Monday, November 16, 2015

Yo-Kai Watch » Game Review

"Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile, eggshell mind."

— Jim Morrison

At turns cute, creepy, funny, unnerving, and joyful, Yo-Kai Watch has popped up on the lighthearted gaming scene in an attempt to snatch the crown long held by Pokémon.

"An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself."

— Charles Dickens

A recap — it's been nearly twenty years since Pokémon's first release in 1996.  The longevity of the franchise speaks for itself —Pokémon is a gaming phenomenon and a multi-generational hit.  The "pocket monsters" have enjoyed a good, long reign worldwide.  In Japan, however, Yo-Kai Watch has been rising to become a standout franchise, and it's starting to raise cultural eyebrows, especially for its resemblance to Pokémon.

Like Pokémon, Yo-Kai Watch is distributed by Nintendo on the gaming level.  Not until November 2015, however, has the world been able to get its hands on an English version of the 3DS game.
“Ghosts...Sometimes they come uninvited.”

― Stephen King, Bag of Bones

The storyline of Yo-Kai Watch follows Nate, a young boy, although the game also provides a female character option (which is what I chose).  Your main character is a painfully ordinary kid, until you get your mitts on a watch that allows you to see the spirits, or yo-kai,  all around us.  You have a run-in with Whisper, the most traditional looking ghost in the game, who appoints himself as your butler.  Whisper pushes you to start befriending yo-kai, who at first seem creepy to your character, and also a little annoying. Pretty soon, you're embroiled in a mission to keep the balance between the human and spirit worlds stable.

Comparisons have been drawn from Yo-Kai Watch to Pokémon because in both games you run around a map and 'collect' little monsters, battling them to grow more powerful.  That's where the similarities end, though.  The more I played Yo-Kai Watch, the philosophical differences between it and Pokémon grew more and more stark to me.

Pokémon's storylines are very much journeys centered on the individual.  Your character departs home at the beginning of
each game in order to go on a personal quest — to become the top pokémon trainer and to catch 'em all. Your pokémon collection does all the grunt work for you so you can achieve your goals. The anime (TV show) focuses on teamwork, but that message doesn't really come across in the game, especially in the earlier titles.

My brother and I are big Pokémon fans, but through the years we've laughed about the enslavement and pit-fighting undertones of the game.  As PETA has pointed out, (see their online game, Black and Blue,) Pokémon is kind of an
animal rights fiasco.  You capture creatures, pit them against each other, and let them whale on each other until they faint.  Then you put them in a computer for long-term storage.  There are some issues with subtext there, to say the least.
"Ghosts aren't dogs.  They don't come when you call them."

— Meg Cabot, Reunion

In Yo-Kai Watch, however, you 'befriend' ghosts.  You have to earn each spirit's respect and admiration before they grant you with their medallion, which lets you call on them at any time.  Otherwise, they're off running free, going about their afterlives. There's still the battle aspect, but the whole thing just feels more kosher because of the voluntary enlistment.

In addition to making as many diverse spirit friends as possible, you also have over 100 side quests to accomplish, apart from the main storyline.  These quests are largely acts of community service and personal favors, like cleaning up trash on a beach and running errands for infirm grannies. Yo-Kai Watch very clearly has a strong, central message supporting friendship,  generosity, and selflessness that sets it apart from similar titles.

"Wanna play?"

—Chuckie, Child's Play

Another aspect of the game that draws a distinction from Pokémon is the battle system.  There's a steep learning  curve and it takes some getting used to. You actually need tools beyond thumbs of fury to play. The game-makers really utilized the bottom touch screen of the 3DS. You will need a stylus — or, as I used, a PaperMate mechanical pencil.

You can hold six yo-kai medallions at once, and three yo-kai are on the front line of battle at any given time.  Your six yo-kai are on a wheel that you rotate with your stylus to bring up different line-ups. Your yo-kai attack and defend with basic maneuvers automatically.   This is weird at first, but good, since you'll be busy watching their gauges, using items, and playing brief mini-games to counter enemy attacks and to unlock powerful moves.

My biggest initial complaint was that things were so frenetic, I couldn't look everywhere at once.  This gets easier with time — the pace doesn't get slower, but your eyes do get faster.  Once you get the hang of it, the battles aren't hard, but it's definitely more challenging than Pokémon.  With the stylus in play, you have to give up a certain angle of recline to effectively play the game.  Unlike Pokémon, you can't button-mash with t-rex arms while lounging on your back. You have to... work a little.

“The ghosts you chase, you never catch.”

― John Malkovich

Also more challenging than Pokémon — collecting your little ghost friends.  Like Pokémon, your chances of recruitment are all based on computerized odds, which you can improve through various methods.  Unlike Pokémon, the odds are a lot less in your favor, even with very special measures taken.  It can be extremely frustrating and time consuming to win over your undead friend crushes in this game.  By strolling the online message boards, I've seen that many players feel like giving up on the game because of the terrible odds in Yo-Kai Watch. They're not wrong.  Befriending 'em all in this game is a serious time investment. Be prepared for an existential crisis to come on after spending a day trying to befriend a digital ghost.

As for the design of the spirit creatures, the yo-kai are sometimes cute and funny, but more often than not they're a little creepy.  A few are downright disturbing.  I'm thinking especially of the humanoid ones like Nagatha — eyeless, she gabs on her phone incessantly until she snaps at you with shockingly brown teeth embedded in red gums.  Yikes.  The nastiness of those yo-kai are counterbalanced though by the rare and beautiful spirits you encounter, like the horned genie, Insomni, who blinks at you demurely with her one, large, red eyeball.

 There are a little under 300 yo-kai characters in the franchise, and many of them are close variants of each other. However, even though two yo-kai can look almost identical, they can behave very differently in battle, which is an invigorating change from the bland "shinies" in Pokémon, who accomplish nothing but being, say, purple instead of blue.

Very few of the yo-kai evolve into more powerful forms.  Mostly, more complex yo-kai are created through joining two spirits together to create one new ghost in a process called 'fusion'.  The novelty and surprise of it all reminded me of playing Pokémon for the first time as a kid, when a caterpie evolving was a nail-biting event. Yo-Kai Watch, as the first game in the series, has a lot of ground to cover, but it also has a wonderful freshness to it.
“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what.”

― Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

In regards to storyline, it was quite strong, for the most part.  The game was strung together by task segments, with a subtle arrow on the screen always pointing towards the direction of the main objective — so helpful!  The arrow was a life-saver especially in the beginning and middle of the game, when the city of Springdale was vast and overwhelming to navigate.  Additionally, the main objective would pop up periodically as text on the screen. Blue and orange flags also appear on the map, letting you know where quests are underway.  All of this was great game design, allowing you to balance the main storyline with the slew of side quests and exploration also on your plate.

Where the storyline stumbled was its ending.  I'm not alone in feeling bemused by its abruptness and inconsistency. It's best to just ignore the nonsense and carry on playing the game post-storyline, which easily tacks on 30+ hours of gameplay.  If you want to leave no stone left unturned and go for full completion, well, you're looking at a 70+ hour game.
"The places, our old haunts, will miss us when we're gone,  / We can never move on."

— O + S, Lonely Ghosts

When I was young, I was ambivalent towards the Tooth Fairy and Santa, but I really felt turmoil over the existence of ghosts and spirits.  I would have loved to play Yo-Kai Watch as a kid, when my imagination still ran rampant along those lines.  Playing the game in my twenties wasn't so bad either, though, I must admit.  It made me freshly fall in love with Japanese culture, which, in turn, is in love with everything spooky.  What Yo-Kai Watch accomplishes, along those lines, is being a game that showcases both the modernity and antiquity of the Japanese spiritual consciousness.  It's bright, cartoonish, metropolitan, but at the same time, doesn't forget its mystical roots.

Okay, that's enough academicizing. Time to go befriend a Snartle.





  1. I looked over what the gaming experts say, and they've called it at 8 and up. Holiday season is coming soon!