I was going to try and set an arbitrary challenge for this review and see how long I could go without either comparing Yo-Kai Watch to Pokemon, or referencing Pokemon when talking about the game. But then I realized that's all but impossible, so I decided to nix that idea completely.
What's fascinating about Yo-Kai Watch is that its overall design says less about itself and more about Pokemon and that series' huge fan base. Pokemon has grown up with its players. What began as a children's game, that, to be fair, was already far more complex than many give it credit, has evolved (no pun intended) into a complex, surprisingly competitive, series that manages to bridge the gap between hardcore players and the more casually-oriented fans that just want to mess around and catch cool-looking monsters.
Yo-Kai Watch is seems almost like a reset button for Nintendo. A chance to appeal towards a younger group of fans that haven't had the two decades worth of experience learning about and playing Pokemon.
Functionally, it's a similar game. You play as a young boy or girl who discovers that a host of otherwise invisible creatures called Yo-Kai inhabit everyday life. With the help of a Yo-Kai Watch, your character is able to befriend and recruit these creatures and deploy them in battle against opposing Yo-Kai. Anybody that's played Level 5's previous game, Ni-No-Kuni, will be right at home here. In fact, a large amount of the game's mechanics and general gameplay feel like a holdover from that game, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Like Ni-No-Kuni the game's world is a joy to explore. Given that it's set in the real world, there's a grounded sense to a lot of Yo-Kai Watch's gameplay. You explore side streets and old shrines to root out hidden Yo-Kai, and even have to cross the road safely if you don't want to be attacked by an angry (and rather high level) monster. Many of the games episodic chapters have a general problem such as your dad forgetting his work papers, or your family arguing, all of which is usually caused by some Yo-Kai mischief.
Unfortunately, whilst the world-building and writing are on point the gameplay of Yo-Kai Watch is what ultimately lets it down. Like with Ni-No-Kuni, the player has a rather limited control over what's happening during the minute to minute gameplay. During combat, your Yo-Kai critters don't feel like they're under your command, which, whilst perhaps keeping in theme with their personalities, makes for a frustrating RPG experience.
You assemble a team of six Yo-Kai which are there inserted into the titular Yo-Kai Watch, with three comprising your active party and three being held in reserve. Yo-Kai attack and defend by themselves, with you only having a tangential control over what they actually do. Each monster has its own attitude and personality which dictates both how they behave in battle and what stats are prioritised upon level up, much like the natures in Pokemon. The only move you have control over is a Yo-Kai's “Soultimate” attack, which involves doing a simple mini-game such as tracing lines, or hitting orbs with the stylus, on the lower screen of the 3DS.
Your party members can be moved in and out of battle at any moment by rotating your collection of six Yo-Kai. There's a basic strategic concept here, with the game encouraging you to switch from defensive Yo-Kai and Yo-Kai that “inspirit” (inflict buffs or debuffs) to more aggressive monsters when the time is right. Furthermore, enemy inspirit attacks force you to move the afflicted unit to the back row in order to purify them with some more simple stylus mini-games. This all makes for a game that focuses less on the actual monster battling and more on your reactions, as you rapidly flip your team back and further before unleashing an ultimate move or two. It's fun in small doses, and the overall tactile nature of the system makes it clear it was designed with younger fans in mind.
It doesn't change the fact however, that the actual core of the monster combat is dictated by the whims of RNG. Nothing feels more hopeless than in the middle of a crucial fight having your monster loaf around doing nothing, or your healing Yo-Kai suddenly decide it wants to start attacking.
As if in response to this, Level 5 simply make the game remarkably easy. Rarely will a mob of enemies prove too much of a problem, even if you use the basic Yo-Kai that the game doles at as part of the story. Should you explore, and play a few of the numerous, and, frankly, repetitive side quests, or dabble in the (rather basic) monster fusion system which comes available later on, then things will be even easier.
Yo-Kai Watch has great production values and was clearly developed with care. However, so much of it is random and repetitive that it pales in comparison to other RPG series. Nintendo are clearly banking on Yo-Kai Watch being a success. It's already beaten recent Pokemon game sales in Japan, and it seems like the company is hoping it'll be able to do the same overseas, especially with the release of the anime series alongside it.
There's plenty of promise with Yo-Kai Watch, there's elements of a great RPG buried within here. What we're given though is a rather muddled, with an underdeveloped combat system and monster-catching element that has next to no strategy attached to it.
The answer to this, though, will likely be “it's just for kids”. Pokemon was also aimed at kids and had a far more deep and complex mechanics from its inception. There's still room for the Yo-Kai series to grow, which is hopefully what the series will do. There's already two more games in the core series to be released outside of Japan and hopefully they've expanded upon the combat mechanics.
As for this release though, it's only likely to keep the least demanding RPG fan occupied.