Sunday, January 10, 2016

Press Start: Yokai Watch review

Image source: Yokai Watch Wiki
Developers: Level 5
Publisher: Level 5, Nintendo
Genre: RPG
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

While Japan is mobile country for gaming right now, there’s no denying that handhelds still have a firm grip on Japanese gamers. Several 3DS games in Japan have broken one million sales, a true accomplishment for any game. One such game was Yokai Watch, which cleared 1.2 million sales by November 2014. Yokai Watch has since become a video game juggernaut in Japan, spawning several sequels, spinoffs, and a successful anime. Yokai Watch has only recently been brought over to the west, but plans to localize its sequel are already being hinted at. Is the franchise onto something, or is it just a Japanese head scratcher? Let’s find out.

Story and Concept
In the world of Yokai Watch, everyday occurrences are caused by the presence of spirits called yokai. Suddenly forget your keys? Lose your cellphone signal? A yokai is probably behind it. One summer, your player character (default name Nathan/Katie) is discovered by a benevolent yokai named Whisper, who gives him/her a watch that allows them to see and communicate with spirits that would otherwise be invisible. With a whole new world opened up, the hero and his/her new “yokai butler” embark on a summer adventure, befriending and fighting various yokai.

The concept of Yokai Watch is a solid one. The idea that everyday problems, big or small, is the result of creatures we cannot see has potential, as well as giving an ordinary kid the ability to see and communicate with the supernatural. However, the actual story of the game is underwhelming. It’s an adventure story with episodic elements, but none of the stories are very compelling. There’s very little in the way of an overarching plot for the first 20 hours of the game. It doesn’t help that the characters, outside of the player character and Whisper, is weak. The concept is good, but it’s marred by a story meant exclusively for kids.

Graphics and Design
Speaking from the graphical department, Yokai Watch is pretty impressive. The world is fairly detailed and very colorful, giving it a vibrant feel. The true stars in the graphical department, however, are the yokai. While small, they are very well designed, with each hitting the note they aim for. There are many recolors of previous yokai, but many of them are rarer, more powerful variety of more common yokai, which I think works. The framerate is steady and fluid throughout most of the game, which really helps when exploring Yokai Watch’s large world. The game is colorful, impressive for the 3DS, and s cute without crossing into saccharine territory.

Music and Sound
The music in Yokai Watch falls just shy of great. Many of the songs in the soundtrack make use of “spooky” sound effects, giving it an unique edge. The songs themselves are fairly catchy (especially the bike theme), and the field themes in general are all excellent. The voice acting in the game is quite good too, although there are few scenes that show the voice talent off to a major extent. Yokai Watch is a great sounding game, and had all the tunes been as catchy as the bike theme, then the soundtrack would be one of the best on the 3DS.

I’m aware that pretty much every review of Yokai Watch has made the comparison between it and Pokemon. And yes, the game is very similar to Pokemon. But Pokemon is also very similar to Shin Megami Tensei, as is Yokai Watch. If anything, Yokai Watch resembles SMT more than Pokemon, and that’s fine, because it puts its own spin on the monster battling formula.

Yokai Watch involves the player traveling the city of Springdale, using their watch to find otherwise hidden Yokai to battle and recruit. Battles are three-on-three fights, with the Yokai acting according to their nature. Depending on their nature, they will attack, cast spells, or possess other yokai to buff or debuff them. You can also change your party while in battle with the wheel on the touch screen. You can also use your watch to trigger super moves (called Soultimate Moves), purify a possessed party member, order your party members to target a specific enemy, or use items.

The battle system is the best part of Yokai Watch. While your yokai act on their own, the game is still surprisingly strategic, as your input in battle as well as party planning can easily change the outcomes of battles. By influencing your yokai in and out of battle, you can craft your ideal party, and what order you put them in makes a world of difference in combat. The elemental system adds to this, as certain attacks deal more damage to certain yokai. While this won’t make a battle impossible, a difficult fight much easier if you know your opponent’s weakness. Yokai Watch’s battle system may not involve you making all your yokai’s decisions, but it’s still very involving, and encourage active team management outside of battle.

Like in SMT, you can convince yokai to join you. Your primary way of swaying yokai is with food; feed a yokai their favorite food, and they are likely to join you after the battle. You can also convince them by beating them easily, though this is much less effective without feeding them. This way of recruitment is adequate, but can be very frustrating. It’s often a trial and error process to find out what their favorite food is, and even then, it's still a crapshoot if they join you or not. Trying many times and wasting many items just to get one yokai is frustrating, especially if you want to collect them all. I once tried well over fifteen times to convince a certain yokai to join me, wasting tons of items and cash. That being said, recruiting yokai can also be satisfying, especially if you finally recruit a yokai you’ve been looking for.

The game has a few other flaws as well, with one of the biggest being Terror Time. At random parts every in-game day, the player will be trapped in a nightmare realm being pursued by ogres. If you are caught, you must rush to the exit before the biggest ogre catches you and beats your team to a bloody pulp. These events are often come out of nowhere, forcing you to stop whatever you were doing and run to the exit all away across the map. It’s a nerve wracking experience, and it completely disrupts the experience of the game.

Aside from the recruitment process and Terror Time, though, most of my other criticisms are nitpicks. The fusion mechanic, for example, feels shallow when compared to games like Dragon Quest Monsters or SMT, but it’s still serviceable. The bug catching and fishing minigames aren’t the best designed, but they are entirely optional. The game does not have that many big faults, and even with some smaller annoyances, it doesn’t come close  to outweighing the bad.

Yokai Watch may be a kids game, but it’s still very enjoyable. With pleasant visuals, enjoyable music, and a great combat system, Yokai Watch manages to hold its own against games like Pokemon and SMT. It has a few flaws, but nothing that will make you want to put the game down in disgust.

7.5/10 - Really Good

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