REVIEW: “Yo-Kai Watch” turns kids into ghost hunters

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  • Nintendo 3DS / Rated E10+ / $39.99 / released November 2015
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars

A new tune played to the rhythms of “Pokémon,” “Yo-Kai Watch” is the latest creature-collecting video game to arrive on American shores alongside an animated series and the promise that it is “huge in Japan.” Rather than trapping and battling wild animals, “Yo-Kai Watch” centers on invisible spirits that live all around us. These mischievous ghosts – named Yo-Kai – influence the day-to-day lives of humans, making us feel unexplainably happy, spend too much money, or obsess over pop stars.

Your guide to this world is an affable ghostly butler, Whisper. Whisper gives you a clunky-looking watch that allows you to divine the presence of hidden Yo-Kai and call up collected Yo-Kai for battles. In “Yo-Kai Watch” you befriend spirits, rather than capturing them, although the end result is the same. When you need them for a battle, they are simply summoned to your side.

In many ways, “Yo-Kai Watch” is a low-key, gentler form of “Pokémon.” The idea of imprisoned animals is jettisoned thanks to the ephemeral nature of ghosts. The world you explore is only one large city, rather than an entire continent. Plus the game’s stakes are adorably small: you’re a kid who suddenly can see ghosts, and you’re mostly concerned with missions like “your dad dropped some important papers and you need to run them to his office.”

Battling in “Yo-Kai Watch” is a remarkable mix of action and inaction. With six Yo-Kai attached to a circular dial, you can spin through them to field three fighters at a time during the battle. They each attack on their own, according to individual speed and power stats, without your input. Your main involvement is to trigger extra-powerful attacks by tapping through mindless mini-games during the fight. This makes the combat easy enough for young players to grasp, but the variety of characters and fast action keeps it from feeling too stripped-down. (Even though, yeah, it’s stripped-down.)

“Yo-Kai Watch” runs a little on the short side, as far as creature-collecting games go, with under a dozen multi-part story quests. These missions, which are presented like episodes of the television show, are supplemented by over 80 optional tasks that are scattered around town. While this adds plenty of opportunity to field-test your favorite Yo-Kai and level them up, “Yo-Kai Watch” commits the unforgivable sin of providing no easy way to track these side quests’ locations.

Nintendo doesn’t talk about this much anymore, but “Yo-Kai Watch” looks great in 3-D. The town is charmingly detailed, and many areas – like a covered street of mom-and-pop stores – make excellent use of the 3-D effect. The game sounds great as well; “Yo-Kai Watch” employs plenty of sound bites from the cartoon, utilizing audio quips and music to keep things lively.

“Yo-Kai Watch” has already evolved across multiple sequels in Japan, but this first North American release is a solid start. While structurally similar to “Pokémon,” the wild creature designs and radically different combat give it more than enough differentiating flavor.

This review is based upon product supplied by the publisher. Image courtesy Nintendo of America.

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