"If you like Monster Hunter and traditional RPGs, this is for you. Also, if you're hoping to get into the series, you might want to consider Monster Hunter Stories."
Monster Hunter games have a pretty simple concept. You play as a Hunter, and you take on quests to hunt down giant monsters with a group of other Hunters; rinse and repeat as you go through the ranks from 1 star to G rank. Few things are more satisfying than slaying your first monster or taking down a 100-foot behemoth after a half-hour fight. While you can play these games single-player, multiplayer is highly encouraged. Monster Hunter Stories is pretty much the exact opposite of everything you would expect out of a traditional Monster Hunter game. Instead of the frenetic action of weaving in and out while fighting a monster, Monster Hunter Stories is a traditional turn-based RPG. Instead of the emphasis on multiplayer, Monster Hunter Stories is a largely single-player experience. Instead of exclusively hunting monsters, you befriend them and they fight alongside you. I've been playing Monster Hunter since the series' conception back in 2004, and I thought I had seen just about everything at this point. However, this is a new direction for the series. Will this spin-off be able to impress this veteran Hunter?
You play as a Rider, who lives in a remote village. Since ancient times, your people have stood with monsters as allies, hand in claw. In order to preserve your way of life, the village elders have prevented any Riders from leaving the village. This changes with the arrival of the Black Blight, a mysterious disease that turns monsters aggressive. The only known way to expel the Black Blight is for Riders to use their Kinship Stones, the symbol of the Riders. After one of your childhood friends, Cheval, runs off to fight blighted monsters himself, the village chief decides that it is best if you leave the village to explore the world and combat the Black Blight.
After the initial introduction of the characters and the start of the journey, the story takes a back seat. This is not unusual; Monster Hunter games typically leave the story by the wayside after the beginning of the game so that you can focus on taking on the monsters. It takes a couple of story chapters for the story to even come back at all, though, and I almost forgot what the story was about in that time. While the story does eventually get back on track, it is never anything more than a prod to get you into new areas. That's unfortunate, since the game starts off pretty well in terms of its story, and I was excited to finally have characters that I could attach a name to and connect with. Your childhood friends, Lilia and Cheval, split off early in the story; Avinia, a fellow Rider, is only around during certain portions of the story; and pretty much every other named character is tossed aside after a single chapter. Only at the end of the game do they decide to do more with the cast, but it's way too late by then.
As mentioned before, Stories is a turn-based RPG. You and your "Monstie" (what friendly monsters are called), fight against 1-3 enemy monsters. You can see who is attacking who by a red line that links you and the enemy monster, or you can tell by following the monster's line of sight. The game uses a rock-paper-scissors formula when fighting: Power beats Technical, Technical beats Speed, and Speed beats Power. You can also use the "Pokemon style" colour coding to know at a glance (Power is red, Technical is green, Speed is blue). If you win the "head to head" three times, you down the monster, and vice-versa.
There are other neutral skills that can be used that do not trigger head to heads. The head to head aspect is simple enough to understand against regular monsters, but boss monsters mix up their attack patterns, forcing you to learn and memorize them like you would in a traditional Monster Hunter game. Aptonoth for example, only uses Power attacks, which makes them easy to beat. Nerscylla uses a Technical attack, then Sealing/Sleep Needle which are Power-related, then another Technical if it's unsuccessful. Each new monster you face presents some trial and error in battle until you learn their patterns, which makes for a lot of interesting first encounters. Navirou, your Felyne companion, also lets you know what attacks a monster is likely to use, so pay attention to him when you first encounter something new. Learning a monster's attack pattern has always been a staple of Monster Hunter games, and Stories continues that.
The combat only gets more and more complex, as you have to deal with status conditions, how to inflict status conditions, and monsters dealing more and more damage. Like in traditional Monster Hunter, you can only use so many items in your pouch in battles (unlimited outside of battle), so preparation for the road ahead is extremely important. That and thinking two steps ahead of your prey is the hallmark of any good hunter, as any veteran of the series can tell you. You can do this by setting your "Battle Pouch" ahead of time; they give you multiple pouch sets so you can organize yourself for any situation. Another way to prepare is by grabbing as many quests as you can before heading out of town. In Stories, you can take on multiple quests at once, which saves a lot of time.
The way you get new Monstie companions is by raiding monster nests and grabbing eggs. The nests pop up in random places on the overworld. Thankfully, there are a lot that appear, so you won't be looking too long. There are gold monster nests that have a much higher chance for a monster variant (Blue Yian Kut-ku instead of a regular one for example). Navirou explains the potential of an egg when you pick it up. If he mentions that it smells weird, it has better "genes" when it hatches (better potential). Unfortunately, monster egg retrieval has always been my least favourite Monster Hunter quest. Grabbing an egg from a monster's nest while it chases you has never been my idea of a fun time. Thankfully, it's not as bad in Stories, since you can't drop eggs even if you enter battle.
Stories cuts down on grinding a fair bit, even though Monster Hunter games are notorious for their grind-heavy gameplay. In order to craft weapons and armour in Monster Hunter games, you must kill the same monster repeatedly in order to get sufficient parts to create the weapon/armour. Not only is armour combined into one piece in Stories (unlike the main games where there are 4 pieces to armour), you can use any part of the monster to create the weapon/armour. Better parts are worth more points towards completing the weapon/armour, but you get more monster parts in one fight in a much shorter time than the main games; this cuts back on having bad RNG mess you up for not getting a certain monster part. You can also help yourself by fighting well, which rewards you with more monster parts. You are ranked from C to S, and you earn a higher rank by finishing fast, ending the fight with a skill, riding your Monstie, or winning head-heads consistently.
Like the monsters, Monsties have their own patterns, which makes it unfortunate that you can't control their base attacks. If your Monstie messes up by repeatedly picking the wrong attack, it can put you at a massive disadvantage if they get downed. You can remedy this by switching your Monstie for another one before they get downed (you can bring up to 4 at a time, 5 later on in the story), but it's annoying if they break the pattern that you expect them to do.
One of the changes I don't like is the new combination system. In Monster Hunter games, you can combine items together to create something more useful. The standard combine is usually combining an Herb and Blue Mushroom together to make a Potion. However, in Stories, you have to have the recipe in order to combine. So even though I know how to make Mega Potions, Antidotes, etc, I couldn't do it until I got the recipe for it.
As with most Monster Hunter games, there isn't a lot of music. The overworld theme for each area plays for about 15 seconds, and after that it's the sounds of nature. The overworld themes are pretty cool sounding, and it makes me wish they played out longer. There is music for battles, but I honestly can't recall the tune for any of them. The only theme I really remember is the one that plays when you're facing the final boss for each area. While music isn't truly important in Monster Hunter games, it's more noticeable that a good soundtrack is missing in a turn-based RPG.
Monster Hunter games typically emphasize detail of the characters and the monsters over everything else, and the same goes for Stories. Stories goes for a more anime-style look, which gives it a lot of charm that other Monster Hunter games don't have. In addition, Stories retains the series' emphasis on detailed and awesome-looking weapons and armour. As the characters in MH Stories are mostly kids, there are a lot more armour sets that are more cute than cool, but that only adds to the charm of the game. The world itself looks all right, but things pop in and out of the world, particularly large monsters. The game also slows down when trying to load in new things on the overworld, and that can be a bit distracting.
Monster Hunter Stories is a solid addition to the Monster Hunter family, and is a nice change of pace from the traditional games. I can see this turning into a standalone series should Capcom want to make more games like this, and I would gladly play them. If you like traditional RPGs and Monster Hunter, then this is for you. Also, if you're hoping to get into the series, you might want to consider Monster Hunter Stories. This is a great game to get familiar with the monsters, and with the Monster Hunter world.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.