It’s Monster Hunter Jim, but not as you know it!
Game: Monster Hunter Stories
Reviewed on: 3DS (Review code provided)
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for suggesting that Monster Hunter Stories isn’t a Monster Hunter game at all. You’ll see the same cute, chunky graphics and bright colours that 3DS JRPG’s have become known for, as opposed to the more sober, realistic art design of the core series.
Whilst dismissing Stories as a lesser experience than the main Monster Hunter games would be wrong, the art style means that it will undoubtedly be more more familiar to fans of other JRPG series. It is also slightly more straightforward in a structural sense, and it is most definitely easier to get to grips with during the first few hours.
What makes this remarkable is the fact that (at least to my eye) Stories also does an excellent job of offering something that the hardcore Monster Hunter fan can enjoy. Whilst hunting and harvesting monsters takes second stage to riding them, training them and hatching them to repeat the process, there is tremendous synergy among the world, the game design and the supporting characters and lore.
The game begins with a series of straightforward tasks that introduce the concept of Monster Riders and the kinship bond that exists between them. Through simple two or three page tutorials and short, easy missions, the player will learn how to explore the world, how to fight, how to track monsters to steal (and eventually hatch) their eggs and all of the surrounding paraphernalia.
Crafting, items and quest boards are all here, and based on the time I’ve spent with Monster Hunter 3, 4 and Generations, almost all key features exist in Stories, albeit sometimes in a simplified form. One exception is weapon styles, and Stories wisely uses a more traditional approach to combat based on its own unique system, albeit very much in the style of a traditional JRPG.
Combat here is turn based and the complexity is introduced via the Pokémon style switching of monsties (which is the vomit inducing name that the game uses for trained monsters) and through use of the attack selection wheel. This works like a Paper-Scissors-Stone mechanic, where power attacks beat fast ones, fast ones beat technical, and technical beat power. Guessing which attack your opponent will use (which is simply something you will learn about each monster) during a head to head is important in most battles, but only essential in some.
Learning the move set of each enemy to give yourself an edge is highly useful in Stories, but unlike other Monster Hunter games, it will rarely result in certain death. It’s a really nice way to soften the usual difficulty of others Monster Hunter games whilst at the same time still nodding to one of the mechanics that makes Monster Hunter such a challenging and well respected series.
Unlike in Pokémon, the player fights alongside the currently active Monstie and each attacks independently. Players don’t actually have direct control of their Monsties, and asking them to do specific attacks or abilities requires Kinship Points, which act like mana. As the bond between player and Monstie grows, so too does the available kinship points. Should kinship reach a particular high during battle, the player can mount their Monstie and unleash the potential for a series of powerful joint attacks.
Another nod to the usual Monster Hunter structure is the inclusion of quests like “Defeat Five Velociprey” which you can simply pick up at a Job Board and complete as a natural consequence of playing the game. Another commonality is visiting Monster Lairs to hunt out their occupants and fight them. The only difference is that in Stories, you’ll also want to seek out eggs and in turn, hatch new and rare monsters to ride on and include in your battle team.
These Lairs (much like everything else in Stories) can be found across a huge variety of different locations. From the mountainous plains and snowy tundra of the opening sections to the late game volcano that requires a Monster with high fire resistance to traverse, Stories has all of the variation that you would expect, and the unique world of Monster Hunter is recreated faithfully to the extent that it feels exactly right. Few worlds outside Monster Hunter (Xenoblade aside) offer such dramatic peaks and valleys, and Stories replicates that feel incredibly well.
Stories is also a fairly sizeable game by any measure, and there is a lot of opportunity to keep playing once the main story is done. Hatching all of the sixty-plus monsters and leveling them up, crafting the best armour and weapons and questing all play their part. For hardcore fans, it’s possible to train Monsties to do unusual things, and each hatchling has subtly different statistics, so developing the ultimate team and taking it online will be an everlasting endgame for super-fans.
I must admit that Stories really surprised me. Previous Monster Hunter games have struggled to make a lasting impression on me, but Stories has proven to be the perfect gateway drug that I think it is intended to be. I’m currently deciding if I should return to Stories and continue developing the ultimate team of a Monsties, or actually, whether I now have enough of an understanding of the world and its inhabitants that I could hack going back to Generations, for example.
Ultimately, what you choose to do after you finish Stories is irrelevant – the main thing is that you should play it. Whether you are fairly neutral about the series (as I was) or whether you’re an experienced JRPG or Monster Hunter veteran, I do think there’s a lot of game here, and it’s really fun. It looks fantastic on the 3DS, and it is joyful, accessible and deep in equal measure.