I recently tried out the first Yo-Kai Watch game, out of curiosity for what the rest of the mons scene is doing.
My most important takeaway is that anyone who says Yo-Kai Watch is trying to copy or replace Pokemon has clearly not only never played the game but never played any other mons game either and probably thinks Pokemon has a copyright on the genre. The two franchises share a target audience, but otherwise they could not be more different. Yokai talk and are presented as distinct characters, yokai cannot be commanded, and most shockingly of all, the protagonist isn’t silent!
As for the game itself, it is a godawful grindy mess that can barely be called a game. But it has some interesting ideas, and I enjoyed the creature designs.
There is basically no gameplay in this game. Yokai fight automatically according to a basic AI with no input from you, so you can quite literally win battles by doing nothing. (There is even a speed-up button to facilitate this.) The only actions you can take are to use items, cure their status ailments through an action-command minigame, activate their supermoves, and swap out your active and reserve yokai. However, the game is so easy that you’ll rarely have to do any of that outside of boss fights. Supermoves can basically clear a regular encounter in one use, but regular attacks will usually hand you victory pretty quick too.
The befriending mechanics are even worse. I did not think they could make Pokemon‘s mechanics worse, but wow, after playing this I am amazed at how much I took for granted.
So, because yokai get to be treated like people, you don’t recruit them by shoving them in capsules until they’re too tired to break out. Instead, they have a random chance of approaching you after a battle and saying they like the cut of your jib, so they’ll agree to be summoned by you any time you need them. This is very cute and raises far fewer questions than Pokemon‘s version. It is also absolutely terrible as a gameplay mechanic. You can do exactly three things to improve your chances: Throw food at them during the battle, use a yokai with a special ability that makes befriending more likely, and, very rarely, if the battle drags out long enough, you might get a befriending bonus as one of many possible random drops from an event that occurs in the middle of battle. You can only feed a yokai once per battle, you will only know if you’ve befriended them after the battle is over, and you can only befriend one yokai per battle (out of a possible three). There is absolutely nothing you can do to actively pursue befriending; there is no action you can take in battle that makes it easier like Pokemon’s status effects, you cannot keep burning items to increase your chances, you can’t even drag the battle out because yokai will attack automatically. To make this even worse, you can’t even easily farm encounters like you can in Pokemon, as yokai only appear in specific spots and only one can appear there at a time (if one appears at all!). If you fail to befriend one yokai, you may not encounter it again for some time. (This was the case for me with Happierre, who the game seems to expect you to get quite early, but I never could because he only appears in one very tiny location and if you whiff it, good luck finding him again. Ugh.)
The yokaidex also has really baffling organization. Instead of being numbered by order of encounter like in Pokemon, each type of yokai has its own separate section of the list, and they’re ordered seemingly arbitrarily. Your starting yokai is smack dab in the middle of the list, and I don’t believe it’s possible to encounter entry #1 until the second area. Yokai are also grouped by “family” like in Pokemon, except that the evolution mechanics here are extremely bizarre and inconsistent; usually you have to fuse two specific yokai (or sometimes, a yokai and an extremely rare item you may never even know exists cuz random drops lol), except very rarely you can just level them, not that the game tells you which is which. The game in fact encourages you to constantly replace your team because yokai all have tiered power levels like in Shin Megami Tensei, so you have no reason to keep an outdated yokai in your party long enough for them to evolve through level in the first place. It’s just an absolute mess. What was the logic behind this, seriously?
To add insult to injury, they apparently looked at event pokemon and said, “You know what our mons game needs? More of those.” There are an absurd number of yokai who can only be obtained through extremely rare in-game events and gacha machine results, and an even larger number who can only be encountered in the postgame. Seriously, I finished the game without even seeing more than half the total yokai. Why??? I genuinely could not believe the final boss was really the end of the game, just because I had barely scratched the surface of the dex.
So yeah. As an RPG, this was a huge disappointment, and as a collection game, it was a constant exercise in frustration and futility. I know Pokemon has lots of room for improvement, but wow, it’s like they surgically removed everything it managed to do right.
As for the plot, it’s more involved than most Pokemon games, but only just. Every quest is: Something happens that is obviously yokai mischief. “I know this is crazy, but hear me out: Could this incredibly weird and abnormal thing happening in a game called Yo-Kai Watch be happening… because of yokai???” says Exposition Fairy. You walk five steps/talk to someone who is very obviously possessed. “Aha, my Yokai Senses are tingling! A yokai is doing a bad thing!” says Exposition Fairy. “Oh, no, that’s bad, we need to stop them!” says Generic Video Game Protagonist. And then you beat the yokai until they stop doing bad things. Repeat times 100.
Seriously, every single freaking time the protagonists are COMPLETELY SHOCKED that a yokai is once again the reason this NPC is literally covered in evil purple smoke because what is subtlety. Why do fantasy stories do this. Why. Stop wasting my time.
And yes, there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of “the spooky goblin man made me do it”. Literally the tutorial quest is the protagonist’s parents having a fight, and you solve it by beating up the “makes couples fight” yokai that’s taken up residence in your living room. It’s… okay for a simple kids’ story, I guess, and maybe it comes across differently in a Japanese context, but yikes.
Then all of a sudden at the very end you learn that the Yokai Evil Chancellor, who evilly took over after the Good and Noble Yokai King died, is responsible for all the yokai acting up, so you go into the yokai world and beat him up to the tune of a Power of Friendship Speech™ and I could not care less because I was introduced to the guy five minutes ago. So we can’t even expect RPGs to have moderately better writing than action games anymore.
They also make the very confusing decision to have a voiced protagonist, despite not giving the protagonist any personality or backstory or agency or anything that would justify giving him a voice in the first place. He is a completely ordinary kid with a completely generic protagonist personality. He either says exactly what I was thinking, in which case I’m just annoyed I have to read through redundant dialogue, or he says something very slightly different, in which case I’m jarred out of the experience because SCREW YOU GAME YOU DON’T SPEAK FOR ME. They don’t even have a practical reason for it, because they have an exposition fairy! I thought the entire point of exposition fairies is to provide information a silent protagonist can’t, but instead it just means every cutscene takes twice as long because I have to sit through my avatar metalgearing everything the exposition fairy says.
I wonder if they originally were intending to go with a silent protagonist, but changed it at some point for… some reason?
The silver lining here is the yokai themselves. It is… really the only redeeming feature. The yokai all have absolutely delightful designs, and because they don’t have to be ostensibly bound by real ecology, they can go completely wild without it feeling out of place. Thanks to the fact they talk and are treated like real characters, I’m not at all bothered by how many of them are human-like, and nor do we have to ask the question of where they’re getting their tools and accessories. But the animal yokai are wonderful as well, and despite how varied the designs are they all felt like they had a clear, consistent aesthetic. I really enjoyed discovering new yokai and analyzing all the little details in them.
And yes, I thought the punny names were hilarious. Because the overall tone is less serious than Pokemon, they can have so much more fun with them without it feeling like breaking character. I particularly got a chuckle out of “Heeheel” and “Fishpicable” — the fish yokai in general were on-point.
Additionally, though the actual plots of the quests are deep as puddles, I did enjoy how many of them used yokai in such varied ways. In addition to stopping yokai who are influencing people to behave badly, there are also quests where you need to bring in a yokai to influence someone positively, such as giving someone the motivation to do something they’re apprehensive about or discouraging someone from an unhealthy obsession. Several quests even involve using a yokai you had to stop in another quest. There’s even one where you use a yokai to influence someone, only for them to take it too far, requiring you to stop the yokai you summoned in order to put things back to normal. It certainly raises some interesting ethical questions that the game could have acknowledged a bit more than just in that one quest, but overall I thought it was a clever use of the concept and did an excellent job of reinforcing that yokai aren’t just a purely negative force, but a part of nature we can coexist with.
So many of the mechanics I complained about really do make sense from a lore perspective — the game completely avoids the ethical quandaries raised by Pokemon, and I never at any point felt like I was exploiting my yokai partners or doing anything selfish, even despite the same “gotta catch ’em all” element. Yokai explicitly consent to joining your team; you recruit them by paying attention to what foods they like and showing you are willing to make a real sacrifice to provide for them; and there’s none of that stasis capsule nonsense either, yokai friends basically give you the equivalent of a calling card and are only summoned when you need them. (You can actually talk to several recruitable yokai who have fixed hangout spots in the city, which I liked.) Similarly, it makes sense that you shouldn’t be able to control their every action. These things just happen to be really unfun game mechanics. But it does make me think that Pokemon could stand to take some lessons from this franchise… just not the ones they actually did. Stop trying to steal their aesthetic, Pokemon, your distinct brand is what makes you strong.