A spin-off that gets it so, so right.
As a spin-off of the popular action series, Monster Hunter Stories expands the world with a shiny, new, undeniably cute coat of paint. But don’t let that deter you, because Monster Hunter Stories’ heartwarming story is served with amazingly fun RPG gameplay that never gets old, even beyond the 50-hour campaign.
Instead of slicing your way through beasts and wyverns in real-time action a la the usual Monster Hunter style, Monster Hunter Stories features a turn-based battle system with you and your monster pal at your side against up to three enemies. These ally monsters are called “Monsties,” a kind of cringey but funny term, and it definitely isn’t the sole instance of questionable nomenclature. But I was able to easily overlook the silliness, and even began to enjoy it in between the action.
When in battle, the three rock-paper-scissors style basic attacks – Power, Tech, and Speed – forced me to put thought into my choices even before considering the special skills, combos, single-use items, or elemental strengths and weaknesses of each monster.
Winning a rock-paper-scissors matchup against an enemy grants power to your Kinship Gauge, a meter that feeds special skills and lets you ride your Monstie, a mechanic that in turn lets you unleash devastating and super cool Kinship Abilities. Different weapon types with different skill sets, such as Great Swords with damaging slash skills, and Hunting Horns with supportive melodies, provide even more variety to every battle. With up to five combatants on the field at once, the multiple animations can drag a bit, but to keep things at a fast pace – literally – you can up the animation speed.
There are a lot of nuances to the battle system, and together with more than a hundred different monsters to encounter with different attack patterns, strengths, and weaknesses, battles remained interesting and engaging throughout the entirety of Monster Hunter Stories.
Like other Monster Hunter games, items are super important in and out of battle. Unlike other Monster Hunter games, however, there is no convoluted inventory management in Stories, for which I am so, so thankful. Instead of worrying about storing materials at your house, you just have to be mindful of the 10 items assigned to a battle pouch, as bringing the right items to battle can really turn the tides. A well-planned Pitfall Trap can prevent an enemy from moving for a few turns, and an Antidote can help significantly when up against a venomous monster.
Never a Grind
Monster Hunter Stories is much, much more than its battling system, too. Each new area opened up new possibilities, and my innate urge to explore not only rewarded me with necessary XP, but also with materials for new weapons and upgraded armor; and new or enhanced Monsties. Plus, these areas can be explored while riding your Monsties by ground, air, water, and even lava, and more areas of the map can be discovered with special field skills. Honestly, it felt rad to fly around on the back of a Rathalos, or to discover a cliff full of resources by climbing up ivy on a Tigrex. With so many things I wanted to see, do, and discover, I found myself accidentally grinding, not because I needed to progress to the story, but because it was fun.
Fighting rare monsters gave me access to their crafting materials and a chance to find their randomly generated dens (where the eggs are), so there are plenty of reasons to seek out and battle them beyond leveling. There are also Lost Poogies, cute little costumed pigs, to find hidden throughout the large, beautiful world, and the chance for rare monster dens to spawn. I never found myself venturing out and fighting just for the sake of progressing to the next area, and so I naturally leveled in accordance to the pace of the story.
I never ventured out to fight just for the sake of progressing to the next area.
All of this exploring gave me plenty of materials to put Monster Hunter Stories’ crafting system to good use, which is simplified compared to the usual Monster Hunter. Instead of requiring a super-rare monster drop, like a Rathalos’ plate, to craft powerful gear, you only need a certain number of materials. Rare drops are just worth more than common items. So no grinding the same monster for hours searching for that one-percent-chance drop. That rewarding fight-carve-craft loop of Monster Hunter works for the action game, but the streamlined version is welcome in Stories.
I most often searched for rare dens with monster eggs to steal, hatch, and raise in my own customized way to add to my collection of Monsties. With more than 100 monsters roaming around, gathering them is a daunting but delightful task. Finding each nest, collecting each egg, and hatching new Monsties all provide the same sort of rush I get from opening a blind box or pack of Pokemon cards. But even if I got a duplicate Monstie or one I would probably never add to my party, the effort was never wasted because of the Rite of Channeling, a fantastic customization system.
Each Monstie has a set of nine “gene” slots – basically placeholders for skills. These can be passive, like fire resistance, or active, like a fireball attack. You can add any skill you want to a gene slot by using items or combining monsters, allowing you to get fascinatingly creative with them. Want a Rathalos with a Khezu’s Thunder Breath? A Tigrex with the ability to put foes to sleep? You can do it. You can do anything as long as you find the ingredients to accomplish it, and you never know what sort of useful gene you can uncover in the Monsties you hatch.
Resolutions Too Late
Despite the great sense of wonder Monster Hunter Stories does so well to maintain, it suffers from a just-barely-challenging-enough level of difficulty throughout its long campaign. As long as I had a balanced team, didn’t go into a fight with a poor armor choice, and put thought into my choices, I didn’t find anything frustrating – which is fine, but I also wouldn’t have minded a sense of urgency. It’s not even that it’s too terribly difficult to drop to zero HP, it’s that there are very few consequences for when that happens.
Harkening back to the original Monster Hunter, you have to drop to zero HP three times in order to fail. With both you and your Monstie on the field at the same time, it isn’t entirely uncommon for both of you to go down at once – on the same turn, even. However, regardless of whether just one or both of you lose all of your HP, you will both simply stand back up, fully recovered, ready to continue the battle, a couple of times. There are even items you can use in the midst of battle that recover one of these chances.
If you do drop to zero HP three times, you simply “wake up” at one of the always-nearby respawn points with no progress lost except the potential rewards you could have gained by defeating the monster and the items used. The only real sense of danger is when carrying an egg out of a nest, as you will lose it if defeated at that moment.
Though the story provided nothing too difficult to conquer, especially so when paired with the extremely forgiving death system, there was plenty of challenge in finding and hatching rare monsters. I also had fun competing in the Tournament, which uses the same format as PvP – yes, there’s PvP! There are increasingly difficult endgame challenges as well, including the Tower of Illusion and the Labyrinth of Ordeals, plus new high-rank quests to complete and monsters to discover.
These two end game challenges actually provide the consequences lacking in the main story, but considering they’re only accessible 40 or more hours in, it’s a little too late to consider the issue solved entirely. It does provide a lot more challenging content though, and we can expect even more to come with DLC in the future.
A Little Fluff Never Hurt
The solid gameplay is definitely its main selling point, but Monster Hunters Stories’ namesake – its story – isn’t something to overlook, either. It may be a bit fluffy and the dialogue occasionally gimmicky, but it also managed to elicit genuine surprise and emotion. Navirou, the little Felyne mascot, serves as much more than your silent-RPG-trope’s voice, and developed into a cute character I must admit I sort of admire. Other characters you meet along the way, although aren’t fleshed out entirely in the main story, were still memorable and charming in their own ways. Seriously, I teared up at the end, but then again I’m a sucker for heartfelt kids’ media. Just like Pokemon.
Rewarding that kind of knowledge made me happy to be a fan.
It’s also worth mentioning there’s quite a bit of “fan-service,” so to speak, for players of the series, and any Monster Hunter knowledge is absolutely transferable to and from Stories. Old sound effects are familiar, monsters more or less use the same signature attacks and are weak to the same elements, and hidden item uses are still intact. One of my favorite moments in Monster Hunter Stories was when hunting a Diablos; though Stories didn’t clue me in on this, I called on my experience with the series and threw a Sonic Bomb at the horned wyvern as soon as it dug underground, causing it to stick in the mud and giving my Monstie and me a chance to wale on it relentlessly. Rewarding that kind of knowledge made me happy to be a fan.