Yokai Watch 2: A charming alternative to the Pokemon powerhouse

It’s a strange time for Yokai Watch.

For the past few years in Japan, the video game series could be described as the closest rival Pokemon has seen in the last decade or so. The means of its success are evident: Yokai Watch has the DNA of a Pokemon clone in almost every way that matters and operates just about as well.

The Yokai Watch games are supported by a merchandising machine that cash-strapped parents know all too well, with a suite of related products including — but not limited to — action figures, plush dolls and collectors’ coins in addition to a cartoon TV series and films.

YO-KAI WATCH launch event at Nintendo World

Fans meet and interact with a Yokai Watch character called Jibanyan at Nintendo World in New York in 2015. (Nintendo of America)

It doesn’t hurt that the game franchise is developed by Level 5, makers of the well-received Professor Layton series among others. Yokai Watch has sold millions of copies in Japan, sometimes even surpassing the latest entries in the Pokemon series.

Still, reception in North America hasn’t reached the heights achieved in Japan.

The first Yokai Watch, originally released in Japan in 2013, was localized and only released in the West last year. According to reports, it sold just under 400,000 copies, compared to the more than 1.2 million sold in the same amount of time in Japan.

Yo-Kai Watch at NYCC

Fans play Yokai Watch at a 2015 event in New York. The franchise’s reception in North America hasn’t reached the heights achieved in Japan. (Charles Sykes/Invision for Hasbro, Inc./AP)

Meanwhile, Pokemon — the very franchise Yokai Watch was conceivably created to usurp — is enjoying a renaissance thanks to Pokemon Go, which peaked at 500 million app downloads this summer.

It’s in this climate that Yokai Watch 2 launches in North America on the Nintendo 3DS handheld, with only a month and a half before the next major Pokemon games, Sun and Moon, release on the same console.

Thankfully, both for Level 5 and gamers, Yokai Watch 2 builds on the strong foundation of its predecessor.

Meaty RPG with unique flourishes

More than a lame imitator, it does everything you’d want from a meaty Japanese role-playing game and with enough unique flourishes to differentiate itself from the competition.

Like most Pokemon games, Yokai Watch 2 arrives in two flavours: the colourfully named Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls. Each game includes around 350 Yokai to battle or befriend, with a smattering of types exclusive to each version.

Yokai Watch 2

Like most Pokemon games, Yokai Watch 2 is available in two versions, each with exclusive Yokai to befriend and collect. (Level 5/Nintendo)

Either way, you’re continuing where the first game left off: the main character — either a boy named Nate or a girl named Katie — has found the titular Yokai Watch, a device that lets them see and interact with Yokai, mysterious creatures invisible to most humans.

Yokai Watch 2‘s story is alternately goofy and endearing, thanks in part to its more down-to-earth setting. Nate and Katie are — aside from their ghostly companions — relatively normal schoolchildren. Comparatively, Pokemon‘s universal setup, where youngsters leave home to capture wild animals and train them to fight, feels absurd.

Some mechanics even hammer out elementary-level lessons suitable for the target Yokai Watch audience.

Run across a major intersection without hitting the crosswalk sign or wander around town for too long after dark and you risk being knocked out by a powerful Yokai. Joining your parents at the dinner table or helping a senior find her way around town will earn you bonus items.

Yokai Watch 2

Players control Yokai battles via touch screen and managing multiple fighters at one time can feel more like multitasking than strategy. Still, defeating challenging bosses can leave you with an exhilarating high. (Level 5/Nintendo)

Older gamers will likely guffaw at the writing as well, with its steady drip of slapstick humour and groan-worthy puns. For the latter, look no further than Draagin, a lazy dragon with a tussled tuft of hair who seems more likely to puff smoke than flames.

The frenetic, touch screen-based battle system returns mostly unchanged. Managing the health and attacks of six Yokai at a time, targeting enemy weak points and darting between the 3DS’s two screens can feel more like a test of multitasking than strategy.

But it’s a nice change of pace from the traditional, turn-based role-playing game template. Defeating the most challenging bosses can leave you with an exhilarating high.

The game’s most welcome addition is a revamped map, which was effectively useless in the first Yokai Watch. Important landmarks are labelled and players can track quests in real time, allowing one to run straight to a current objective. It isn’t fancy, but it gets the job done, which couldn’t be said a year ago.

It might be too late to christen Yokai Watch 2 as the successor to Pokemon, but it’s still a viable and charming alternative. Anyone who’s been hooked by the urge to “Catch ’em all” will likely find a lot to enjoy here.

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