Like many, I was skeptical about Yo-kai Watch, a series that despite being hugely popular in Japan seemed a bit too much like the Pokemon games for my taste. After beating the first Yo-kai Watch game (for 3DS) I'd have to say that the game is probably only slightly more unique than I expected. The game is definitely more than the sum of its parts, though. Although the core monster collection and evolution is pretty similar, in comparison to the Pokemon games' glacial pace of changes from iteration to iteration, Yo-kai Watch offers a distinct breath of fresh air.
There are several refreshing aspects of Yo-kai Watch. Although the first entries of both series took place in a Japan-like country, Yo-kai Watch embraces it to a much greater extent. This isn't surprising since the Yo-kai themselves are based on Japanese folklore, but the town of "Springdale" feels like a living, breathing Japanese town, complete with shrines, hot springs, and ramen restaurants. A lot of Japanese video games have seemed to take this approach (the latest Zelda game, to mention just one example), but Yo-kai Watch is a more literal representation and (to a Western audience anyway) provides an exoticism grounded in reality that is compelling.
The Yo-kai themselves are in general quirkier than Pokemon, and there's a good variety, ranging from "cool" to cute to just plain weird. Evolution is much less of an emphasis and powerful Yo-kai can be obtained instead via sheer chance via a daily in-game lottery. "Catching them all" is also emphasized less, and completists playing the game will probably quickly get soon frustrated. Recruiting Yo-kai takes a somewhat Shin Megami Tensei approach in that you have to figure out through trial and error what a Yo-kai's favorite food is in order to increase your changes of recruiting it, and even then it's going to take many tries before they'll offer to join you. Like Shin Megami Tensei the game also features Yo-kai fusion, although the number of Yo-kai you can fuse is pretty small, so, for better or worse, it's not a big emphasis within the game.
These sound like negatives, but they steer you to make the most of the Yo-kai that you do have and spend more time with them. You'll still have plenty of Yo-kai to choose from, and many Yo-kai join you through story events. The game also makes itself distinct from Pokemon by its cartoony presentation, which also isn't surprising as it launched with a cartoon TV show tie-in (plus an avalanche of toys and other merchandise).
The game is limited to several areas, but they're full of landmarks that you'll be visiting. You'll gradually memorize the maps over the course of the game, as there's a practically endless supply of NPC quests (mostly of the fetch variety) that will have you criss-crossing back and forth to accomplish. This adds to the unique feel to the game, as does the mini-game based battle mechanics. The touch-screen focused battles are pretty simplistic, mindless affairs, although later in the game things do get a little frantic.
What makes the game the most memorable, though, is the high degree of polish. The game looks fantastic and runs completely in stereoscopic 3-D, which makes Pokemon Sun and Moon's lack of stereoscopic 3-D starkly conspicuous in comparison. The story is episodic and pretty thing, but it too is a bit more interesting than the latest Pokemon games, which are generally driven by the protagonist wanting to be a Pokemon master, rather than wanting to save the world.
All in all I was pleasantly surprised with this first game in the series, and will definitely be checking out others. It looks like the sequel is pretty much the same as this game, so I may skip that one. The third game in the series was recently announced for release, so I'll keeping my eye out for that one, and the fourth game is due for Switch in the not-too-distant future as well. With the Pokemon series seeming to be nearly completely stagnant, it's great to have a viable alternative, especially one as polished as the Yo-kai series. Here's hoping it doesn't fall into the same pattern of essentially identical release after release after release.