We're more than a little in love with developers Level-5 here at Everybody Plays - probably best known for their work on the puzzling Professor Layton series, they're one of our favouritest Japanese developers, and certainly seem to have the Midas touch. While we very much like solving puzzles with the esteemed Layton and Luke, it's their role-playing games that really do it for us - the Dragon Quests, the Studio Ghibli-inspired Ni No Kuni and the workaholic Fantasy Life. Now comes their take on a monster collecting game (although it's still a world away from Pokemon), Yo-Kai Watch - an adorable take on the supernatural beings, spirits or demons from Japanese folklore.
If ever something goes wrong in your life, you may think it's just an unfortunate coincidence (or that berk who lives down the road - everything's his fault) - but in the world of Yo Kai Watch, it's just the Yo-Kai causing mischief. Whether it's a pedestrian crossing on the blink, a stolen comic book or a missing pair of lucky undies, it's a fairly safe bet there'll be a meddlesome Yo-Kai behind it. The story starts with a bit of a bug hunt, when you stumble across an old, abandoned capsule machine that's (somehow) calling out for help. No sooner have you put your money in the slot, than out pops the friendly Yo-Kai ghost-come-butler, Whisper, who slaps a mysterious Yo-Kai watch on your arm, and starts following you around like a little lost puppy. Now with the ability to see, tame and battle the meddlesome Yo-Kai, it falls to you to straighten out the strange goings on in town.
Framed as a kid's summer holiday adventure, Yo-Kai Watch sees you running around the Springdale streets, talking to the inhabitants and helping them out with their problems. Whether it's part of the main story, a side quest or a random request, most play out fairly similarly - locate the troublesome Yo-Kai and give them a walloping, at which point they'll run off with their tail between their legs, hopefully staying out of trouble for a while. But as Yo-Kai are essentially invisible to the naked eye, you'll need the help of your titular Yo-Kai watch if you want to track them down - simply follow your little hot/cold meter in the top left corner until it starts maxing out in the red. From there, you either need to examine nearby objects for a hidden Yo-Kai, or switch to your 'Yo-Kai Lens' tool and scan the environment until you get a hit. Battle commences, and once defeated, the Yo-Kai in question may or may not join your cause, at which point you'll be able to be train them up, and use them to battle other errant Yo-Kai, a la Pokemon.
About the only thing we're not entirely convinced about with Yo-Kai watch are its battles. Kind of like trying to spin plates, rub your stomach and pat your head all at once, Yo-Kai battling is a heck of a lesson in co-ordination, especially at first. Much like Pokemon, you have a team of six critters you can take into battle at once, but this is about as far as the similarities go. For starters, your Yo-Kai team are arranged on a wheel, with three in front in the fray and three in reserve, loafing around at the back. By rotating the wheel, you can switch which Yo-Kai are in battle at any one time, but as they're effectively fixed in place within the confines of the wheel, you can't simply swap one injured Yo-Kai out for another, and instead have to shuffle your whole party to the left or right, sometimes even completely changing your active squad in the process.
But what is perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Yo-Kai Watch's battles is that you actually have relatively little input when it comes to what your little beasties do. Each Yo-Kai attacks on their own schedule, on auto-pilot, and you only can only really "modify" their battle strategy, rather than tell them explicitly what do, by choosing one of four different actions. First and foremost are the Yo-Kai's Soultimate moves - special attacks which take a while to charge, but do some impressive damage to your foes. Executing these requires you to complete a short Touch Screen mini-game, be it popping a series of bubbles, spinning a vortex or tracing some shapes in order to power it up. Every so often, enemy Yo-Kai will hit you with an 'Inspirited' status effect, which prevents the character in question from moving; by spinning your party wheel round to take the Inspirited Yo-Kai from the front-line, you can then use the Purify option to lift the effect, again after completing a short Touch Screen mini-game first. The remaining two options let you Target a specific Yo-Kai, focussing your party's attacks on a particular enemy, and use Items to heal, befriend enemies and lift status effects mid-battle.
It's a strange feeling to have battles where you don't actually get to battle, but for the most part your Yo-Kai seem to do a commendable job of taking out the bad guys, and your hands are kept fairly full with healing and special attacking throughout. However, boss battles can be a bit of a trial, and become more of an exercise in damage management than strategy - because not being able to give even vague strategies to your Yo-Kai becomes more problematic the harder your enemies and longer the battles last. In one such battle, against a pig-like boss who'd stolen someone's lucky pair of pants (and who doesn't have some of those?), we lost four of our six Yo-Kai through a combination of high damage, unblockable enemy attacks; the need to constantly shuffle our party around to cure Inspirited Yo-Kai; and the fact our main healer, Tattletell, seemed to want to do anything but heal. Such awkwardness could easily be avoided without losing the autonomous nature of the Yo-Kai by simply giving you a few different 'strategies' to pick from in battle, as being able to switch from offensive and defensive move-sets would be a big help.
But one aspect of the world of Yo-Kai Watch only becomes apparent quite a few hours in - somewhat strangely, the game is a stickler for rules, and actually 'punishes' you for breaking them. Much like Everybody Plays ill-fated first outing to Cologne, you can get in serious trouble in-game if you don't cross at designated crossings, or get too impatient to wait for the little green man. But instead of a couple of German coppers issuing you with a fine (one of the only places in Cologne to accept credit cards, fact fans), if you do it too many times, you'll get attacked by a rather powerful Yo-Kai, and will likely get defeated and lectured by Yo-Kai Watch's own version of Resetti. Another way the game punishes you is through Terror Time, a nightmarish change of pace from Yo-Kai Watch's more happy-go-lucky main game. Legend has it that those kiddies who don't behave may find themselves trapped within Terror Time, being chased through the darkened streets by a formidable Oni monster - which is why you should always make sure you don't stay out past your bedtime.
Essentially a stealth game of sorts, Terror Time sees you trapped in the streets, with the aforementioned Oni and about a billion of his minions traipsing around town. It then falls to you to you to get from your starting point to the exit without being detected, perhaps stopping to snoop for a few treasure chests if you dare. As soon as one of the minions catches you, he'll raise the alarm for the big guy, and a-stomping after you he will come - at which point you're essentially dead, because you can't run fast enough, or for long enough, to avoid the Oni for an appreciable amount of time - and should you get caught, and end up in a battle, his one hit kill attacks will make short work of your team. Depending on how you feel about sneaky sneaks sections, Terror Time will either be a cute little diversion or your biggest issue with the game.
In spite of its flaws, Yo-Kai Watch is still an adorably fun game - Pokemon, but with a distinctive Level-5 flair (the studio behind the likes of Ni No Kuni, Fantasy Life and Professor Layton), it's definitely worth investigating. Jam-packed full of humorous and pun-tastic writing, hundreds of adorable (and not-so-adorable) Yo-Kai to discover, and tons of quests to keep you busy, it's a fairly substantial adventure too, even if a weird obsession with rules and lacklustre battles keep it from reaching its full potential.