Capcom’s Monster Hunter series has become something of a runaway success since its 2004 debut on the PlayStation 2, reaching millions of players on various platforms, and spawning an explosion of similar games in the ‘Hunter’ mold. Action RPGs with a focus on multiplayer teamwork and lengthy battles against massive monsters, MonHun games are known for their tremendously steep learning curve as much as their intriguing world and rewarding gameplay — a notion complicated by this latest 3DS spin-off, Monster Hunter Stories. Stories shakes things up by crafting a kid-friendly, story-driven, turn-based JRPG based on the series’ world and lore, and it works wonderfully; whether you’re a young(-at-heart) RPG fan or a longtime Hunter open to a new angle, Stories is a real treat.
True to its name, Stories is a more narrative-driven experience than mainline Monster Hunter games, and it starts off with a bang. Your young avatar — which you can personalize extensively in a surprisingly robust character creator — and two close friends are exploring in the woods, looking for monster eggs and play-training to become Riders — handlers who use Kinship Stones to befriend, train, and fight alongside monsters. Things quickly take an unfortunate turn, however, when a dragon-like monster infected by a rage-inducing disease known as the ‘Black Blight’ attacks your character’s home village. Flash forward a year later, and you’re ready to become a Rider for real — and to use your monster-raising powers to unravel the mystery of the Black Blight and put an end to the plague for good.
It’s an engaging, heartwarming story in the cartoony, Pokémon/Yo-Kai Watch style, and though many beats are predictable, an endearing cast of characters — especially your Felyne sidekick Navirou — help keep things interesting. The narrative motivations of your Rider also pave the way for the totally different gameplay in Stories compared to the main series; whereas traditional Monster Hunter games are all about, well, hunting monsters, Stories sees you using the power of Kinship to hatch, raise, and go on adventures with your Monsties (the game’s twee name for monsters you’ve formed bonds with), and work your way through the exploration, quests, battles, and boss fights that make up the campaign together as a team.
In that sense, Stories takes a much gentler approach to managing its menagerie, and the shift from monster hunting to monster husbandry is what enables the brilliantly fun Pokémon-style combat that makes Stories so unique. Battles are turn-based, but not random — as you explore the expansive 3D areas outside of the towns, you’ll see monsters roaming around freely, and getting close enough to a critter (or having them chase you down!) will trigger an encounter. Once you engage an enemy monster, you’ll see a battle screen which again recalls recent Pokémon games: you and your currently selected Monstie (which you can swap mid-battle) will face off against your foes, and you’ll pick battle actions from menus using either buttons or the touchscreen.
The heart of the system is a three way, rock-paper-scissors style triangle between Power, Speed, and Technical attacks. You, your Monstie and your enemies can each use all three, and a weakness chain applies: Speed beats Power, Power beats Technical, and Technical beats Speed. Enemies have behaviour patterns that match their build — so the velociraptor-like Velocipray will tend to use more Speed attacks, while the large, lumbering Aptonoth usually leans on Power — but they won’t follow these exclusively, and elemental abilities and special moves will keep you on your toes.
This attack triangle is especially important in Head-to-Head attacks, where an energy beam ties you or your Monstie to an enemy, indicating you’re about to have a head-on clash. In these turns, if you ‘win’ the attack (choosing a Speed move when your enemy picks a Power move, for instance), you’ll do extra damage, nullify their attack, and also fill up a shared ‘Kinship gauge’ that allows you to use Support moves and your Monstie’s special attacks.
There’s more than just straight rock-paper-scissors, too. You can chain combos together by using certain (weapon-specific) patterns of attacks over several turns — like Power, Power, Technical, or Speed, Technical, Power. And if you and your Monstie both use the same type of attack, and it wins against an enemy’s, you’ll unleash a Double Attack, which comes with substantial extra damage and a fun combined animation.
Finally, in what has to be the coolest part of combat, if you fill up your Kinship gauge all the way you can hop on to your Monstie to pair up, pool your health gauges, and combine your attack powers. While you’re saddled up, winning Head-to-Head match-ups will continue to overfill your Kinship gauge up to three levels, and when you hop off — by tapping the touchscreen icon or pressing ‘Y’ — you’ll unleash a powerful, Monstie-specific attack that does more damage the higher your gauge was filled. Not only are these strategically important, they’re also fun to watch — one of our favourites sees your Aptonoth charging full force and then slipping on a banana peel, and then squashing your enemies by landing on them as a result.
We really enjoyed the combat in Monster Hunter Stories; while it’s built around a very simple concept, there are so many layers of nuance — from combos and special moves to ride-on attacks, each with their own charming animations — that it never feels boring. It’s also never too difficult; you’ll feel well equipped to handle most fights, and three hearts at the bottom of the screen represent three free ‘revives’ shared between you and your Monstie before you’ll reach a real party wipe. Even then, you’ll just wake up nearby, with nothing lost beyond any potential experience points or loot you would have won from the battle.
If you need more challenge, there are local, online, and StreetPass-based player-versus-player battles, but the main campaign’s gentle difficulty is perfect for younger players. That feels like a great move, because elsewhere, Monster Hunter Stories absolutely nails the feeling of journeying with your monster-friends that made Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch such hits with the after-school set. It comes through in the story and the exploration, but also especially in getting to ride your Monsties. Whether they run across land, swim through the water, or soar through the air, you can saddle up your Monsties in the overworld, and riding your new friends across Stories’ varied landscapes feels great. Ride-on Monsties can help with various environmental puzzles as well, with special skills like long-jumps or climbing needed to reach new areas.
Adding new recruits to your monster party is also an excitingly involved process; rather than having monsters join you after battle, as in Pokémon or Yo-Kai Watch, you’ll have to go find your future friends ab ovo, by scrounging for eggs in Monster Dens and taking them home to hatch. Dens are randomly placed around the areas you’ll explore, and when you venture into one, it takes the form of a mini-dungeon; reach the collective nest at the end, and — if you’re quick enough — you can make off with an egg to raise as your own.
These eggs are understandably jumbo, however, so it’s all your character can do to waddle along slowly while carrying one, leaving you open to attack on your way back out the door. Though you can keep the egg by winning any ensuing battles, we appreciated the extra tension and charm that the escape sequence adds to the process. Once you make it back to town with your egg, you can hatch it and see what’s inside, which ended up being one of our favourite parts of playing Stories; it’s always a real thrill to find a new, rare, or especially appealing monster inside your latest egg.
It helps, of course, that the monster themselves are so beautifully designed, and that’s a big part of Stories’ appeal. That’s a big part of the series’ appeal in general, to be fair, but the fact that in Stories you’re focused on raising, riding, and supporting monsters rather than hunting them means you can appreciate those designs all the more. The Monster Hunter menagerie is filled with all kinds of interesting, often dinosaur-inspired creatures, realized with an incredible attention to detail; rather than the broad-strokes, anime style of Dragon Quest or Yo-Kai Watch, these monsters look like reference sketches from a fieldwork journal come to life, with every feather, scale, and claw lovingly rendered with colourful care.
In fact, almost everything in Stories is rendered with that same colourful care; one of the game’s best features is the rich, inviting world it takes place in. From cave art and tapestries to the clothing and a voiced, invented language, there’s a real sense that there’s a living culture in Monster Hunter Stories, and we loved getting to explore it and learn more about it as we went. That carries over into the music as well, which has a Celtic bent at times but otherwise feels like a unique style of orchestral folk, with strings and upright bass adding interesting instrumentation.
Graphically, Stories is quite a showpiece; the 3D character and monster models look great, animations — both in-battle and out — are incredible, and towns and field areas are full of detail and moving parts that help make them feel alive. We were particularly impressed by the pre-rendered movies that play in the opening and at key story moments; though they’re constrained by the 3DS’ relatively low-res screens, they look almost like downsized DreamWorks shorts, and were a joy to watch with the stereoscopic slider turned up. The 3D effect is a highlight in the rest of the game as well, adding an appreciable depth to exploration and some beautiful touches, like grass being kicked up as you walk, or dandelion floaties dancing in and out of a forest foreground.
Unfortunately, all that beauty comes at a bit of a price if you’re running Stories on older hardware. On the Old 3DS that we played on we experienced a decent amount of slowdown, stuttering and frame-rate drops (especially on first entering towns), along with some particularly impressive pop-in, where NPC models would spring into being jarringly close to our character. It’s clear that it’s squeezing as much power as it can out of the older system — like Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, it has to relaunch the entire OS when you quit the game — and it still looks gorgeous, but if performance is a particular pet peeve for you, you might find yourself disappointed with Stories on a non-New 3DS.
Whatever hardware you play on, however, one of Stories’ biggest successes is in being such an accessible spin-off of a notoriously arcane series, without feeling at all watered down. Capcom could have made an ‘easy mode’ Monster Hunter aimed at new and/or younger players, but Stories is so much more than a gateway game. In fact, since the core gameplay is so different, we’d argue that it’s not much of a gateway at all — playing Stories won’t prepare you to jump into other Monster Hunter games, in the same way that beating Super Mario RPG won’t help you conquer the Special Zone in Super Mario World. But it’s absolutely perfect for people who have been intrigued by Monster Hunter’s lovingly realized world, lore, and style, but unconvinced by the action gameplay, intimidated by the steep learning curve, or turned-off by the hunting focus.
Monster Hunter Stories is an excellent adventure that channels the colourful world of Capcom’s storied series into a joyous JRPG. It suffers from performance issues on non-New 3DS hardware, but it’s still full of personality, beautifully presented and fun to play, with combat that’s easy to grasp but engaging throughout. Longtime MonHun fans will appreciate Stories as a thoughtfully-made spin-off, but the gameplay template and tone are so different that you don’t need to be familiar with — or even enjoy! — mainline Monster Hunter to have a great time here. Regardless of whether you’ve been hunting Hornetaurs since the beginning or couldn’t tell a Felyne from a Fatalis, Stories is yet another charming 3DS RPG that’s well worth your time.