Maybe the real friends were the monsties we met along the way.
Every popular videogame series deserves a spin-off, there are almost no exceptions. Take for example platforming games like Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crash Bandicoot. What do these four all have in common? They’ve all had spin-offs popular enough to become series of their own. While these are some of the most popular examples, other games end up as quite odd alternatives to their source material. Pokémon has Pokémon Pinball (among hundreds of others), Persona has the Persona Dancing games, Dragon Quest has Dragon Quest: Monsters. The list could go on forever!
So what about Monster Hunter? The series once massively popular only in Japan is now finally finding its footing in the West. Well, there are actually a tonne of Monster Hunter spin-offs, most of which you’ve probably never heard of! There’s the Monster Hunter Diary series for PSP and 3DS which follows Felyne characters on their own journeys, Monster Hunter: Phantom Island Voyage and Monster Hunter Explore for iOS/Android, and even an arcade card game called Monster Hunter Spirits. And the commonality between all of these games? We didn’t get a single one in the West!
However, that all changed in 2016 with the worldwide release of a game by the name of Monster Hunter Stories for Nintendo 3DS and mobile. This cute, approachable spin-off combined many iconic monsters with simple combat mechanics and a monster-collecting/battling style of gameplay that was unashamedly similar to Pokémon. Its emphasis on storytelling and forgiving difficulty allowed it to stand out dramatically from the rest of the Monster Hunter games, and was an enjoyable experience for series veterans and newcomers alike.
Five years later, the next chapter in the story unfolds on Nintendo Switch and PC, with the sequel, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. Featuring a multitude of monsters, crisp animated visuals, and a deep story of ruin and redemption surrounding a loveable cast of characters, is this the Monster Hunter spin-off we’ve been patiently waiting for all this time? Well, don’t be quick to judge this story by its cutesy cover, because Wings of Ruin is possibly the most engaging storytelling experience the entire series has to offer.
On the isle of Hakolo, its peaceful inhabitants who live and work alongside monsters all know of the prophecy referring to the Wings of Ruin, an ancient tale that speaks of calamity leading to widespread destruction. The legend tells the story of the Razewing Rathalos, whose incredible power when unlocked has the ability to bring about the destruction of the entire world. Even the beating of its wings is enough to level entire cities – a true weapon of mass destruction in monster form.
Mysteriously, the mass exodus of the Rathalos species across the continent has led to the disappearance of this once powerful king of the skies. For a century not a single Rathalos has been seen, believed to possibly even be extinct. That is until the legend begins to unfold when the grandchild of a legendary rider known across the lands as Red, stumbles across what is believed to be the last Rathalos egg in existence. Word quickly spreads of the egg – hunters and riders from all corners of the continent are in pursuit not to make an epic omelette, but to hatch the egg and use the monster for their own nefarious means.
Thankfully, the protagonist is not alone in their pursuit for the truth behind the mysterious egg and the Rathalos’ disappearance. Befriended by a Wyverian girl known as Ena, who once worked alongside the legendary Red, she shares her deep knowledge of Rider culture and believes that the grandchild of Red possesses the power to prevent the impending Calamity. Gifting the player with Red’s “Kinship Stone“, this heirloom holds within it the secret to forming bonds with monsties and controlling their incredible power.
On their journey together, Ena and the player alongside comic relief, Navirou, travel to ancient civilisations, remote villages, and vast cities to unravel the secrets behind the Wings of Ruin and mysterious luminous pits appearing across the continent. Each area is home to new companions, who accompany the player and share their own stories and insights into the Calamity and the history that surrounds it. It’s an impressive, engaging story that unfolds and outshines all others in the series.
If you’re going into Monster Hunter Stories 2 expecting a traditional Monster Hunter game, you’re in for quite a shock. Although it incorporates many mechanics from the series like gathering materials, crafting weapons/armour, and of course, fighting monsters, this spin-off is more like Pokémon than its source material. However, the player isn’t throwing balls at monsters to capture them but rather raiding their nests and stealing their eggs instead!
Scattered throughout the overworld are Monster Dens – randomised dungeons that contain a nest, harvesting spots and treasure chests, and are home to as variety of monsters. These dens come in various forms: some appear at random, others with gold or silver designs that house rare monster species, or “Everdens” that remain permanently but change with each visit. Once an egg has been obtained (stolen), it can be taken back to the hatchery and potentially added to your team of 6 monsters that fight alongside the player. The hatchery also has the ability to perform a “Rite of Channeling” which transfers skills across monsters but requires one to be sacrificed in the process. How barbaric.
Monsters are divided into three broad categories: power, technical, and speed. These determine the main proficiency of the monster and how they fare not only in combat, but in exploration. Certain monsters who are swift will be able to leap across gaps to access new areas, others with brute strength can smash down boulders that impede progress, and eventually some will learn new skills that allow even further exploration. While these are incredibly similar to the “HMs” that have been a staple of Pokémon, they are rarely necessary in order to progress the story.
Over the course of the game, the gameplay proceeds in somewhat of a loop. Once arrived at a new location, the player will befriend a new “Battle Buddy” to assist in the adventure, complete several quests assigned by the leader of the village, and in doing so discover more about the Razewing Rathalos and the impending calamity. The additional loop of “exploration > den > battle > nest > hatch” repeats throughout each area and is simple but rarely tiresome. Grinding is seldom necessary and the pacing of the game is pleasant and does not at all feel padded or drawn out. It’s satisfying to unlock new monsters to add to your team and become more proficient in combat, which is one of the most important aspects of the game!
“Scissors-paper-rock but with monsters” is likely how many players would label the combat of Monster Hunter Stories, but there’s far more depth to it than that. This is, however, a key element and is the foundation around which the rest build upon. Basic come in three forms: power, technical, and speed. Monsters can also be swapped out once per turn and will generally have a preference for using a particular type of attack unless ordered otherwise. By choosing the right option in each situation, the “Kinship Gauge” fills and can be used to perform skills, assign attacks to your chosen monster. Once completely filled, the gauge allows the player to ride their monster and unleash a devastating Kinship Skill. These special skills are the most satisfying aspect of the game thanks to their detailed and often amusing animations.
Thankfully, the simple combat draws upon many elements (see what I did there?) of combat that Monster Hunter fans will definitely appreciate. Weapon types feature heavily and each have advantages over particular monsters or become more effective when targeting certain parts. Unlike the original games, three weapons can be equipped at once and swapped out once per turn. The play styles of each reflects how the weapons can be utilised in different ways – hammers specialise in smashing monster parts, great swords charge up and hit with incredible force, even hunting horns can be used to buff yourself and the rest of the party.
Items are also cleverly incorporated into the combat of Stories and reward the player when used at opportune moments. Knocking a flying monster out of the sky with a Flash Bomb, restraining a large monster in a Pitfall Trap, or unleashing an explosive barrel bomb are as satisfying as ever and add an extra level of depth to battles. Skilful manipulation of items will be second nature to series veterans, who will likely even be able to predict the types of attack that each monster will use.
To make combat even more engaging, monsters may “face off” at any moment, which will trigger a short quick time sequence requiring specific inputs from the player. By mashing buttons or spinning analogue sticks, your monster will compete directly with the opponent and if successful deal extra damage and fill the Kinship Gauge rapidly. These sequences are repetitive and mostly very easy, but the visuals that accompany them are impressive and make the turn-based battles feel more dynamic.
There’s no doubt that this is one of the best looking Monster Hunter games in the entire series, even when compared to the mainline games. This is not due to its attention-to-detail or graphical finesse, but mainly as a result of the unique art-style chosen to represent the characters and monsters in the game. Rather than trying to replicate the gritty, realistic style of Monster Hunter World or Rise, Stories instead opts for vibrant, crisp cel-shaded graphics. Although the environments can at times appear jagged and polygonal, character models look excellent in this style, and many of the cutscenes feel as if watching a CGI anime.
Although the design of the Dens can at times be bland and repetitive, the unique village locations are particularly aesthetically pleasing, each with a distinct design appropriate to the locale. Playing both in handheld and docked mode, there were some moments where the framerate seemed inconsistent and jittery, though this did not detract from the overall experience. Additionally, as mentioned above, many impressive Kinship Skill animations feature during combat and keep the combat looking stylish enough to grab your attention.
Monster Hunter is a series widely-respected for its music, as I’m sure many series veterans will agree. Facing off against a fearsome Zinogre, Bazelgeuse, or Elder Dragon wouldn’t be anywhere near as tense without an incredible score to accompany it. Thankfully Monster Hunter Stories is no exception! The soundtrack can be divided into two broad categories: large, epic orchestral pieces with sweeping strings and blaring brass for tense and triumphant moments, or fast-paced, tribal percussion with rhythmic melodies for the heat of battle. While you’ll hear some music that’s recurrent throughout the series, most of the tracks are unique to Wings of Ruin and seem fit with the gameplay perfectly. Here are two examples of these vastly different musical styles:
With far more of a focus on story than most other Monster Hunter games, there’s a considerable amount of fully-voiced dialogue, which can be changed between English and Japanese audio at any time. Being the weeb that I am, Japanese voiceovers were my preference and made the entire experience feel authentically like an anime, particularly when paired with the visuals. Cutscenes are often tense and emotive, and the quality of the voice acting is among some of the best I’ve encountered.
The only criticism with regards to the audio relates to some of the sound effects during combat. When a monster is knocked down, the same audio snippet of a pained cry will play on loop until the monster is back on its feet again. When this grating noise repeats sometimes for even a minute or two, it’s tempting to turn the sound off until your eardrums are no longer being assaulted.
In addition to the main story, there’s plenty of optional content to keep players invested both during and after the single-player campaign. Postgame content features areas that were previously inaccessible and more powerful monsters to fight and hatch. Numerous side quests are available, most of which revolve around hunting a particular monster or procuring rare items – these will unlock new recipes and skills to reward the player. Monsties can also put their skills to the test in arena battles, where groups of enemies must be defeated within a set number of turns.
Two online modes are also available, which include PvP where players can battle head-to-head, and even online co-op if wanting to team up and explore dens together. Though I only briefly touched on these gameplay modes, it’s a nice option for those wanting a more social experience from a game that has an emphasis on single player. Future DLC outlined in a recent roadmap plans to add extra content to the game, including rare monsties and exclusive co-op quests, so this might keep dedicated players coming back. Sadly most of the current DLC is lacklustre and not worth your hard-earned Zenny; it’s disappointing many of the game’s costumes for Ena and Navirou can only be accessed through an additional purchase.
Despite being so dissimilar to the series on which it is based, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin achieves a unique blend of gameplay and manages to deliver a relaxed, charming, and engaging plot-centric JRPG experience over a ~40 hour adventure. What may seem like a Pokémon game with a Monster Hunter skin on the surface is actually a standout spin-off with more than enough to set itself apart in the monster-battling genre. Long-term series fans will be familiar with many gameplay elements and no doubt enjoy seeing iconic monsters in new settings, where series newcomers will be able to experience this brilliant franchise in an approachable, forgiving way. This story is a page-turner and a fine addition to the already vast Monster Hunter library.
So, why should you play it?
- Engaging story, loveable characters, and stylish presentation.
- Plenty of gameplay elements taken from the main series.
- An approachable way for newcomers to explore the series.
- Are you a fan of Pokémon? You’re almost certain to enjoy this.
- Amusing dialogue and dynamic monster animations.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Repetitive gameplay loop may lose some players’ interest.
- Simple scissors/paper/rock style combat will not appeal to everyone.
A review code for Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.
All screenshots and gameplay footage were captured on Nintendo Switch.