RPGs launching monster-collecting spinoffs is hardly a new phenomenon. Ever since the success of Shin Megami Tensei, myriad franchises have cashed in on fans’ ravenous appetite to collect and battle with monsters. But the latest series to lean into the monster-collecting craze is perhaps the most natural fit for the subgenre: Monster Hunter.
Following up on its acclaimed predecessor, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin aims to give Pokémon a run for its money as the premier monster-collecting game on Switch. Only time will tell if Monster Hunter Stories 2 succeeds in this endeavor, but I can confidently say that this game is a testament to the talent of the development team at Capcom. Monster Hunter Stories 2 improves upon many of the best elements of monster-collecting games and JRPGs to carve out a space of its own that warrants the attention of RPG fans, Monster Hunter aficionados, and newbies alike.
Monster Hunter Stories 2 kicks off by inviting you to customize your protagonist’s appearance and sex, an empowering introduction I wish more JRPGs would adopt. You play as the grandchild of Red, a famed rider of “Monsties” — a cutesification of the series’ titular monsters. Years earlier, Red vanished while investigating mysterious pits that sprouted throughout the land. These pits emitted lights that drove Monsties to violent rage and, according to myth, foretold the world’s destruction by a legendary Rathalos. Now the pits and the lights are back, and you encounter a mysterious Wyverian who entrusts you with an egg containing the legendary Rathalos. She tells you that you must defend Rathalos from hunters, who are hot on your tail, to save the world. As anyone who’s ever played a JRPG expects, you journey to prevent the apocalyptic myth from coming to fruition and protect your incipient new friend.
Monster-collecting games aren’t celebrated for stellar stories, but Monster Hunter Stories 2 is a slight step up from Pokémon and its ilk in this regard. The story centers on heartwarming characters and dialogue that help you see past its unoriginality. The people you meet and adventures you embark on left me laughing, smiling, and tearing up more than once. The game also tosses a fair share of moving plot twists your way. Nearly all these twists surprised me, but there was enough groundwork that they felt plausible.
Your main story quests are spread across six expansive zones. When you complete story quests in one zone and move onto the next, you shed party members and adopt new ones. After I wrapped up a few zones’ quests and switched up my allies, the story started to feel disjointed, and I struggled to invest in new folks I knew would be departing shortly. I’d give this narrative a more ringing endorsement if it ditched this formulaic structure. Still, it does earn points for questioning why humans and Monsties don’t live in harmony – just not many, because it delivers zero novel answers to this overarching question.
In better news, Monster Hunter Stories 2 combat system makes up for any yawns induced by the game’s sometimes standard-issue storyline. Offensive moves are associated with an element: power, speed, or technical, each of which trumps another. The game offers hints about the element enemies will attack with and whether they’re switching to another. For example, your opponent may begin with thunderous wind flowing beneath its feet, hinting it’s going to attack with speed moves, but later it may puff its body up to an extraordinary size, signaling a transition to a power move. When you use an attack type that’s effective against your enemy’s own attack, you build your kinship meter. Fill this meter, and you can ride your Monstie, boosting your strength and defense. After landing a few type-effective moves while riding, you can unleash devastating kinship skills that make short work of most enemies.
As if combat wasn’t varied enough, you’re armed with a panoply of weapons and Monstie abilities that cater to different playstyles. Some weapons and Monstie moves imbue you with buffs, others excel at destroying shields, and some emphasize tankiness or damage output. Learning enemy attack patterns and using this knowledge to prevail against enemies, many of whom are relatively challenging, left me feeling accomplished in a way monster-collecting games rarely do.
Thanks to the diversity of weapons and Monsties at your disposal and the strategic considerations you have to weigh when deciding which to use, combat always stays fresh. It also doesn’t hurt that Monster Hunter Stories 2 incentivizes you to stay engaged by rewarding you with rarer loot when you whip off kinship skills, defeat enemies in a handful of turns, or achieve other metrics reflective of thoughtful combat strategies. Nearly every battle excited me, and combat felt like a welcome departure from Pokémon-like combat systems that encourage you to spam your best abilities mindlessly.
High praise aside, the game’s combat leaves a smidge of room for improvement. You have no control over the move types your Monsties use, so you spend a lot of time watching them unleash suboptimal attacks; this jettisoned me to the game over screen more than a few times and was always frustrating. In addition, when you encounter a Monstie for the first time, you can’t see their HP meters, which compelled me to make many ill-fated decisions without any sense of how much fight my enemy had in them. And good luck remembering an early-game foe’s move-type affinities when you’re backtracking for quests hours later; I sure couldn’t. It would have been convenient if the game reminded you of their attack patterns.
For players keener on collecting Monsties than battling them, Monster Hunter Stories 2 has you covered. Dens litter this semi-open world, and each is a dungeon containing an egg you can scoop up that hatches one. The locations and layouts of the dens are largely randomized, as are the rarity of the eggs within. The rarer the egg, the stronger the Monstie growing inside is. There are 128 collectible creatures, and each comes with distinct stats and abilities. To boot, each one radiates charm due to the game’s captivatingly cute art style. The diversity of Monsties and the ever-changing dens you encounter as you travel will enthrall your inner monster-collecting enthusiast, just as they did mine.
Beginning early in the game, you can also customize Monsties using the Rite of Channeling, which lets you sacrifice a Monstie and transfer one of their traits (active and passive abilities) to another. The creatures boast a host of traits supporting different combat styles, so you’re essentially empowered with the freedom to craft your dream team. Though you won’t need the added motivation, this system also encourages you to hunt for Monsties with rare traits even if you intend to use them only as sacrificial lambs.
The game makes other tweaks to the Pokémon formula that set it apart. For starters, it offers sidequests galore, many of which are repeatable and reward you with useful items. You can also view quest objective locations on your map, so you’re never at a loss about how to complete them. Think Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, except you can typically knock these out without veering too far off the main story quest path. Each of the game’s six towns also contains a prayer pot. If you offer charms you receive from battles and quests to these pots, they give you temporary buffs in return. Charm effects run the gamut and include boosted battle experience, better item gathering yields, and more favorable prices from merchants. These pots level up as you feed them charms, enhancing the potency of their buffs. Prayer pots are yet another way Monster Hunter Stories 2 lets you focus on whichever aspect of the gameplay experience you’re hungriest for.
Though Monster Hunter Stories 2 eschews realistic graphics for an art style meshing Dragon Quest IX and Breath of the Wild, the gameplay experience is richer for it. The game’s graphical design captivated me and left me struggling to stop exploring its stunning beaches, volcanoes, and other locales. The intricately detailed characters, Monsties, and environments reflect far more care than any game I’ve played in years and positively reek of charm. Every facet of this world truly feels vibrant, lush, and begging to be uncovered.
Sadly, the framerate on Switch can sometimes make enjoying Monster Hunter Stories 2’s nearly picture-perfect world a challenge. Whether you play on docked or handheld, expect noticeable slowdown when you explore areas populated by more than a few Monsties or enter battles with numerous enemies. These framerate drops can be jarring and interrupt the fluidity of the world and responsiveness of the game’s controls. The visuals shouldn’t be this taxing on the Switch, so I’m puzzled that its turbulent framerate persists after the game’s release.
On the other hand, the game’s soundtrack deserves a spot on your work or study playlist. As you explore each of the game’s locations, you’re treated to memorably charming themes that complement their atmosphere. Rutoh Village’s theme is my favorite; it’s simple yet engagingly rhythmic harp, flute, and keyboard-based instrumentals accentuate its inhabitants’ harmonious relationship with the land and mythical nature. The battle music is energizing when it needs to be, but it can also be foreboding, like when you’re tackling a group of formidable Monsties or a major boss. The music does wonders to help you overlook the occasionally cringe-worthy English voice acting behind the game’s NPCs.
Despite my gripes with the narrative and framerate, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is an exhilarating ride from start to finish. I had a blast getting lost in its addictive combat, collection, and customization systems and appreciating its wondrous visual style. Whether you want to collect Monsties or battle them, or if this is your first or fifth foray into Monster Hunter, you’d be remiss to overlook Monster Hunter Stories 2. Regardless of whether it dethrones Pokémon as the king of monster collecting games, you’ll find it injects welcome innovation into the subgenre and stands on its own merits as an RPG well worth your time.