Instead of pushing back against the inevitable Pokemon comparisons that have been buzzing about ever since the first entry, Yo-kai Watch 2 seems to be welcoming the parallels, particularly by splitting up the sequel into two “same but slightly different” games: Fleshy Souls and Bony Spirits. Like the constant Pokemon RPGs, developers Level-5 Watch maintain that the only real differences between the two titles are some exclusive Yo-kai to collect in each one. Already the preconceptions are starting to form, right?
Pokemon is a cultural phenomenon, and the brand has endured through decades by pivoting on the same winning formula, one that’s damn near faultless and highly addictive. But there are some drawbacks that Pokemon seem unwilling to address, and some of those drawbacks have obviously been studied and intentionally improved with Yo-Kai watch. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a rip-off, and there are more differences than similarities, but the world of Yo-Kai is something Pokemon fans have been craving for a long time; this world is big enough for both of them.
Yo-Kai watch has carved out its own lane and endearingly goofy universe of cute, creepy, and downright weird Japanese inspired spirits, so Fleshy Souls/Bony Spirits benefit further from tightening its focus on the characters that work so well. And that’s the first difference to Pokemon: the supporting cast, the people you talk to around the various maps, and especially the Yo-Kai you collect/recruit, are interesting. They aren’t one dimensional NPCs used for frustratingly boring exposition or as some sort of tiresome in-game instruction manual (I really love Pokemon, but c’mon), they are potential side-missions – often fun but repetitive mini-games – to make the world feel bigger and more utilised, or sources of head-scratching “WTF” humour that is actually entertaining – often with a surprising amount of emotional depth, like the tragic Jibanyan, a “cat turned Yo-Kai” who, after getting killed by oncoming traffic, was cast aside by his owner and now spends his time as a spirit possessing people to fight off cars (that is until you ‘collect’ him). Dealing with the spirit realm certainly allows Yo-Kai Watch to address topics like death, anchoring it’s charm in something more serious and giving the game a level of complexity one wouldn’t expect from the hyper-colourful JRPG like aesthetic.
There are plenty of problems with Yo-Kai Watch 2 as well. First, it never really earns it’s status as a sequel, re-treading much of the first game for the first few hours, inexplicably taking its time to get to the civil war-like plot that eventually builds to nothing. It’s a confusing pace for Yo-Kai Watch 2 and may prove frustrating for those not using this title as an entry point to the growing series. Why is this? It’s because the main character has lost his/her memory from the first game, it’s a strange almost lazy way to shape a sequel but nevertheless it allows you to rediscover (assuming you played the first) some of the quirkiness that made the original title such an instant hit.
As the player, you begin by mysteriously rediscovering the Yo-Kai Watch and the butler spirit named Whisper who serves as your hilariously possessive guide through the game. Slowly but surely the game starts to veer off into its own direction, and thankfully that brings a much bigger, more adventurous map to the Yo-Kai universe. It’s fun to explore, even if the main storyline takes a dive and resorts the handing out quests which are fundamentally the same thing over and over; again, this is saved by the game’s exuberant personality.
You’ve also got the battle system which essentially has not changed from the first. On the surface it looks inventive and playful, but after a while getting used to the combat things start to wear very, very thin. First, having your chosen Yo-Kai (three at a time) passively fight the enemy without you even having to lift a finger – similarly to a real-time strategy game – often means the battle is over without you really experiencing all the nuances that have gone into the system. The bottom of the 3DS has a game-show like six-sectioned wheel which displays some of the yo-kai on your team, with your main task being to rotate the wheel with the stylus and choosing which yo-kai deal their special Soultimate attack. Playing a Soultimate attack requires you to perform a very quick mini-game; unlike the Mario & Luigi RPG series, these mini games grow stale fast, with tasks like simply tracing a line or tapping the screen really fast. The only real strategy here comes into play for boss battles, so you might find yourself avoiding regular encounters all together because having to go through the same thing over and over again doesn’t seem worth the extra XP.
One thing that works in battles is the use of Attitude, where each yo-kai has an inclination which effects their individual fighting style. This is much better than Pokemon’s useless system of needing a badge before certain higher-than-necessary level Pokemon obey you, providing even more depth to each individual yo-kai and furthering the amount of options you have with customising battle your way. However, this is but a small positive in a system that’s overwhelmed with negatives, one which needs a substantial overhaul if the series is to continue making ground as a competitor and healthy alternative to Pokemon.
Atmosphere is where Level-5 excel, and it’s clear that they are unafraid to interrupt the flow every now and then to take us out of repetitive yo-kai action and place us in environments that feel fully realised and warm, bursting with effective sentimentality and touching gestures that convey just enough idealism to completely draw you in. Pokemon had this in the start, but as iterations kept coming gameplay became more about grinding, leveling up, and winning; Yo-Kai Watch has successfully captured what it’s like to actually care about a game and it’s characters, again ensuring that this series punch back at accusations of riding on Pokemon’s enormous success.
Yo-Kai Watch 2 is essentially a better version of the first without much of a step forward; it’s what should have been offered as the introduction to the series. Still, there’s enough promise here to really herald a valuable new series for Nintendo, one whose characters are well worth paying attention to, and are strong enough to make up for shortcomings in gameplay.
Review Score: 7 out of 10
Highlights: Such a fun world full of genuinely hilarious characters; imaginative animations and dialogue; surprising emotional depth; crux of story is interesting (while it lasts).
Lowlights: Battle system needs a big rethink; repetitive side quests (although even just having them there is already a big step up from Pokemon); pacing can be confusing; first hours a retread of previous title.
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Please note the above review is based on Fleshy Souls only.