Yo-kai Watch review: is it the next Pokemon?

Credit to linked pixiv user

I’m off for four days this Thanksgiving weekend and didn’t have much planned, so why not finally have a new blog post after so long? XD As I explained in my anniversary post from last month, I haven’t been watching much new anime, but I’ll still be writing about something related today – the recent US release of the Japanese hit game series, Youkai Watch (localized as “Yo-kai Watch”). The game has been a big hit in Japan since its release in 2013 (followed by an anime series and sequel game) and was just released in the US earlier this month. I heard that it has a similar premise as Pokemon and is being hailed as the “next Pokemon” with how popular it became in Japan. Being the Pokemon fan that I am, I was really curious and decided to give the game a try once it was released in English. As of now, I’ve played about 30 hours of it (finished the main storyline and some side quests). So do I feel the series deserves the popularity it’s been getting, and will it really be the next Pokemon?…

Back in January, I wrote a short blurb about the Yo-kai Watch anime after watching the first two episodes. My main issue with it was that it was a bit overly kid-friendly in that there was pretty much no drama or truly serious moments; all the conflict was portrayed too lightly or too filled with slapstick humor for me to get invested. But I still wanted to play the game when it came out in the US because I figured “Even though the anime is obviously made for kids, the games might be more geared toward a universal audience, similar to how the Pokemon anime is made for kids while the games are made for all ages.” So…was that the case with Yo-kai Watch?

Well, I will say that the overall gameplay has an appeal for adult gamers as well as kids, but as far as the story, characters, tone, etc., goes…unfortunately the game is the same as the anime in this regard. Besides the final chapter, there really was practically no dramatic moments, nothing genuinely sad or distressing, no moment where I felt anything terrible was going to happen or anyone was really in danger. There was still conflict of course, but there was never anything major at stake – most of the game just involved your character stopping various Yo-kai from causing trouble. And by “trouble,” I don’t mean they were truly harming anyone; it mostly involved “safe” things like yo-kai inspiriting people to make them lazy, forgetful, argumentative, etc,. And just about all of the yo-kai and human characters, at least the ones in the main story, are again, depicted in a very humorous manner, always making light of the situation and not displaying any truly negative emotions. Even the many boss yo-kai and big bad villain in the last chapter are anything but intimidating; again, most of them are made out as comical more than threatening, not doing anything scarier than a Saturday morning cartoon villain would do.

Now I’m not saying that having a very light tone throughout your whole story is bad. But for Yo-kai Watch, it just doesn’t feel right to me because the world lends itself to some truly dramatic scenarios. A perfect example of this disconnect is with Jibanyan’s story – the poor little guy was killed by a car, which could have been a very sad, moving scene, but it’s played for laughs when the girl who owned him calls him “lame” for being killed by a car, to which everyone is humorously shocked at how cold that reaction is, and then it’s not dealt with again. If the characters themselves take all these conflicts so lightly, how can I get invested in them? Instead of spending time having Jibanyan get continuously knocked away by the cars he fights in a slapstick-fashion, they could have had us actually encounter his owner and find out if she ever truly cared about him, and why he’s so dedicated to her despite her cold reaction to his death, and any emotions and character development he’d go through during those events. And now that I think about it, he’s really the only yo-kai to get this kind of backstory, as brief as it was. All the other yo-kai are just who they are for reasons we don’t know. Yo-kai are technically spirits of beings who were once living, like Jibanyan, so how cool would it have been to find out what they were all like when they were alive and what caused them to take on the yo-kai attributes they now have, and having the main character help them come to grips with the negative emotions that caused them to become yo-kai. So again, it’s not that having a light tone is a problem, but that the Yo-kai Watch world has so much potential for thought-provoking conflicts and character drama that it glosses over in favor of slapstick and gags, which is surprising to me since Japan is definitely NOT a culture that sugar-coats their anime and games despite them being aimed at kids.

Credit to linked pixiv user

And speaking of Japanese culture, another strike against Yo-kai Watch’s success in the US is that some of the English localization choices are just plain bad. It was inevitable that they changed pretty much all of the yo-kai and other characters’ Japanese names to more American-friendly ones. I’m not totally against this because I know the average gamer, especially kid gamers, can better remember and relate to things in their own language, and having to keep track of many foreign names of characters and places would likely alienate and confuse them. But I would say 90% of all the yo-kai English names are silly puns and play-on words (“Cuttincheez?” Really?) Not that they don’t do this with English Pokemon names, but they’re fewer and less obvious than the Yo-kai Watch ones. The English translation of all the game dialogue is also full of word puns and corny expressions. Now I don’t know if all the yo-kai names and dialogue in the Japanese version are like this as well, but I feel like the English version may have gone overboard with it. Then there’s some just plain weird choices, like having Dismerelda and Happierre French for whatever reason. They don’t explicitly say that the game takes place in any real-world English-speaking country, but it’s so obviously Japan and NOT America, that they really should have at least tried not to “whitewash” it so much. The localization of Okami, another game that very obviously takes place in Japan, is a prime example of finding a good middle ground for this – the characters and locations either keep their Japanese names or a shortened, easier-to-remember version of it, and the dialogue has some English expressions/puns, but not too many. It’s 2015, the age of the Internet and kids being way more sophisticated than they used to be – I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t freak out if the game they’re playing takes place in another country and has characters with foreign names.

But while the story, tone, and localization of Yo-kai Watch leave something to be desired for older gamers, the actual gameplay itself is quite fun. One of the best things about it is the map – your character is free to explore an extremely large and detailed world of a typical Japanese suburban city, complete with a downtown shopping district, uptown residential area, a forest shrine, and various buildings and shops. You can even go into the city sewers, back alleys, an old mine, a multi-floored school and hospital, and even the yo-kai realm itself! There are so many nooks and crannies to explore in the game’s map that I know I haven’t even seen it all yet despite my many hours of playing. It’s so complex that I know I would get lost all the time if the game didn’t give you a map of the overworld on the 3DS bottom screen so you can always see your location, the location of all the buildings, roads, NPCs, etc., and which direction you’re currently headed. The game even throws in details that don’t matter just to keep the realistic feel of the setting, such as having cars constantly going through the city streets and encouraging your character to press the button for the walk signal before using the crosswalk! (though nothing happens if you actually do run into the street and get hit by a car, sad to say) There’s also a ton of NPCs to talk to, further adding to the integrity of the setting. For many of them, you can do Requests and Favors as a sort of side-quest to the main story, where you help them dispell yo-kai, find something they’re looking for hidden elsewhere in the map, or solve some kind of puzzle involving searching for items and battling yo-kai.

Speaking of which, what monster-collection game would be complete without battles? The battle system in Yo-kai Watch is different from Pokemon’s, but it’s actually pretty fun. You can have up to six yo-kai with you and you can use up to three yo-kai at once, with the ability to easily switch around the three you’re currently using. The yo-kai battle on their own without you having to command them, though you can get them to use their powerful Soultimate attack by performing some motions with the stylus and touchscreen. Of course, there’s all kinds of classifications for them: each yo-kai belongs to a Clan, some of their attacks are classified under certain Elements, there’s a number of different Personality traits they could have which determine how they behave in battle, each yo-kai has a ranking that determines how rare/powerful it is, yo-kai can evolve or be fused with other yo-kai and items, and so on. I still haven’t figured out exactly how the battle mechanics work (since English Yo-kai Watch sites are still in their infancy) but from what I have figured out, I think it’s an appealing battle system that has a good balance of keeping the player involved in the action while also having the suspense of not knowing what the yo-kai will do on their own. Unfortunately there’s no multi-player online battle system, at least not yet, and the only way to battle other players is locally.

Credit to linked pixiv user

While I give Yo-kai Watch a good rating in terms of its battle/monster-collecting system, having an enjoyably complex map to explore and side quests to accomplish, and just overall good gameplay style, I feel that its insistently light tone and lack of taking its characters and conflicts seriously, as well as a less than stellar localization, will hurt its potential for any kind of worldwide popularity. One of the reasons I feel the Pokemon games have been so successful all these years isn’t just because the gameplay is fun for kids and adults, but the stories and characters are compelling, dealing with genuine drama and suspense, with ambiguous scenarios where there isn’t always a clear answer, especially in the newer games. Even in the older games, there were some real conflict and truly dramatic moments, whether it was your rival in Gold and Silver despising all weak pokemon, or Team Magma and Team Aqua thinking they’re doing good for the planet when they actually end up causing a disaster. In short, the Pokemon games take themselves quite seriously and make you feel like you’re part of this big, important, complex world of good and evil, happiness and sadness, that anyone of any age can get sucked into. That’s a big part of what keeps people coming back to Pokemon, and Yo-kai Watch just doesn’t seem to have that. It would rather make its audience laugh than think, which is fine (though would be better if the jokes weren’t so corny), but in terms of the kind of world it’s set in and the characters it has, I can’t see that bringing in AND holding onto, a lot of adult fans. Lack of an online battling system certainly doesn’t help either, as that’s the foundation of the competitive community of Pokemon and other games, which is where a large chunk of the adult fan base is. Still, it is a bit early to say, and maybe Yo-kai Watch 2 will address some of these issues. But as of now, the game and its newly dubbed anime aren’t doing so well here in the US from what I’ve been reading. So yeah, I really can’t see Yo-kai Watch being a big hit here. I still like the game overall and would still recommend it if you like monster-collection RPGs. But for all its success in Japan, I unfortunately find the game less underwhelming than the anime, but still underwhelming nonetheless.

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And just a side note, I’m going to be off for 10 days from Christmas to New Year’s. I’m planning to watch at least one new anime during that time – likely One Punch Man. Feel free to recommend any others, though I can’t promise I’ll get to them XD Also hoping to have a new post during that vacation too. Stay tuned~

7 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Kai says:

    My friend’s (native) Japanese in-law found out I like anime this past Thanksgiving. Instead of the normal reaction I expected, she started excitedly telling me about Youkai Watch. First I ever really heard of it. Now this post a couple days later. ALMOST makes me want to check it out! But Fallout 4 calls!

    Glad to see a post by you again! Hope your vacation is fun!

    • Yumeka says:

      Heh, that’s funny that Youkai Watch was the first thing she talked to you about XD But that’s a testament to what a big thing it is in Japan. Maybe it is indeed a sign that you should give the game a try. I’m not sure what your taste in games is (it’s definitely not like Fallout 4!) but if you like light-hearted RPGs with a fantasy/monster-collecting theme, you’d probably like it.

      And thanks for continuing to check out my blog despite the long gap between post =)

  2. Kal says:

    Never got around to getting a Nintendo 3Ds, and with what you say, I’ll probably pass on watching this one. I do not mind anime aimed for kids as long as they have something for everyone. I have not seen One Punch Man yet, I have to get to it. I’ve checked a few others, but nothing that really stands out. Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka?? is a lot of fun if you watched the 1st season. It’s more of the same, but pretty light fun.

    Hope you have a good vacation!

    • Yumeka says:

      I never watched Usagi Desu ka? though I did hear of it when the first season aired.

      Well, if you ever do get a 3DS, you know the one game series I would highly recommend XD

  3. chikorita157 says:

    I have played about 20 hours (including time to translate) of Youkai Watch 2 when I got my Japanese New 3DS during Spring of this year. While the gameplay is fun so far, I do feel that the popularity won’t last as long compared to Pokemon given that it’s popularity might start to be fading as with most Level 3 franchises. Still, the game even in Japanese is very accessible since I can understand most of the dialog (It includes furigana in addition with the Kanji) with some looking up words in the words on my electronic dictionary. Still, the verdict is still out since I’m busy playing other games (also played Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon, which I finish a few weeks back in Japanese, which is an improvement over the disappointing Gates of Infinity)

    • Yumeka says:

      So you’ve played the first Youkai Watch as well I’m assuming…does the 2nd game improve on any of the things I mentioned in my review, like a better storyline and multi-player mode?

      I haven’t played a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game since the very first DS one. I wasn’t thrilled with it so I never played one again. It’s been a long time though so I should probably give the series a try again, but I just haven’t had the motivation XD I wish they’d make a new Pokemon Ranger game though! I’ve played a couple of those and I really like them!

      • chikorita157 says:

        I haven’t played the first game, so I wouldn’t know. I decided to get the second game since it’s the newest, so I don’t know if the multiplayer modes and story will be better, although some things are the same such as having to press the button and waiting for the walk signal to come on.

        As for Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, I felt that the second game is the best out of the franchise. While Super is good, Gates of Infinity was a disappointment since they had to pull a Gen V and limit the amount of Pokemon in the game.

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