It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since Yo-Kai Watch hit our shores last fall. And while the series has yet to achieve household name status here in the West, the first game did manage to push 400,000 copies and even the animated series that launched earlier this year has been met with praise. Not to mention, we’re only two weeks removed from the theatrical run of the Yo-Kai Watch movie of all things. If anything, the IP has gradually built up momentum just as it did in Japan before its breakout coincided with the dual-version release of Yo-Kai Watch 2, now localized in the West as Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls. That being said, it is hard to imagine Yo-kai Watch 2 breaking out in a similar fashion overseas given how little has changed from its debut outing.
Yo-Kai Watch 2 opens with Nate or Katie Adams’ first day of summer vacation…again, but this time our heroes have been stricken with a sudden dose of amnesia. Not only that, but the eponymous device has been stolen clean off their wrists to boot. The whole setup acts as means of reacquainting (or introducing) players to Springdale as well as the various mechanics of the previous installment. I’d estimate it takes a good 10 hours before the game breaks off into new territory, wherein the gang travels back in time 60 years to discover the origins of the very first Yo-Kai Watch, but everything up until that point feels woefully derivative. Had Level-5 gone the Pokémon Gold and Silver route where the game starts off in an unfamiliar land and then eventually returns to locations from the first game, albeit with remixed content, it might have alleviated the whole “been there, done that” malaise of the first act. But alas, a prime opportunity has been squandered in favor of convenient plot trappings.
Gameplay, too, suffers from a lack of innovation, especially when it comes to the battle system, which is still in dire need of refinement. Last year, I saw promise in the accessibility of Yo-Kai Watch’s combat mechanics, but wagered the lack of direct control over your team’s actions killed any sense of strategy. Unfortunately, that still rings true here in Yo-Kai Watch 2. There are a few embellishments here and there, namely the Moxie mechanic that allows yo-kai to supercharge their adjacent allies’ Soultimate attacks during the heat of battle, but none that truly remedy the issues that carried over from last year’s release. To add insult to injury, I found that tapping the fast-forward button during an encounter resulted in an automated victory 9 times out of 10 regardless of what yo-kai I had selected, which begs the obvious question of “what’s the point then?”
Recruiting yo-kai in battle remains as frustrating as ever too. You still have to guess a monster’s favorite thing — be it candy bars or fine literature — and hope to the yo-kai gods that the item is flung in the right direction. Targeting a yo-kai helps to a certain degree, but too often your combatants decimate the opponent before you even have a chance to extend an olive branch. Outside of battle, however, there are much more viable means of acquiring yo-kai. The Crank-a-kai has thankfully been revised to give players 3 attempts, as opposed to the 1-crank-a-day limit from the first game. Coins needed to operate the prize machine are also in greater abundance via sidequest rewards or item boxes, or you can just use up any spare 3DS Play Coins you’ve still got lying around. It’s not a perfect system, but I honestly prefer the gamble over wasting all my funds on knick-knacks to befriend a coy Chillhuahua that will never be mine anyways.
It’s not all bad in Yo-Kai Watch 2, though. On the contrary, the game introduces a number of quality of life improvements that make for a smoother overall experience. My favorite enhancements are the rearrangeable menu “apps” and new waypoint system that dispel some of the tedium that too often plagues other games in the genre. The latter is particularly handy as it allows players to set courses for objectives of their choosing rather than the game always insisting where you need to go next, although that option certainly still exists if desired. Ultimately, both are tiny tweaks in the grand scheme of things, but nevertheless are welcomed niceties that optimize the flow of the game in the long run, whether it’s getting from point A to point B or just surfing through the menu screen.
Also worthwhile in Yo-Kai Watch 2 is the game’s writing. Last year’s entry had the tall order of introducing Western audiences to these characters for the first time, and thus their respective personalities weren’t quite fully formed yet. Whereas in Japan the anime was initially informed by the game, the exact opposite is true with Yo-Kai Watch 2’s localization. Characters like Whisper and Jibanyan have really come into their own, complete with schticks inspired by the TV series as well as their usual goofy antics, only now cranked up to eleven. Rarely does the game let up on the IP’s signature — not to mention impossibly Japanese — humor, and folks who are in it for the laughs won’t be disappointed with either version’s take on events.
Ultimately, though, I have incredibly mixed feelings about Yo-Kai Watch 2. On one hand, I really wanted to love it because it channels the more outlandish elements of the TV series incredibly well, but I also can’t shake the feeling that Yo-Kai Watch 2 is more of a glorified expansion rather than a true sequel. Sure, there’s some great content between exploring the Springdale of yore or even the faux-action-RPG “Yo-Kai Busters” multiplayer mode, but glossing over the battle system really hurts the game’s lasting appeal. Yo-Kai Watch was never about combat even from the onset, yet lighthearted scenarios that parody the mundaneness of life or silly little mini-game diversions can only carry a meaty 30-hour RPG so far. Until Level-5 can figure out how to make the battle system something more than an unwieldy, AI-controlled mess of ghost cats and otherworldly misfits, it seems like Yo-Kai Watch will have to settle with being one of those niche “big in Japan, and Japan alone” fads.