Level-5’s Yo-Kai Watch drew plenty of comparisons to Pokémon when it first came West, thanks to its monster-gathering mechanics and playground appeal, but it really started to resemble Nintendo’s Pocket Monster powerhouse with the split release of its 2016 sequel: Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits and Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls. And just as with Pokémon since the Gold and Silver days, a third incarnation followed soon after to cap off the generation, localized as this latest title in the series: Yo-Kai Watch 2: Psychic Specters. Adding in new quests, new Yo-Kai, and some fantastic new areas to explore, this is undoubtedly the best of the bunch, and a wonderful game besides — a polished, charming RPG that stands among the 3DS’ best.

Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that if you’ve played either Bony Spirits or Fleshy Souls, Psychic Specters is very nearly the same game; there are some notable additions that we’ll cover later on, but for the most part the story and structure remain the same. You’ll play as an elementary school boy or girl in the town of Springdale, and along with your faithful Yo-Kai friends — ghostly, thoroughly endearing creatures from Japanese folklore — you’ll set off on a new adventure to uncover the mystery behind some unsettling, very likely Yo-Kai-related occurrences in Springdale and beyond.

At least, you will after a bit of a warm up. Yo-Kai Watch 2 kicks off with some disreputable demons stealing both your character’s Yo-Kai Watch and their memory, so you’ll spend the first few hours more or less repeating some familiar beats from the first game: meeting key Yo-Kai like Whisper and Jibanyan, unmasking the cheeky spectres causing arguments and anomalies around town, and gradually exploring more and more of Springdale.

The basic gameplay template remains largely unchanged from the first title as well: it’s a Pokémon-style monster-friend-‘em-up, where you’ll roam the city taking on quests, meeting new Yo-Kai to add to your 6-member team, and challenging opposing Yo-Kai, in both smaller encounters and larger boss battles that advance the episodic plot.

These battles are one area in which Yo-Kai feels completely different to its Pocket Monster inspirations. Instead of commanding your team by selecting moves from a menu, as in Pokémon or most turn-based RPGs, your Yo-Kai will act on their own, using either physical attacks, special moves, or buffs/debuffs as they see fit. Each Yo-Kai also has its own ‘Soultimate’ power, however, and this you can control; by selecting a Yo-Kai with a full Soul gauge and playing a quick mini-game on the touchscreen — tapping spheres, spinning a circle, or tracing shapes, for instance — you can unleash these powerful moves, complete with an always-charming cut-in cutscene.

Soultimates aren’t the only source of interactivity in Yo-Kai combat, either; though you’ll usually fight enemies in groups of three, your own six-monster team is arranged in a circle, with three active at any one time, and you can ‘spin’ this circle around using the touchscreen (or shoulder buttons) whenever you like during a fight. Placing Yo-Kai of the same Tribe (think type) next to each other can yield bonuses, and between making sure healers are in the front line when needed, cycling in charged-up Yo-Kai to trigger series of Soultimates, and pulling out ‘Inspirited’ Yo-Kai to ‘Purify’ them with more mini-games, there’s always something to do; we never felt uninvolved.

Aside from a few new touchscreen mini-games and the addition of tag-team ‘M Soultimate’ moves, not much in combat has changed since the first Yo-Kai Watch, but that’s just fine by us. It might not be for everyone, and there will absolutely be moments when you wish you could just order your demons directly, but we still love the kinetic nature of Yo-Kai battles. It feels utterly unique as an RPG combat style, and — especially thanks to the ability to speed up fights with ‘X’ — stays fun and engaging throughout.

We mentioned that Yo-Kai Watch 2 starts off with strong déjà vu, and while that’s certainly true it doesn’t stick around for long. The first game’s Springdale setting still features in the story, but after five or so hours in you’ll start unlocking new towns — like sleepy rural Harrisville and seaside San Fantastico — and soon after, the ability to time-travel to the Springdale of 60 years ago. 

Between the time-traveling element and these new locations, there’s tons of new real estate to explore in this second Yo-Kai adventure. Wandering Harrisville’s rice paddies and riverbed, tumbling down San Fantastico’s breezy hills, and diving into the sepia-toned Springdale of the past is a blast, and feels just as special as discovering Springdale for the first time. The outstanding presentation plays a big part, too; everything looks fantastic, and really comes to life with the 3D effect on, while the new music fits right in with returning tunes from the first game’s soundtrack.

And as much as there is to do in and around Springdale — including excellent new mechanical additions like Challenge Doors and “Name That Yo-Kai” quiz spots — one of the most impactful changes in Yo-Kai Watch 2 is how you get between them, on the vastly expanded train system. Before you can warp from point to point using helpful mirror Yo-Kai, you’ll have to get around town just like everyone else: by buying a ticket and hopping aboard the fully-realized rail system.

This is admittedly a divisive point, because it’s basically the opposite of ‘fast travel’; riding Springdale’s rails means watching the train journey unfold stop-to-stop, with a prompt to alight or remain on the train at every station and the possibility for chats, cutscenes, or Yo-Kai battles between each stop. A journey between Springdale Central and Harrisville, with nearly a dozen stops and one line change, can easily take 15 real-world minutes — and that’s assuming you don’t get on the wrong train!

But what they lack in speed, the trains more than make up for in fun. We loved exploring the system, hopping on and off to take in the scenery at different stations along the way, and watching our character have heart-to-hearts with Jibanyan, Whisper and other Yo-Kai friends. It’s the kind of beautifully inefficient, stop-and-smell-the-roses mechanic that’s there purely for the fun of it, and it also plays into one of Yo-Kai Watch’s biggest strengths as a series: the feeling of wonder and adventure that comes from a child-sized sense of scale. Taking a train to visit grandparents all alone is a big event in the life of a kid, and that’s exactly how it feels here: a real journey with hurdles, inconveniences and surprises along the way.

That feeling carries over into plenty of other aspects of the game as well, and it makes Psychic Specters incredibly charming to play through. Earning pocket change instead of massive amounts of money from battles and quests, clambering up and tip-toeing along low walls to find secrets, or being able to kick empty soda cans endlessly along the road — and into open recycling bins for a bonus! — all contribute to the sense of being a small kid in a big world. If Pokémon games feel like the globe-spanning adventures you wished you had as a child, Yo-Kai feels like the ones you actually went on; just with a few more monsters at your side.

We’d be remiss not to mention those monsters specifically, in fact, because the lovable Yo-Kai themselves are the real stars of the show. From twin-tailed cats to macho tofu, samurai cicadas to dream-eating doggos, incontinent elephants to buff blowfish, there’s a Yo-Kai for almost everything, and each one has a ton of personality. Coming across new creatures is reason enough to search everywhere the titular Yo-Kai Watch indicates paranormal presence, and they’re as diverse in character as they are in stats and techniques. We still wish they were easier to befriend — it’s luck based and only slightly improved from the first title — but even with the ones that got away we never had any trouble assembling a six-specter team we loved.

All that was true of the first two Yo-Kai Watch 2 releases, of course, so what’s new in Psychic Specters? The biggest addition is that a new train’s come to the Springdale system — the ghoulish Hexpress night service, which heads directly to Gera Gera Resort. This all-new area is Disney World for the demonic set, complete with an unearthly amusement park, traditional restaurant, Kabuki theatre, and Spirited Away-style bathhouse. The neon-lit nighttime colours and fantastical setting really set Gera Gera Resort apart, and it’s a fantastic way to extend the post-game fun; right from the moment you hop on the Hexpress there are lots of problems to solve, spirits to help and foes to battle, and the otherworldly escape makes a great contrast to the more earthly trappings of the main game. 

Outside of Gera Gera Resort, there are also a handful of quests exclusive to Psychic Specters sprinkled throughout the game. Most of the new vignettes focus on the backstories of major characters in the game — like Whisper, Darknyan, Dame Dedtime — or on fun, fanservicey missions (like rounding up human actors for a Yo-Kai movie shoot), and they’re all a good time. There are also a few new exclusive Yo-Kai — variations on Kyubi and Venoct, some bosses, and the newly befriendable Wicked tribe — though for us these feel like less of a selling point, especially since the Wicked tribe has some of the least exciting designs in the Yo-Kai kingdom.

Elsewhere, the local-multiplayer Blasters mode — where you take direct control of a Yo-Kai and run around the city battling gargantuan oni in an overhead beat-‘em-up — has been expanded with quite a few new bosses. This can be fun with the right crowd — we think younger players especially will have a great time in four-player co-op — so it’s nice to have more bosses to battle, and linking up with Bony Spirits or Fleshy Souls will let you fight new exclusive enemies in those games as well. Along with Psychic Blasters, Psychic Specters also includes the bevy of multiplayer features from earlier games, so you can link up to battle (either casually or in ‘official’ league matches) and trade, locally and online.

In terms of updates, then, Psychic Specters adds quite a bit on top of the Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls formula. It’s definitely the best of the trio, but whether or not that’s enough to warrant a purchase if you’ve already played through either of its previous iterations will likely come down to how much you enjoy the Yo-Kai world; Gera Gera Resort and the new backstory-focused quests are perfect for players keen to soak up as much of the Yo-Kai universe as possible. Best of all, there’s an option to import save data from Bony Spirits or Fleshy Souls before you begin, so you won’t have to play through the main quest again to access any of the new content; you can pop in Psychic Specters and hop right on the Hexpress, with all your Yo-Kai friends along for the ride.

Conclusion

Yo-Kai Watch 2: Psychic Specters isn’t just the best Yo-Kai game currently available outside of Japan, it’s also a fantastic title in its own right. Though its opening hours retrace the first Yo-Kai Watch a bit too faithfully, the rest of the experience is absolutely worth it; this is an endlessly charming RPG that captures the fun and wonder of childhood adventure, with the added excitement of a few hundred paranormal pals. This Psychic Specters edition perfects the formula, and if you’ve never played any version of Yo-Kai Watch 2, this is the one to get — though even if you’ve already pledged allegiance to the Bony Spirits or Fleshy Souls, there’s plenty here to draw you back in, and a save-import function means you won’t have to start from scratch. A highly recommended haunting.