Monster Hunter Stories (3DS) Review
I have a weakness for monster-collection games. There’s something about encountering weird, wonderful creatures and raising them to take on tougher and tougher challenges. You see them grow and evolve, somehow building a sort of bond with these collections of pixels. And then you sick them against your friend’s monsters and kick their ass. It’s great. Monster Hunter Stories throws you into a cartoony version of the Monster Hunter universe, where instead of hunting down monsters with real-time combat, you team up with monsters you raise yourself to fight other monsters in turn-based combat. It seems like quite a departure from what the series is known for, but it manages to translate key parts of the main games into interesting functions in a turn-based RPG. The result is a unique new take on the genre with a lot of charm.
The world of Stories is a curious one – it’s set in the regular Monster Hunter universe but it fleshes it out by introducing the concept of Monster Riders, who are more secretive than the Monster Hunters but co-exist amongst them. While Monster Hunters equip themselves with weapons and armour to go and hunt and kill monsters, Riders instead see monsters as more than things to hunt. They care about monsters, and so steal their eggs to raise their babies as their own and take them out to fight other monsters to the death. I’m being a bit facetious, but it’s a weird thing to think about when your monster buddies (dubbed ‘Monsties’) are hunting down their own kind. When you look past that there’s a neat story about Hunters and Riders learning from each other about humanity’s place in nature.
The core loop of the game involves boosting your party’s strength by raising new monsters and crafting new equipment for yourself. To get new monsters you need to find monster dens strewn throughout the world. The locations of these change each time you enter an area, so there’s a reason to go exploring even in areas you frequently visit. Once you’re inside the den you need to search for the egg nest and will encounter monsters along the way who are ready for a fight. In a lot of dens, the egg nest is really easy to find, but dens of rarer monsters will sometimes have branching paths that you’ll need to scour. When you find the nest you may come face to face with a stronger monster whose eggs you can find in the nest – you’ll be able to sneak around them occasionally but normally they must be fought. Other times the nest might be empty, but not for long – if you spend too long looking for a better monster egg then the mummy or daddy monster might show up and hunt you down. It’s a very tense situation because you have to weigh up whether or not the egg you’ve found is good enough to keep. If you keep searching for a new one the nest might run out of eggs or a tough monster might show up, and you could get locked into a worse one. When you’ve finally got an egg you can hatch it and take on the resulting Monstie as a new party member.
You’ll need to make sure that you keep your own strength up as well by purchasing or forging new equipment. To do that you’ll need money and monster parts. The former you can get by taking on quests to hunt certain monsters or find certain items, and the latter will require you to battle monsters who drop the parts needed for that equipment. There’s a lot of things to consider when picking your equipment – some weapons deal more damage, sure, and some armour reduces damage. But there are four weapon types that each make different skills available for you, and some weapons deal different types of damage as well. A monster crafted from parts of a fire-breathing monster will have the fire element applied to its attacks, which is great for a monster that’s weak to fire, but if you’re going up against a monster that resists fire then you’ll want to ensure you’ve got a different weapon to switch to before the battle begins. The same is true for armour – each suit of armour will provide you different skills and each has its own elemental resistances that you’ll need to keep in mind so that you don’t disadvantage yourself. Equipping items built from monster parts will give bonus effects when you battle alongside that monster, which is another thing that’s cute on the surface but has some dark undertones. Just don’t think about it, and focus on the cute aspect of you and your buddy having a co-ordinated style.
Monster Hunter Stories pits you and a Monstie partner up against enemies in turn-based battles. You wander the game world in real-time, but when you collide with an enemy monster a battle will begin. The foundation of the battle system is a Rock/Paper/Scissors style system using attacks that fall into the Power, Speed or Technique category. If two combatants target each other than the dominant attack wins out, and if you and your Monstie partner both used a dominant attack against an enemy you’ll deal even more damage. It sounds simple enough, but there are other mechanics that provide additional layers of complexity. For instance, Monsties act of their own accord most of the time. To command them directly you need to build up Kinship power by picking the correct attacks in battle, and even then you can only select their equipped skills which don’t always fit into a Power/Speed/Technique category. So you’ll need to make sure you pick a Monstie who’s inclined to pick the attacks you need. There’s a lot more in play than first meets the eye, but some mechanics you need to work out for yourself since there’s not a lot of explanation of how they work. There’s nothing too complex, but sometimes you find yourself thinking “Oh cool, that’s an awesome thing I did. No idea how, but I’ll take it”. For example, there are some quicktime events that occur in battle sometimes that can give you an edge, but they occur seemingly at random. There’s no way to turn them off, either, so if you struggle with quick button mashing or analogue stick spinning then you’ll be at a disadvantage.
Monster Hunter fans will be surprised at how well Stories translates key concepts from the main games into its battles and design. Monsters need to be observed in order for you to make informed judgments in battles. Monsters fall into attack patterns like using a set number of Power attacks in a row before switching to a Technical one. Enemies provide visual clues as to what action they will take, and there are ways of observing and researching monsters with abilities and items that give you more information on their behaviour and weaknesses. I’m not sure if I’m imagining things but it seems to me that Monsties can learn enemy attack patterns the more you face that monster species, which is handy. You’ll also need to observe your Monsties if you’re not giving them commands – they’ll be looking at their target so you can gang up on them to deal more damage. There are some smaller mechanical callbacks as well, such as certain boss monsters having specific body parts that can be targeted, and the ability to trap monsters to prevent them from taking action for a few turns.
The world of Monster Hunter is brought to life in a charming new way through Stories’ art style and world design. Over 100 classic monsters from across the series are playable, and there’s several more that aren’t. They’re all instantly recognisable through their designs and behaviour, even the more Chibi-styled Monstie versions of each one. They especially come alive in their special Kinstone attacks that you can activate with max Kinship power – there’s some really funny ones like the Aptonoth falling over on your enemies, or the Yian Kut-Ku coughing up its lunch as dangerous fireballs.
The game world is open..ish – you gradually unlock new portions of the map as you progress through the story, but within those areas you’re mostly free to explore as you see fit. Each zone of the game has a large city or village as well as a central hub area, with monster dens and dungeons branching off of it. The game’s art style makes the varied locations in the game really pop – there’s some striking scenes of lush green forests and bright, glowing lava. There’s several reasons to explore each area other than to find new monster buddies as they hold items you can use in crafting and collectibles that grant bonuses. The awe of the world is brought down a bit by performance issues, though. In cities there’s some blatantly obvious pop-in and frame rate issues occur quite frequently when exploring. I’ve even noticed a few instances of monsters or objects in the world slowing down the frame rate of their animations to near stop-motion levels.
It’ll take you at least 30 hours to get through the story of Stories, and can potentially take much longer if you focus on boosting your Monstie collection and clearing all the quests you can. For the most part the game isn’t too difficult, but there are some rough difficulty spikes during the story. When you’ve cleared that there’s some tough postgame content to take on and you can also turn your focus to the PvP multiplayer modes (both local and online). If you want to do well in these areas then you’ll need to make use of more advanced mechanics like item crafting and the ability to fuse monsters together to transfer abilities from one to the other.
Stories does support amiibo, but the functions that most people will have access to is quite boring – scan any amiibo and it’ll give you a random item. The cooler function requires the Monster Hunter Stories series of amiibo which haven’t been announced for release outside of Japan but will still work with English copies of the game. Scanning these amiibo will give you a monster based off the partner of key story characters. These monsters aren’t exclusive but come pre-loaded with genes that they don’t normally come with in the wild. You can theoretically make these same combinations without the amiibo but it can be time consuming. More info on these features can be found in Mon Amiibo’s Monster Hunter Stories amiibo guide.
Monster Hunter Stories is a great new addition to the monster-collection genre, boasting unique mechanics and a beautiful world filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters. In spite of the shifts in genre and art style Stories manages to feel and play like a Monster Hunter game, allowing it to serve as a breath of fresh air for series veterans and a nice transition into the main games for those new to the series.