You probably haven’t heard of Yokai Watch, but in Japan, this critter-catching adventure series is practically as big as Pokemon. You can see why, too, as both franchises have a surprising amount in common.
You might not be catching monsters in pokeballs, so to speak, but when befriending a Yokai earns you their medallion which can then be used to summon them in battle, it doesn’t really matter what name you give it or how you dress it up. You’re still ‘catching ’em all’, and you’re still training them to help you save the world.
Or, at least you’ll get round to doing all that eventually, as Yokai Watch takes a much more microcosmic view of adventure than your average Pokemon title. Instead of trotting the globe unearthing conspiracies and thwarting evil organisations, Yokai Watch never lets you leave the boundaries of your home town of Springdale. In fact, its series of short vignette chapters isn’t all that different from your typical anime or kids cartoon series, and as you help your friend find their mother’s lost ring or take on a dare to see if there’s any truth to those school ghost stories you’ve heard so much about, you’ll often begin to wonder exactly what it’s all leading to.
^ Activating a special attack initiates a short mini game, such as tracing certain shapes with your stylus, tapping spheres or spinning the dial to power them up
It takes a while to get going, then, but at least the wait is made all the more palatable by its beautiful art style and charming presentation. I wouldn’t say the Yokai are quite as iconic in their design or naming conventions as their Game Freak cousins, but there’s no denying that Level-5’s fluid and detailed animations make each and every battle a joy to behold.
These take place in real-time, with Yokai attacking automatically while you watch on from above. That’s not to say you don’t have any input whatsoever, though. Special attacks can be initiated at any time once your Yokai’s spirit metres are full, and you can spin round your dial of six active medallions to wheel in new monsters when others have fainted or taken a bit of a beating.
^ Feed items to enemy Yokai and they might befriend once the battle’s over, but they probably won’t
You’ll need to swap them out when Yokai are ‘inspirited’, too, which is a kind of malaise that debuffs their stats and prevents them from attacking. Spin them round into one of the three reserve slots and you can purify them with a few quick spins or tap of your stylus. Then it’s back to business as usual. It all makes for a surprisingly hectic and busy kind of combat system, and boss battles in particular are surprisingly full-on. You’re never left idle when dealing with big Yokai, and it’s arguably a lot more fun and engaging than mulling over whether to choose Thundershock or Thunderbolt in a Pokemon battle.
However, Yokai Watch isn’t without its problems, and it’s these flaws that drag it from being a potential Pokemon killer to a rather more mediocre kind of monster-battler. For instance, the only way to befriend more Yokai is to feed them healing items from your inventory during battle. However, you can’t specify which monster catches it, and there’s no way to tell whether you’ve fed them enough or even if you stand a chance of successfully earning their trust.
Instead, you simply have to wait until the battle’s finished, at which point they’ll either approach you to give you their medallion or the game will resume like normal, only with your stock of healing items feeling considerably lighter. Sometimes Yokai will even ask to be friends without you having fed them anything at all, making the whole system feel rather arbitrary. It’s certainly nowhere near as satisfying as throwing a pokeball and catching a monster there and then, and it makes building your squad feel far less personal as a result.
Its quest system is also rather flawed, as there’s no way to set additional quests as your main waypoint. This is particularly problematic when you need to upgrade your titular Yokai Watch to progress with the main story, as you’ll often be barred from entering the next area until you’ve completed its respective watch rank challenge. These sidequests have their own set of goals and monsters you need to defeat, but when the objective marker’s always pointing toward places you can’t go to yet, it can often be quite difficult to work out where you’re meant to be going next. You can switch the objective marker off if you like, but that still doesn’t really make your missions any easier to manage. Of course, it doesn’t help that the map’s next to useless either.
^ If you zoom all the way out of the map, you lose your waypoint marker altogether
Combined with its slow-burning story and frustrating befriend system, Yokai Watch all starts to become a bit tedious after a while, and it actually made me want to go back to my unfinished Pokemon quest in Alpha Sapphire rather than carry on. There’s no denying it’s a beautifully presented game, but it probably won’t make reams of Pokemon fans jump ship any time soon either. If it had a bit more action and a better capture mechanic, then Yokai Watch would have been a good stand-in for anyone looking to fill the time between now and the release of Pokemon Sun and Moon later in the year. As it currently stands, though, it just doesn’t do quite enough to truly spirit us away.