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Yo-Kai Watch Review: Ghost Town

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The simplest way to describe Level-5’s Yo-Kai Watch is “Pokemon crossed with Ghostbusters by the talented folks behind Professor Layton.” The comparison isn’t perfect, though. There’s a greater focus on narrative and slightly darker tone than any of the above offerings, not only in the game’s story but also the design of the games collectable Yo-kai. There’s also a focus on befriending the critters rather than capturing them, which makes me feel that it has more in common with Level 5’s own Ni No Kuni, while the small-town strange goings-on are reminiscent of Earthbound.  Maybe there’s no really good way to describe Yo-Kai Watch.  It’s certainly an original title.

Players take on the role of a young boy called Nate or girl called Katie, who, during a fateful walk in the woods by the town’s shrine, releases a spirit called Whisper from an enchanted capsule toy machine. Referring to himself as “the Yo-Kai butler”, Whisper acts as the player’s guide to the secret world of the Yo-Kai (which all have their roots in Japanese folklore), spirits that have the power to possess objects and influence the emotions and actions of the living. It’s up to Nate/Katie and your band of friendly Yo-Kai to help the local townsfolk by stopping mischievous spirits from harassing the them, and ultimately befriend them too.  It’s a pretty cheesy concept and opening, but it’s a simple and endearing premise. The game does a brilliant of job introducing players to the game’s various systems, increasing in complexity while the Yo-Kai you face become increasingly more sinister and powerful as the narrative stakes increase.

Despite the cutesy facade, there’s an air of morbidity to even the game’s most endearing characters. For example, Jibayan, one of the main Yo-kai in the game’s accompanying anime series, is the lost spirit of a cat who died after being run over by a truck at a busy intersection. Others simply follow a moribund aesthetic, such as Boohoo, a Yo-kai which causes depression in humans and looks like a strangled pigeon. Rather than actually shocking, it’s about the level of morbid overtone that you’d expect from a 13 year old taking the early strains of puberty poorly, and each of the games, 250+ Yo-Kai are, bright, colourful and strangely adorable lost souls.

Discovering new Yo-Kai isn’t as simple as going for a walk in the long grass for a bit (though you will get attacked by them in alleyways and other abandoned places). Instead, players use the titular Yo-Kai Watch, which features a radar that reacts to spirit energy, presumably in a similar way to the spectrometer in Ghostbusters.  It’s a fancy excuse that enables the player to track down Yo-Kai, beeping more frantically when you get closer to a source of spirit energy. When the meter in the corner of the screen is in the green, you can use your stylus to scan the area until you can lock in on a Yo-Kai. If you can keep one in your sights for long enough, it will be revealed and engage you in battle.

Yo-Kai Watch’s battles are speedy affairs which play out in real time and with your party attacking automatically. Though all six are summoned, only three can fight at a time. Your Yo-Kai are laid out on a wheel on the bottom touchscreen, allowing you to rotate them in and out of battle when needed. Putting Yo-Kai of the same type next to each other provides buffs to damage and speed while fighting. Likewise, you need to be mindful of which Yo-Kai you use, as each have different elemental characteristics which act as you would expect (fire beats ice, etc, etc).

Though Yo-kai attack on their own, it’s up to you to trigger each Yo-Kai’s soultimate move, which can be activated after their soultimate gauge is full. Once activated, you’ll need to successfully complete a quick minigame on the touch screen in order to perform the move. These take the form of tapping, tracing shapes, or spinning a wheel with your stylus. Screwing these games up can cost you the battle in tougher fights, ratcheting up the tension giving battles a more tactile feel, making an already solid system all the more engaging.

3DS_YokaiWatch_E3_SCRN_06

Certain soultimate moves allow you to “inspirit” enemy Yo-Kai, which stops them from attacking. If you can strike first, it’s a great offensive move. However, enemies can do the same to you. In order to heal them, you need to put the Yo-Kai on the bench for a while and “purify” them in order to make them fighting fit again. These are, again, activated with mini-games that work in an identical manner to the soultimate moves, but also provide you with a little bump to the XP you earn from the battle.

Though the fighting is fairly straightforward, adding new Yo-Kai to your party is decidedly hit and miss.  Rather than trying to cram the poor buggers into a ball after you’ve worn them down enough like you would in Pokemon, you need to befriend Yo-Kai, which, like most creatures, requires you to feed them their favourite food. It sounds easy enough, but for a start you need to figure out what their favourite food is, which itself is often a case of trial and error. Even if you do get it right, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will instantly join your party once the battle ends.

Instead, befriending Yo-kai (save for ones that join your party as a reward for finishing a quest or found at the capsule machine in the woods, which will occasionally cough up rare spirits if you feed it enough play coins) seems to involve just as much luck as it does judgement. Sometimes the Yo-Kai you wanted will join your party and other times the spirits accompanying them will randomly ask to join you instead (though this usually happened after I’d wiped the floor with them). It can be a little irksome at times, especially when you need to befriend a specific Yo-Kai to finish a side mission, but it doesn’t break the game by any means.  It just slow it down a bit.

Speaking of side-quests, Yo-Kai Watch Is packed with things to see and do. The town of Springdale is huge, especially considering this is a handheld game, and the residents have plenty of problems for you to help them with, whether it’s a local idol wanting a break from their fans, helping find a lost wedding ring, or simply bringing someone some groceries.

Yokai_MainStreet

Though the sidequests themselves are of a high quality and affect the main story in interesting ways at times, tracking them is a little trickier. You can see what side quests are currently active in your handy diary, but there are no waypoint markers on the map to tell you where to go (only main story missions are shown on the map). This can lead to a lot of aimless wandering, especially if you need to find a place you haven’t been before. This would be fine in a game where exploration is key, but again, like the problems with capturing Yo-Kai, it just seems to slow everything down, and ruin any kind of pacing the game had.

It’s been a long time coming (Japan is eagerly awaiting the release of Yokai-Watch 3, and North America got the game back in November), but after seeing what all the fuss is about, I am impressed. Though it’s not particularly innovative, it’s still a refreshing take on the monster-hunting genre, a fine JRPG in its own right, and has fast become one of my favourites on the 3DS. In fact, I think I like it more than Pokemon…I know, blasphemy, right?

Yo-Kai Watch was reviewed on New 3DS XL with a copy provided by the publisher

Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Level-5 | Genre: JRPG/ Monster Hunting | Platforms: 3DS/New 3DS | PEGI/ESRB: 7+, E10  | Release Date: November 6 (NA) / April 29, 2016 (EU)

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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