to the fault of Yo-Kai Dismerelda inspiriting—the effect a Yo-Kai has on someone—that person. And I’m not going to go near the concept that many Yo-Kai are things that were once alive but are now dead. I loved the fact that these spirits each had their own personality in Yo-Kai Watch. It’s the kind of thing that adds so much charm to a game.

Yo-Kai Watch (3)Yo-Kai that you collect can be summoned upon as friends to battle other Yo-Kai for you, but before I get into collecting Yo-Kai, I should explain the battle system. Up to six Yo-Kai can partake in a fight, and your six chosen ones are arranged in a dial on the lower screen. You can rotate the dial at any time to take advantage of each Yo-Kai’s strengths and dial out ones who are weaker in a given fight. The Yo-Kai will do their own thing based on their temperament, so while one Yo-Kai might hit the enemy with a flurry of blows or a ball of fire, another might inspirit the foe to make them slower or reduce their strength. Sometimes, a Yo-Kai will loaf around, and not fight for a few rounds. There are books you can buy to change a Yo-Kai’s temperament, so it’s not all doom and gloom if you find one that loves to sit around in a fight.

Just because they fight on their own, doesn’t mean you get to stand around. Each Yo-Kai has a special ability called “Soultimate”. You power up the ability by playing a little minigame on the lower screen, which entails either tapping tokens, drawing patterns, or spinning a spinner. Once the ability is charged, your selected Yo-Kai flings off a super-powerful move; for example, Walkappa fires off an attack called Mega Waterfall that does massive water damage to foes. Sometimes, an enemy will inspirit your Yo-Kai, which means you have to cycle them out of battle and purify them, once again with a little minigame. And then you can attempt to befriend an enemy Yo-Kai.

Making friends with a Yo-Kai entails throwing their favourite food at them. Thing is, except for trial and error (or the dubious method of internet forum), you’ve no idea about which food a given Yo-Kai wants. Come across a Tengloom? Good…want to befriend him? Do you give him custard bread? A rice ball? A piece of chewing gum? Milk? And even once you’ve given it what it wants, there’s no guarantee that it’ll befriend you, and you’ll just have defeated a very satisfied Yo-Kai, which means that should you want to try again, you have to run around looking for another of its ilk. It gets frustrating very quickly. It’s not the same as tossing Pokéballs at a half-dead Pokémon and seeing if it stays caught, that’s for certain.

Yo-Kai Watch (1)Strangely, there’s no overarching story here in Yo-Kai Watch, and your adventures in Springdale are related in discrete chapter-by-chapter affairs. This made little sense to me initially until I went and watched the cartoon that should eventually make its way to DSTV (not sure whether it’s going to be Cartoon Network or DisneyXD). Each chapter tends to have a different focus, but there’s nothing forcing you to go out and follow the story, either. I liked this open-endedness, because running around and exploring Springdale is just such a delight. I have to applaud the amount of life in Springdale. You can stop and chat to just about everyone, and there are all kinds of buildings and shops that you’d expect to find in any medium-sized town, from the post office to a car dealership to a bakery to the train station to clothing shops. The denizens of Springdale are all too happy to send you off on assorted missions, or ask you for favours. Some of these are plain old fetch quests, but a good number of these favours and missions require you to befriend very specific Yo-Kai. This gets frustrating when you realize there’s no way to reliably befriend a given Yo-Kai.

All of this gets complicated even further by the addition of Terror Time, based on a warning given to children who disobey their parents. This occurs randomly as far as I could tell, and your character is pulled into an alternate dimension version of the town. A massive demon, or Oni, stalks the streets, with his various minions looking for you, and you simply have to make it to the exit door to escape. The streets are also dotted with red treasure chests holding incredibly rare items. The payoff once you get these items is huge, but if you’re caught by the Oni and defeated, you lose all the stuff you’ve collected. Terror Time doesn’t happen a lot, but it offered an intriguing, if slightly terrifying, change of pace.

Yo-Kai Watch (1)Yo-Kai Watch is aimed at a younger audience (my kids LOVED it and couldn’t get enough of it), but it was still a fun game for those of us who enjoy Level 5’s productions, and collection games in particular. The game and TV show are already crazily popular enough to warrant two sequels in Japan (no word on whether they’ll make it westward), and I can understand why: Springdale feels alive in a way that few games manage, and Level 5 is a master of this. It’s by no means perfect, but for a first outing, it’s a scintillating effort.

Yo-Kai watch score