If you’ve heard of Yo-kai Watch before, it was likely being compared to Pokémon. The series — which began in Japan in 2013 before debuting in English last year — has much in common with Nintendo’s monster-battling phenomenon. Both series are about collecting and fighting adorable creatures; both are games accompanied by an animated show and lots of tie-in toys; and both try to take an intrinsically Japanese style of game and translate it for a global audience. The difference, of course, is that while Pokémon has become a worldwide phenomenon, Yo-kai Watch is still looking for that worldwide break.
This all may lead you to believe Yo-kai Watch is a simple Pokémon clone. But despite their overarching similarities, the two play very differently. And if you’re having a hard time waiting for the November release of Pokémon Sun and Moon, the latest Yo-kai Watch should be just the thing to hold you over.
The premise of the series is a bit like Harry Potter meets Pokémon. In the world of Yo-kai Watch, there are creatures hidden everywhere, out of the view of humans. The only way to see them is with the titular watch. Whereas most role-playing games are about saving the world, in Yo-kai Watch the goal is much more down to Earth. In this universe, yo-kai — many of which are based on Japanese folklore creatures, called yokai — are responsible for most of the little problems you face every day. If you’re hungry all of the time, or you have trouble waking up in the morning, it’s probably the work of a yo-kai. In the game, you use your ability to see these creatures to solve problems for people, while also delving into the greater mysteries of the supernatural.
What really makes Yo-kai Watch interesting is the ways that it differs from Pokémon. Whereas Pokémon takes place in a fantasy world, Yo-kai Watch is set in a vibrant modern-day city. You can visit convenience stores and museums, and take the train to see your grandmother in the mountains. Likewise, whereas Pokémon features a huge cast of hundreds of fictional animal-like creatures, Yo-kai Watch’s supernatural beings are much more diverse. Some are based on animals, like the two-tailed cat Jibanyan, while others are more human-like, such as Hungramps, a tiny old man who looks a bit like an egg. Others are clearly inspired by Japanese folklore: there’s Walkappa, based on the iconic turtle-like Kappa, for instance. And unlike pokémon, yokai can talk; for most of the game you’re followed around by a helpful, overly chatty ghost named Whisper.
The overall feel is much more lighthearted in Yo-kai Watch. There’s much less focus on numbers and ensuring your little monsters have the best stats possible. This looser feel is especially prevalent in combat. Whereas Pokémon offers fairly straightforward turn-based battles, Yo-kai Watch’s are more hands off. You build a team of six yokai, three of which can be active at any moment. For the most part they act autonomously, leaving you to deal with using items and, more importantly, performing special attacks, that require you to play a series of touchscreen mini-games. RPGs are notorious for forcing you to grind through battles, and Yo-kai Watch still has this problem, but its battle system at least ensures you’re active instead of just mindlessly tapping through menus.
This was all true of the original Yo-kai Watch, and not much has changed with the sequel. Yo-kai Watch 2 is divided into two different releases — Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls — which are mostly identical, save for a few version-exclusive yokai. For the first few hours Yo-kai Watch 2 feels just like the original, right down to the monsters you encounter and the places you explore. That changes eventually, as the game opens up and offers you new places to visit, and some huge new bosses to take on. It’s not a huge departure by any stretch, though, which makes it a great starting point if you’re new to the series. The first few hours essentially get you up to speed (not that there’s a whole lot of complex story to follow) before things get a bit crazy.
Yo-kai Watch isn’t really better or worse than Pokémon — it’s just different. And those differences make it a nice complement to Nintendo’s offering. It’s big and silly, an epic and lengthy adventure that makes you feel like both a hero and a kid. It still gives you much of what Pokémon does — cool monsters to collect, a huge world to explore — but does so in a refreshingly new way. It may not have Pikachu, but Yo-kai Watch can definitely hold you over until it’s time to catch ‘em all next month.
Yo-kai Watch 2 will be available tomorrow on the Nintendo 3DS.