While Yo‑Kai Watch’s main story may fall short of its narrative potential, that doesn’t mean that the whole game is without merit. The developers’ choices in the mechanics of the combat system resonate more with the game’s themes than one might expect at first glance.
A major theme of the game is friendship, many of the game’s missions and side quests revolve around helping Nate’s human friends with their problems and the Yo‑kai themselves are befriended rather than captured. Befriended Yo‑kai also choose to join Nate of their own volition, though giving them a gift in battle may help sway their decision.
Speaking of the combat, the player doesn’t have direct control over befriended Yo‑kai. They attack automatically while the player takes on a support role managing health, inspiriting/purifying positive and negative status effects, and activating powerful special attacks called “Soultimate Moves.” This makes the combat come across thematically as a group of friends fostering their camaraderie. The Yo‑kai do Nate a solid by fighting for him while he supports them in every way he can.
This approach to combat contrasts nicely with Ni No Kuni’s slightly more hands on approach. Oliver and friends can fight their own battles by casting spells or using melee attacks, but they can also swap out with tamed creatures called familiars. The master controls the familiar using their heart, giving the player direct control over the familiar. They also share health and magic bars, so if Oliver’s familiar is defeated in battle, Oliver himself is as well. This symbiotic relationship works on a mechanical level, but between soulmates sharing souls between the two worlds, Brokenhearted missing pieces of their hearts, and the familiars sharing their master’s heart, the thematic significance of the combat becomes somewhat muddled.
In a sense, Yo‑Kai Watch takes the same approach, if all of Nate’s Yo‑kai are defeated he loses the battle after all, but that subtle change in relationship dynamics makes all the narrative difference.