The genre of monster battling games is one with a clear ruler. The iron fist of Pokémon holds sway over the entire landscape, meaning that if another developer wants to step in the ring, they mostly have two choices: go head-to-head, or offer something unique enough to stand out. This has mixed results, with titles like Yo-kai Watch offering a unique (though dull at times) experience, and ‘head-to-headers’ often being bashed as clones. Thankfully, Monster Hunter: Stories chose to go the ‘unique’ route, and I am pleased that it did.
Combining two of the most addictive IPs to ever grace the handheld device market sounds like a no-brainer, but it still requires finesse to pull it off – particularly with Monster Hunter players having a very established expectation of what they need from a MH title. A delightfully cutesy artstyle is quick to communicate that this isn’t your average Monster Hunter – and that isn’t a bad thing by any stretch.
Monster friends are downright adorable
In Stories you play as a newly trained Monster Rider – a group of warriors that choose to befriend, raise and fight alongside their Monsties (monster+besties, no I am not making this up) rather than hunt and slay them for materials. You do this by pilfering eggs to hatch into new friends, who you then form a relationship with via a wrist-mounted macguffin that effectively serves to represent the power of friendship. This power then allows you to save the world on a grand scale (and pull off some dope moves along the way).
Narrative-wise, the game has a fairly safe, yet engaging story – the prologue serves to show why you are destined to be such a great Monster Rider one day (you make a monster friend without needing your friendship macguffin) before a huge tragedy splinters your human friendships and sets the stage for the entire game. This storytelling is made riveting with fully rendered cutscenes that are awe inspiring, showcasing a quality that you often miss when dealing with a handheld title. This is coupled with amazing dialogue sequences that are entirely voice-acted (in original Japanese with subtitles) and brilliant in-game animation on the NPCs and player character. You can even forgive the massively foreshadowed ‘former friend becomes a massive dick’ plot thread because the vehicle that drives you there is just so damn fun.
I also have to salute the game for pulling off a respectable opening gambit – managing to hide the player character’s identity until such time as you have a chance to use the character creator. Throughout the prologue you are present – even playable – though cleverly hidden so that when the game begins proper, and you forge your identity you can heroically reveal yourself. Having seen this done in the past in horrible hackneyed ways (You were wearing a mask! Never in camera shot! Got hurt and your face got changed!), it’s refreshing to see it nailed so well.
Any expert knows hatching is equal parts incubation and tapping the living shit out of the egg
You can influence your monster pal when you feel you need to step in, or instead leave it on auto-pilot
The power of friendship macguffin – only slightly cooler than the Planeteers ‘Heart’ ring
The gameplay itself is amazingly straightforward to pick up, utilising a foundation that effectively makes use of a simple to understand Rock/Paper/Scissors format of what attacks are effective in what situation. From here the gameplay then works to expand itself by introducing a range of mechanics that reward good player choices, while encouraging an understanding of what you and your monsters are capable of in any particular situation. This stands out when you play well, as particular choices that are effective against an opponent will reward you with the opportunity to perform powerful team up moves with your Monstie, or even receive additional items at the end of a battle.
The game also does a great job making your Monsties feel realistic, by employing an AI approach to battles. Yo-kai watch suffers at times for its hands-off gameplay (in that game, monsters effectively perform autonomously with minimum input from you) but within Monster Hunter: Stories it instead becomes a case of player choice. You can influence your monster pal when you feel you need to step in, or instead leave it on auto-pilot to make its own battle choice while you control your characters attacks. This provides many a chin scratching moment when approaching a prospective battle, wondering what Monstie might perform well enough on its own, or how much input you feel willing to do. Micromanaging becomes a very real choice should you wish to go down that road.
Behold, the ancient wisdom of Captain Obvious
Like any Monster Hunter title, the game offers a plethora of missions-based activities to do. The main storyline can be advanced whenever you feel like it, so if you would rather sink hours into fishing, mining, murdering, exploring or even just picking flowers for various townfolk NPCs or the job board, you are welcome to. This allows you to amass wealth and EXP without simply grinding all day and night. You can even connect to the Internet to process downloadable missions, so when you eventually grow tired of the included sidequests you can download some more time to burn.
The pacing of the games story isn’t bad by any stretch, but there is a measurable feeling of the odd section starting to drag on occasion. It may be my compulsive need to grab every lootable item as I progress through a game world, but at times a dynamic section of the games story had its impact lessened by the time it took for me to approach and eventually achieve my objective. This isn’t helped by the game’s reluctance to offer fast travel during it’s opening act, setting an expectation that you may well need to hoof it to every goal, before unveiling the glorious convenience in the second act. Open world fast travel however (the ability to ditch where you are and teleport home) still comes at a consumable cost, which though it is not unaffordable, is inconvenient at times when you realise you simply forgot to stock up and now need to walk like a peasant to a fast travel node.
Tell me this isn’t a dynamic team ready to save the whole world
An adventure that fits in your pocket, but is far from pocket sized – Monster Hunter Stories is a fun title that is both refreshingly new, and exceptionally familiar.
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS