It’s been quite a while since I last played a good JRPG. Most recent genre entries just haven’t tickled my fancy, which hurts because I really do want to like them, but alas I am left cynical and bitter. One series that I haven’t been able to get enough of yet though is the Monster Hunter series. You’d think since Monster Hunter Rise only released in March that I would be at least a little burnt out, but you would be wrong. So now we find ourselves with Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin, the sequel to the series’ JRPG spinoff released on the 3DS back in 2016 (it honestly feels like longer than that). I actually didn’t know a whole lot about the original game aside from that fact that it had a gorgeous art style and its gameplay was more akin to something like Pokémon than Monster Hunter, so I went into this game with a lot of questions and intrigue. In the end, what I played was not what I expected at all, and I loved every minute of it.
Wings of Ruin places you in the shoes of an unnamed character (who we’ll just call Rider), the grandchild of a famed Monster Rider named Red who travelled the world investigating strange pits and lights that were aggravating the monsters of the world. You aren’t told how he died, just that he passed, leaving only memories of him with you. You start out in the village of Mahana, a small community situated on the coast of Mahana island. The game hits you with its charm almost instantly as you see this small yet lively community, with various NPCs talking to each other, smaller monsters living in harmony with humans and just an overall endearing vibe. That’s par for the course for most JRPGs as they seek to make the player feel welcome and ease them into the game, but where MHS2 feels different is how it still manages to capture the charm of Monster Hunter.
When it comes to actual story and pacing, I found Wings of Ruin’s overall narrative to be a simple story told really well. It doesn’t fall into the trope of feeding you useless details to intentionally lead you down the wrong path, instead it gives you a steady stream of information which relates to the tasks at hand while also playing into the overall larger plot. It’s not the nonsensical progression like “cook this person dinner, okay now kill God” that some games in the genre are guilty of, and it’s a nicely steady change of pace that makes MHS2 feel so much better. Not only does it have great flow as a JRPG, but it also allows for people to learn more about the actual world of Monster Hunter.
MHS2’s story revolves around a particular Rathalos, named Razewing Rathalos, who harbours a dangerous power known as the Wings of Ruin. In fact, it is said that a single flap of this Rathalos’ wings can bring about the end of the world. You stumble across this particular Rathalos as an egg, not even hatched yet, given to a Wyverian (almost like an elf) named Ena by your Grandfather’s Rathalos, Guardian Ratha. Not everyone is particularly pleased about this Rathalos’ existence, but you nonetheless make it your mission to absolve this Rathalos of crimes he is yet to commit. You meet a wide roster of characters, both old and new, and the core theme of friendship and bonds (not for renting a house) really shines through. There is a lot of character development, even in the Razewing Rathalos himself, and it’s hard to not find this story charming and gripping at the same time.
You no longer look through the lens of demonising these monsters, you look at them as actual living creatures. They have their own habits, they aren’t out to kill every human of Wyverian and, in fact, they can be quite friendly. It’s this last idea that birthed Monster Riders. Instead of hunting these monsters down and beating them to death with inhuman levels of strength and adaptability, Riders instead befriend monsters, referred to as ‘Monsties’, and use the power of Kinship to beat other monsters into death or submission. That said, the process of befriending a monster in MHS2 is truly terrifying, having you effectively try to either sneak in or just break into a monster’s den and steal unhatched monster eggs. Once you hatch them back at your home these Monsties develop a wholesome bond with the rider and they become partners. So clearly these creatures suffer from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, but let’s look past that and just enjoy MHS2 for what it is – unbridled monster kidnapping and collecting.
While most of the story and its pacing are good, there are a couple points where it can either be derailed very briefly or it can also just be outright spoiled by itself. I went in not looking at any of the story trailers for the game for the sake of spoilers and still despite this I managed to piece together two very major plot points for the game. One is the result of the daily reward system the game has which gives away character development of key characters, and the other is a character’s armour set which spoils a certain monster. People who haven’t played the recent games at all might not pick up on this, but I was able to and so it was a shame that said monster’s big reveal was already undermined by the fact that it was signalled in advance. If you’ve have intentionally remained in the dark like I have, then don’t be surprised if the game gives some of its plot points away long before you reach them. Additionally, the game’s main final boss very much encroaches on the typical JRPG end boss balancing that I’ve never been a fan of, where if you’re simply unlucky you can be completely wiped out from the fight in a single hit.
I was honestly surprised at how much of the core Monster Hunter experience has been translated so effectively into the JRPG formula in Wings of Ruin. You still hunt specified monsters for materials, you still target and break parts of monsters for additional materials, and you still capture bugs, mine ores and search bonepiles. You also still have far less Zenny than you need to complete your upgrades, and I still spend far too much time looking at Palicos because of how cute they are (and subsequently wondering why my cat feels neglected). There’s still that fine balance of damage types in play, whether it be the physical or elemental types, but its significance feels far more pronounced than what I’m used to (ignoring the infamous elemental DPS check that Alatreon had in Iceborne). As a result I found myself switching up my weapons a lot more than in the traditional Monster Hunter games. That’s not to say I was especially good at the game, as I’m classically terrible at games that require thought (it’s why I love the Soulsborne games so much), but more to say it let me explore avenues that I felt unable to explore in traditional Monster Hunter titles.
When you are fighting a monster, you have three kinds of attacks: Power, Speed and Technical. This simple system gives the combat its own kind of Rock, Paper, Scissors style of gameplay where you try and read your opponent to figure out what kind of move they’re going to use and counter it in kind. Power beats Technical, Speed beats Power, and so on. This only pertains to when you are targeted, as when you attack the monster targeting you, you will enter a ‘Head-to-Head’ fight, and the winner of this is determined by whether you effectively countered with the right move or not. Towards the end of the game, or even in critical boss battles, losing one of these can very well mean your demise as the winner deals extra damage as a result. You and your Monstie share three lives, and once the third life is used you wipe and return to the last town you rested at.
There are a few different mechanics within MHS2’s combat but the most notable one is the Kinship Gauge – virtually every action that you do in combat contributes to this gauge and once this gauge is maxed out, you can mount your Monstie and unleash a powerful Kinship Skill. This skill will interrupt whatever move your target has planned and will often be first in the priority queue for moves, allowing you to potentially knock an opponent down and leave them open for guaranteed critical hits from the rest of the party. If two Kinship Skills are used at the same time, they’ll fuse together to deal a massive amount of damage. Each Monstie has its own unique Kinship Skill and some of the earlier creature’s animations for these skills are incredibly endearing.
Wings of Ruin’s endgame isn’t particularly as meaningful as its story, not by a long shot, but it’s still nicely designed. After completing the story you’ll unlock a dungeon of sorts, which gives you specific tasks to complete on each floor. I’m not going to say much else for the sake of spoilers, but it’s definitely more than just grinding for the sake of grinding.
For my money, JRPGs typically have less-than-exemplary English voice acting (I’m looking at you Xenoblade Chronicles 2). I went in expecting MHS2 to be a case of the same, especially since mainline Monster Hunter is guilty of bad voice acting too, but I was left pleasantly surprised. This game is by no means going to win any awards for its performances, but the VA does a great job of allowing the player to feel emotion in the dialogue and in doing so you can connect to the characters. Not every character is voiced well, but a good portion of the English VA is really solid and I believe that’s down to both the voice actors doing a great job as well as the localisation team making sure that the tone of the writing and dialogue is correctly communicated in its translation.
Visually speaking, MHS2 is one of my favourite games in a long time. I had always wanted a traditional Monster Hunter game that used the art style of Monster Hunter Stories and my opinion has not changed in the slightest. The world is vibrant, the monsters are gorgeous, the characters have a simple beauty to them and the art style also allows for the models for the various armour pieces to shine. What’s fantastic about this art style as well is that it isn’t very performance heavy, so the game is largely stable. Keep in mind that I did play on PC and not Switch so I can’t really comment on the Switch’s performance but the game rarely dropped frames during my playthrough. The only performance anomalies I encountered were when you first load into the game, when you peruse the Smithy’s wares and when you go to save the game after playing for an extended period of time. Something about loading in all those models just causes the game to hitch at first, but then it’s fine afterwards. As for the hitching when trying to save the game, I’m fairly perplexed as to why it behaves this way. The game also doesn’t properly support ultrawide resolutions, but I was expecting that since World didn’t support these at launch either.
The cynic in me was expecting to be somewhat bored or disappointed in Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. JRPGs and I haven’t mixed well in the past, yet this game managed to break past all those preconceptions. Instead, I was treated to a surprisingly thoughtful and compelling tale, rife with solid characters, great pacing and an overall gameplay system that I wish had been made more use of. I find myself pondering whether I should return to some other JRPGs after playing this to give them a second chance. Monster Hunter Stories 2 absolutely sticks out as the quiet champion that a lot of people will skip, which is a shame, as I highly recommend playing this stellar game.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Nintendo Switch / PC
- July 9, 2021