I really wanted to play the original Yo-Kai Watch, but it got lost in the shuffle last holiday season and I just never got around to trying it out. That’s partly why I was so excited to get my hands on one of the sequel titles — either Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits or Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls — to finally find out what I’d been missing. Nintendo’s been really pushing the franchise in the West, looking to capitalize on its Pokémon-lite mixed-media possibilities across games, toys and an animated series. Normally, I wouldn’t be bothered by such a thing, but seeing Level-5 at the helm was more than enough to make this something to get excited about; I’ve enjoyed just about everything they’ve done, from Dark Cloud to Ni no Kuni to Professor Layton.
Unfortunately, Yo-Kai Watch 2 isn’t for quite as broad an audience as any of those titles. This is a game aimed squarely at kids, and that’s obvious from the minute you start playing it. That’s not to say that adults can’t enjoy anything it has to offer, but let’s put it this way — your ability to have fun with it is directly proportional to your tolerance level for some truly obnoxious hand-holding and pandering. It really feels like a “My First JRPG” experience in a lot of ways, and while it would have undoubtedly charmed me as a young boy, my reaction as an adult was largely one of boredom.
That boredom started with the story, which is probably best described as “cute.” Level-5 has never been known for their epic, intriguing tales, and it makes sense for the narrative here to skew just as young as the rest of the game — but boy, this is pushing it. From lame jokes to a story with laughably low stakes (or at least stakes that feel low, given how little is a surprise), there isn’t a whole lot to keep audiences above the age of 13 awake. Whether you pick Nate or Katie, the main character is as glassy-eyed and bland as many children’s anime protagonists, and characters like Whisper and Jibanyan — who should be charming and funny — just fell flat for me. I can’t deny that I did get caught up in how cool many of the Yo-kai and environments looked, but the events that transpired weren’t on their level of charm or interest.
The gameplay fares a little better, or at least it does once you get past the opening hours of endless, chatty explanations. Whenever I come across a game that insists on holding a player’s hand this much, I always think of the design philosophies of earlier titles, particularly those of Shigeru Miyamoto. Not to sound like an old curmudgeon, but Super Mario Bros. was designed so that players of any age could figure out its mechanics intuitively, and I wish more developers would pick up on how well that now 31-year-old idea worked. To be fair, Yo-Kai Watch 2 is more complex than that old Nintendo classic, but plenty of RPGs have figured out ways to teach their mechanics through play — the rambling tutorials here remind me of those in the latter-day Mario & Luigi titles in their jaw-dropping dullness.
When it comes right down to it, this franchise is built on a pretty simple conceit: find hidden creatures called Yo-kai with your special lens, then fight them and (perhaps!) make them your friends. It’s easy to see why Nintendo has sent their marketing department out full-force for these titles — Pokémon is an obvious inspiration here, but even on their own, the nearly 450 wacky Yo-kai have a weird and often creepy charm of their own. It’s quite fun to explore the game’s varied environments and find them, too; while the process of befriending them isn’t as easy and immediately gratifying as Pokémon’s, there’s something to be said for the way the game plays with conventions in weird ways.
Take the battle system, which I’ve seen accurately described as “playing itself” — it’s a bold move for the game to wrest control away from the player in combat, and I don’t think it completely works, but it does keep things moving while you’re making other decisions. You can opt to use a special move, for example, or give the opposing Yo-kai some food to increase your chance of befriending them, and the action continues to play out while you do. Plus, given how hands-off many ordinary battles are in turn-based RPGs anyway, is it really such a sin to have auto-battle on by default? I don’t think so, but I did wish there was at least a little more for me to do. The rest of the gameplay is similarly mixed. It’s sometimes fun to explore and take care of sidequests, which involve small tasks like catching bugs and purchasing certain items for people — but again, it’s all under the banner of the “My First JRPG” vibe. It’s often too simple to be really captivating.
There’s charm to spare in the game’s appealing presentation, that’s to be sure. The colorful artwork and lively animation are a real treat to look at, particularly when it comes to the designs of the characters (both human and Yo-kai) and environments. No matter how dull the actual gameplay was, I was always interested in what the next weird creature would look like and where I’d get to explore next. I really appreciate just how much effort went into the telling of the simple narrative, too — lively animated cutscenes and spirited voice actors give their all in bringing the world to life.
Yo-Kai Watch 2 suffers from the same qualities that plague many disappointing animated movies: it tries a little too hard to be kid-friendly, and in doing so almost assuredly alienates the majority of its potential adult audience. The presentation may be charming as all get-out, but the rest of the experience — from the narrative to the gameplay — borders on insulting the intelligence of its child players, let alone anyone over 13 who tries to pick it up. I do think there’s enough in its weird and wild world to attract a select few of those players, but only if they’re able to put up with the developers’ unfortunate, unintentional condescension.
This review is based on the Fleshy Souls version of the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
Yo-kai Watch 2 may enamor younger audiences with its charm and simplicity, but its appeal for adults will largely depend on how much patience they have.