By mixing and matching elements of Monster Hunter and Pokemon, Monster Hunter Stories offers a charming, albeit flawed, look into a universe that is often portrayed as rough and gritty
If the evolution of this planet’s species had taken a slightly more awesome and brutal path than it did and the activity of monster hunting actually existed, it is safe to assume Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise would be a pretty accurate virtual representation of it. There is nothing easy or streamlined about the depicted journey of going from a defenseless hunter to a master at bringing down fearsome creatures that are aggressive enough to give easily impressed children terrible nightmares: combats last for nearly one hour, not being properly equipped leads to merciless death, the remote nature of the hunting grounds forces hunters to pack items to help them deal with the hardships of the environment and maintain their energy levels, weakened monsters have the tendency to become more violent and constantly move from place to place in a desperate attempt to save themselves, and forging more resistant armor and stronger weapons can only be done with plenty of blood, sweat, and guts from monsters and hunters alike.
It is a glorious experience, but it is also a series of games that is time-consuming, extremely challenging, and that requires a great deal of grinding. Following a modern industry trend that has made the gaming market open itself up to a wider audience, and realizing the potential for widespread appeal that rests on some aspects of the Monster Hunter brand, Capcom has delivered Monster Hunter Stories. Set in the same universe as the main saga, albeit with a presentation that is far more colorful and cartoonish, it replaces the skill and patience-testing action-based battles of traditional Monster Hunter games with simple turn-based affairs, and shifts the focus from muscular serious-looking hunters to friendly teen-aged riders.
That change in the age of the starring characters reflects on the game’s presentation and, consequently, on the audience it aims to please. Monster Hunter Stories oozes playful charm, and the bright vivid tones of its world, its great cutscenes, as well as the cell-shaded models of riders, hunters, and monsters are a great highlight, even if the 3DS has to resort to loading creatures, scenario details, and characters only when they are a short distance from players. Watching the usually gritty creatures of the Monster Hunter universe gain cartoonish versions that are part cute and part menacing will be a joy to longtime fans of the franchise, whereas newcomers will easily fall in love with their appealing design.
According to the lore of Monster Hunter Stories, hunters and riders have always inhabited the same realm; however, given hunting apparently grew into a far more common activity, riders were soon shunned by a society that believed monsters were not meant to be befriended, but combated with the due respect. Consequently, villages in which the monster-riding culture flourished isolated themselves from the rest of the world. Hakum Village is one of those places, and when children come of age, they hatch a monster egg and form a bond with the creature. The people of Hakum Village – more specifically a group of young riders – are, however, forced to break out of their isolation when a threat from the past, Dark Blight (a sinister form of energy that takes control of monsters and makes them attack), re-appears. Tasked with stopping it, they have to venture out into a world of cursed monsters, and hunters who question the riders’ way of life.
Humans who build strong relationships with monsters and take them out on a continent-spanning quest are not news in the gaming world; after all, the Pokemon franchise has built an enormous empire centered around that concept. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that many of the gameplay elements that power Monster Hunter Stories can be traced back to Game Freak’s juggernaut. In fact, what separates this turn-based spin-off from the various Pokemon versions is a different (and flawed) battle system and how it mixes and matches Pokemon staples with Monster Hunter quirks.
Out of Pokemon, Monster Hunter Stories borrows the idea of assembling a team of monsters and being able mess with their gene pool. When players set out from Hakum Village, they will do so with a predetermined starter creature by their side. Across the continent, though, numerous monster dens (which appear on the scenario as randomly placed small caves) can be found. For every journey into a den (which consists of a small series of caves with items and monsters), riders can acquire an egg, which can then be immediately hatched in the nearest town.
The whole process is addictive. Different regions of the map offer different monsters, and the pattern on the eggs’ shells identifies the creature contained within, with some being – naturally – more uncommon than others. Moreover, specially colored golden dens hold eggs that will produce monsters with better stats; however, entering such locations, just like staying on any nest for too long looking for the desired egg, entails the considerable risk of coming across strong monsters that are guarding the place, which turns the whole affair into an interesting game of risk and reward.
As players battle and the monsters that are in the party level up, they learn fixed abilities that are representative of their nature: for example, Rathalos, a dragon, can launch mighty fireballs and fly to increase its evasive power; Barroth, a lover of burrowing, is eventually able to perform mud attacks; and Zamtrios, a four-legged shark, can surround itself in a menacing-looking armor of spiked ice. The variety of moves is considerable, and alongside with the creatures’ nice design, they are bound to make gamers spend considerable amounts of time testing monsters in battle, looking for that one specific egg that will give birth to the creature they are looking for, and carefully assembling a varied six-piece team.
Monsters can be customized via a gene-crossing process called channeling, which – truth be told – is far more intuitive, interesting, and flexible than the EV, IV, and genetic systems of the Pokemon games. All monsters, when caught, come with some fixed irremovable genes and a certain number of empty slots, which can be filled with abilities (such as increased stats or attacks) imported from other creatures. The only rule regarding this importing is that genes have to be moved between the same slots; that is, an ability that is on the bottom-right slot of a monster can only be moved to the bottom-right slot of its counterpart. Other than that, no rules apply, an enticing lack of limitations that allows players to take an ice-based creature and transform it into a fire-breathing attacker. In conjunction with the endless nest-raiding that can be done to find the monster with the right stats and genes, the channeling process opens up the way for absurdly big opportunities for very dedicated players to build the perfect team of monsters, an obsession that (as proven by Pokemon) many will be happy to engage in.
These Pokemon-inspired gameplay pillars are accompanied by a progression that is positively Monster Hunter in its setup. Monster Hunter Stories unfolds via a series of missions. Almost invariably, they consist of leaving one of the world’s many villages, going out into the field, exploring a new area, doing battle against minor enemies, and eventually encountering the big bad boss that needs to be taken down. Therefore, Monster Hunter Stories is – at its core, and like the titles of its parent saga – a series of boss battles that get progressively harder.
In order to clear them, not only do the monsters of the party need to be properly leveled-up, but the rider – who, differently from a Pokemon trainer, does step into the battlefield – has to be appropriately equipped; and, as any Monster Hunter player knows, such a goal is only achieved by killing monsters and using the material they drop to forge armor and weapons. With accessibility seemingly in its mind, Monster Hunter Stories is far more generous than a regular Monster Hunter game when it comes to items dropped by monsters; in fact, in general, a single battle against a creature is sufficient for the parts required for an armor to be acquired. The biggest challenge to have access to better equipment lies, actually, in having the sufficient funds; however, Monster Hunter Stories (true to the franchise’s traditions) is packed with sidequests – gotten from murals in the towns or from characters themselves – that will give riders nice rewards for downing monsters or collecting certain resources.
As such, most pieces that form Monster Hunter Stories have been tested and approved somewhere else, and – in a way – they do come together to form a nice package. The Pokemon spirit of catching them all (or at least catching many of them) and giving players the tools to dive deep into team-construction is strong; and the same applies to the Monster Hunter focus on taking down big bad monsters and using their parts to become stronger. Still, the game is somewhat flawed.
And most of that complaint is tied to the element that seems to have been constructed with the focus of setting the game apart from its two blatant inspirations: the battle system, which is quite unique. Sure, the game has other problems. Its story is weak and features a villain that is frequently closer to comic relief than hateful, but even though RPGs tend to thrive in plot, having silly scripts never stopped the Pokemon games from being great. Additionally, there is no doubt a huge portion of the dialogues will come off as cringe-worthy to an older audience, and people who are not keen on anime humor will fail to see value in the game’s jokes, but Monster Hunter Stories is not really trying to please those folks. Finally, even though monsters that are ridden allow players to use their special skills out on the field (such as Rathalos’ ability to fly), the exploration component of the game is indeed a bit mundane, as its linearity makes it all feel like mere walking to the next point of interest (which is always marked on the map), but that is an inherent trait of most JRPGs. Differently from those, though, the problems regarding the battle system are too big to be acceptable.
In battles, both the rider and its monster will face one or more creatures. During the rider’s turn, players will choose an action for their character to perform, such as attack, execute special skills (which consume a kinship gauge), or use an item. Given riders trust their monsters, no orders are given to the critters: unless players choose to override their actions, a move that consumes the kinship gauge, monsters will do as they see fit.
Save for a few special moves and occasional quick-time events that require that players press buttons at a fast pace for their monster to overcome enemy creatures, all attacks (by both the rider and the monster) fall into three categories: power, technique, and speed. Together, they form a rock-paper-scissors relationship where power beats technique; technique beats speed; and speed beats power. If, in the same turn, the monster or the rider attacks and is attacked by the enemy, an animation in which the two parties go head-to-head is triggered, and the rock-paper-scissors structure comes into play, with the winning side being able to attack successfully. If players land the blow the kinship gauge is filled up considerably, and when it is full it can be used to make the rider climb onto the monster and unleash a powerful attack.
Due to that configuration, luck comes heavily into play, especially in the later portions of the game. All monsters obey a certain pattern of attack, and as the adventure advances such patterns grow in complexity; therefore, there is some degree of predictability as to which kind of move enemy monsters will use. Still, given decisions made by players’ monsters cannot be overridden unless kinship is consumed, landing attacks and filling up the gauge depends – almost 50% of the time – on something that is out of gamers’ hands. As fights grow tighter and harder, losing battles because one does not have total control over what monsters do is frustrating and, sadly, not that rare.
Additionally, the riders themselves – even with the most powerful sets of armor the game has to offer – are extremely fragile in comparison to the monsters. Their attack power is meager (regardless of the weapon type that is used, and even when combos are activated by using the right sequence of typed attacks); their health is low; and the damage they receive is high; due to that, their presence in the battlefield is a burden. They do little in the way of attacking and two or three hits are sufficient to take them down, which makes using potions to heal them a must every two or three turns. That problem is aggravated by how, from the game’s midway point on, many monsters may attack twice or three times in the same turn, meaning that if they decide to concentrate those hits on riders, the character will faint instantly, leaving it up to players to do nothing but hope or madly grind their way to an over-leveled hunter that will better withstand the fury of monsters.
Truthfully, combats in Monster Hunter Stories only end when the rider and their monster fall a combined three times, which alleviates the pain of those one-turn kills; still, as the game gets harder and battles grow longer, players may find themselves fighting for a while only to have their hopes of victory shattered when their monster uses a wrong move or when the opposing creature decides to unleash all its might on the poor defenseless rider a couple of times, making them instantly drop from a full health bar to lying motionless on the floor. Monster Hunter Stories is by no means as hard as the games of the franchise’s main line, but the room its battle system leaves open for fate to come in and dynamite minutes of carefully planned attacks and patient constant healing is undeniably maddening, and leaves quite a lot of room for improvement.
Monster Hunter Stories is a nice detour for a property that has spent its long life treading the same excellent ground with varying and usually high degrees of success. With its looks and monster-collecting ways, it is bound to attract a younger audience right into the grasp of its claws; some of the holes of its battle system, though, will leave plenty of room for frustration to sneak into the experience. If gamers are able to overcome that problem, however, what they will find is an enchanting world filled with content, featuring an adventure that can easily last for over thirty hours, hordes of sidequests, and the opportunity to take one’s scientifically assembled team of monsters online to face off against other riders. Monster Hunter Stories is not a total winner, but its quality could pave the way for improvements that may end up turning it into quite a gem, even if the core of its gameplay is derivative of both the line of games from which it originates and the unstoppable Pokemon franchise.