Just over two years ago, I made my first foray into the Monster Hunter series with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate – and quickly assumed it would be my last. In spite of its intricate creature design, weird cat sidekicks (sorry, Felynes) and gigantic weaponry, it was lacking the one thing needed to keep me in particular on a game: personality. The story and characters were transparent at best, and the game overall was geared towards the RPG grind, my least favourite element of my most favourite genre. Almost immediately after my review went live, I put the game down. “Well,” I thought, “at least I can say I tried, but I think that’s it for Monster Hunter.”
Two months later, the reveal trailer for Monster Hunter Stories appeared in my Youtube feed.
It was bright where the main games were muted, cartoony where the others were grounded, joyful instead of (kind of) serious. I was tempted, but I’d been burned – and recently. “No, I’ll skip it still.” Then they revealed that it was basically Monster Hunter Pokémon and I knew I’d end up getting it anyway. Fast forward two years and change, and I’ve had time to dive into this very different side-story in the Monster Hunter oeuvre.
Stories begins in the remote Hakum Village, a population not of Monster Hunters, but Monster Riders. Using the Kinship Stones, these humans form bonds with the monsters of their region instead of repeatedly murdering them to make new jackets and swords. As your custom avatar, you begin the game by travelling with your friends to try and find a monster egg in the wild, before the necessary plot drama occurs and you skip forward two years to your Rider trials, in a time where the mysterious Black Blight is starting to threaten your home. After venturing through the Tutorial Trial, you gain your first ‘Monstie’ companion and set out to explore, farm resources and “catch ‘em all”! No wait, that’s one’s taken.
The comparison to Pokémon is inevitable, as Stories adheres to the same proven collectathon formula. Gathering eggs and egg shards in the wild, you’ll expand your stable of monster companions to utilise their traversal and combat skills in your journey through the game’s plot – which is a thing that this Monster Hunter game has!
Where the flagship titles have story only as a veneer to draw you from one zone to another, Stories uses it as a driving force. The Black Blight infecting the world and its creatures drives your character out into the world in a way that a menu of hunt missions simply would not, giving an overarching goal instead of a series of checkpoints to hit. Your roster of side characters aren’t the most nuanced ensemble you’ve ever seen, but they each play their one note with great skill. Given the mute state of your playable character, the addition of the Felyne sidekick Navirou gives voice to your journey and motivations, coated in terrible cat puns as it may be. (I say this like it’s a bad thing, but I love these puns and relish every pawful goof this game purrsues in the name of comeowdy.)
Another big step away from the traditional Monster Hunter formula is the radically different combat system. Stories eschews the usual overworld hack-and-slash in favour of turn-based battles, pairing your avatar with one of their Monsties to take on opponents. The core combat mechanic is a rock-paper-scissors system of Power, Speed or Technical attacks, allowing you to match your selected attack type against an enemy Monster’s to try and gain the upper hand, doing extra damage and potentially knocking them down. While the various monsters also have non-typed abilities to buff/debuff or cause status ailments, the key is memorising each monster’s preferred attack types to consistently gain the upper hand. While the penalty for failing these type matches in standard battles isn’t hard to shrug off, boss encounters can gain the upper hand quickly if you’re not paying attention.
And let it be known, this is a game where you should be paying attention. The series’ monster and equipment design has always been high-quality, but the cartoonish presentation of Stories simplifies the art style without losing any of its flair – while also diving further into saturated hues to make everything on screen pop. Given the wide-open nature of the game’s environments, it’s also surprising how buttery-smooth the framerate is on the 3DS. Some larger areas have minor frame slowdown, but in town zones and cutscenes it’s a match for any other game I’ve seen on the handheld, even in 3D mode.
While I never expected to say it, I may actually play a Monster Hunter game to completion, because Stories is the perfect storm of keeping the nuggets of the series I like while abandoning literally everything else about it. The game makes great use of the 3DS hardware, and the snappy battle system and monster den mini-dungeons make it perfect for short-burst play on the go. Hopefully this first instalment will do well enough to warrant a remaster or sequel on the Switch, because I would pawsitively inhale this side-series.
Monster Hunter Stories was reviewed using a promotional code on 3DS, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.