I'm a late bloomer when it comes to the Monster Hunter world. The very first game I tried in the entire series was Monster Hunter Tri, and I had no idea what was going on. I really gave it a good shot, but it was absolutely overwhelming. I can't tell you how dumb I felt when playing that game. Here I was, someone who had played thousands of games, yet playing Monster Hunter Tri made me feel like I had never played, or even seen a video game before. Talk about an tough first impression!
Thankfully, I soon learned that the Monster Hunter games were notoriously difficult to get into. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't really get into Monster Hunter until Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. When that game rolled around, I was determined to set things right. I also had a friend who was ready to play alongside me. They didn't have any idea how to play Monster Hunter either, but now we had each other work off of. It took a lot of time, and an even greater amount of patience, but we eventually figured out the crazy world of Monster Hunter. From that moment on, I've been quite the fan of the franchise.
Now here we are with the latest installment in the Monster Hunter series, but things are decidedly different this time. Monster Hunter Stories is a spin-off, and while it's not the first spin-off out there, it's one which aims to cram all things Monster Hunter into a more story-driven experience. Does Monster Hunter Stories stand a chance with those who haven't been able to figure out previous Monster Hunter games? Should those who aren't fans of Monster Hunter even bother? All this depends on how you feel about Monster Hunter Stories' main mechanic.
One element of Monster Hunter Stories stands out for me above all others. Monster Hunter Stories does an excellent job of bringing almost every aspect of mainline Monster Hunter games over for this experience. Without a doubt, the atmosphere created in Monster Hunter Stories makes it feel like a Monster Hunter game. I was truly impressed with how Capcom managed to take all the bits and pieces of a Monster Hunter game and sneak them into a more linear, story-driven RPG. If you were worried this would feel like a generic RPG with the Monster Hunter brand slapped on it, you can lose that fear right now.
From weapon and armor crafting to foraging for supplies, Monster Hunter Stories feels like Monster Hunter. Yes, elements of the experience have been streamlined in a big way. You can now catch bugs right off the bat without having to get a net. When you see mineral deposits on the ground, you can grab them without the need of special tools. You don't have to keep a constant supply of whetstone on you in order to sharpen your dulled blade. All these little tweaks make Monster Hunter Stories a much more welcoming experience. I believe most Monster Hunter fans know Stories will make quite a few concessions when it comes to core mechanics, so there shouldn't be too backlash for it.
Stories also gives the Monster Hunter universe a very vibrant, colorful, and cutesy makeover. There's certainly a few scary monsters to tackle, but they don't have quite the same menacing appearance as they do in other Monster Hunter games. This game has taken an extremely kid-friendly approach when it comes to the visuals, which plays in nicely into the hero's story, who happens to be a young boy/girl. Monster Hunter purists might find the ageing down of the content to be a tough pill to swallow, but those who don't mind the change should see plenty to enjoy. I found the visual presentation to be absolutely gorgeous, and certainly among some of the best graphics and presentation we've seen on 3DS thus far. As long as you don't mind a cartoony approach, you should be pleasantly surprised.
The aptly-named Monster Hunter Stories certainly does focus on delivering a story to the player. It's not something we've seen in a mainline Monster Hunter game by any means. Even if you lump in the other spin-offs, there's no doubt Stories is the most story-centric game in the entire franchise. The main tale follows a young boy as he becomes a Monster Rider. The members of a particular village put some of their youngsters through a right of passage every year to see if they can form a bond with a baby monster (Monstie as called in the game). If a bond is formed, the rider-in-training has to go through a handful of tests before he can become an official Monster Rider. Riders protect the village, among other duties, which becomes quite apparent very early on. Without spoiling too much, you learn that a massive monster is out causing all kinds of trouble, and even swoops in to wreck some of the hero's town. From that point on, you set out on a mission to find out what's causing this monster to go haywire.
Obviously there are more stories to be told here outside the main path. There's actually a ton of content to tackle, which should be familiar territory for Monster Hunter fans. There are all sorts of places to obtain sub-quests, be it from townsfolk, people you meet on your travels, or quest boards in various towns. You'll never be at a shortage of objectives to tackle in Monster Hunter Stories. If you want to take a break from the main story and do a bit of item/supply farming, you'll have plenty of options to do so. You can even replay sub-quests if you want, in order to reap rewards another time over.
More often than not, the sub-quests in Stories fall in line with what you'd be doing in a regular Monster Hunter game. Kill 5 of this type of enemy, go out and catch a specific fish for someone, collect a combination of herbs and bugs to turn into a special medicine for someone in need. Nothing that's going to wow you when it comes to narrative, but more than enough to push you back out into the open fields to hunt for what you need. From time to time there will be some sub-quests that involve more than the usual go here/get that approach, and those can indeed be a welcome change of pace.
When you're actually out on the field, Monster Hunter Stories feels like a traditional Monster Hunter game. You wander around and collect goodies all over the map. You explore to see what new locations you can find, and you happen upon all kinds of monsters. The thing is, the game changes in one of its biggest ways when you actually take on a battle. In Monster Hunter games, you run up and attack a monster in real-time battles. Monster Hunter Stories completely does away with this in favor of a turn-based mechanic.
Monster Hunter Stories' battles play out as a glorified rock-paper-scissors tournament. You have a triangle for your attacks, which shows Speed, Power, and Technique options. Each option has a different color, and each option is stronger than one, but weaker to the other. For example, Power will win against Technique, but Power is weak to Speed. How do you know which attacks to use against the monster your battling? Well that's where the game tries to keep things interesting.
Some monsters are almost always going to use one type of attack. They'll stick with Power, so you know to always go at them with a Speed attack. When you come upon enemies like this, battles can be dealt with quickly. As you power on through the game, you'll come to know what a variety of monsters like to attack with, and you should be able to keep them from doing too much damage to you. That's not to say all monsters are going to go down without a fight.
You'll also find monsters that make the rock-paper-scissors mechanic a bit more difficult. Monster will have certain "tells" that show you what move they're thinking of doing next. Of course, you'll have to play a couple rounds against them before you can see a pattern to what they're going to do. Sometimes these tells are super obvious, like a big swing of a tail. Other times it might be a subtle cloud of dust to show you what the monster is planning to attack with. As long as you're paying attention to a battle, you should eventually be able to figure out what move you need to take to win. You might take a few hits along the way, but next time you come across a similar monster type, you'll be able to prevail more quickly and easily.
This rock-paper-scissors gameplay matters most when you and a monster meet up in a head-to-head battle. More often than not, the enemy monster and you will charge at one another. Based on the approach to the fight you took, you'll either land an attack on the monster and get away unscathed, or the monster will hit you without you getting a chance to fight back. The rock-paper-scissors mechanic is always there when choosing your attacks, but the head-to-head action is where games are won and lost. You have a 3-heart meter, and losing a head-to-head battle will cost you a heart. Lose all 3 hearts and the battle is over. You should usually be able to avoid this by watching your opponent and learning what attacks they use, but there will be times where the random nature of rock-paper-scissors will screw you over. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it can be pretty frustrating.
On top of that, there's many other elements to battles. You'll have the ability to ride on your monster partner during battle to team up for extra damage, and even special moves. You might pick the same attack as your monster teammate, which means you'll do double damage and attack the enemy at the same time. There are buffs you can call out during battles which let your attacks do more damage, have you up your defense, and more. As your character/monsters level up and you strengthen your bond, you can also learn new moves and techniques. There's even active battle elements akin to what you see in the Mario & Luigi series. Moments that have you smashing a button or toggling the shoulder triggers. The later you get in the game, the more battles open up and throw multiple features at you.
I'm afraid the way I've worded things makes battles sound like they're overwhelming, but they really aren't. While there's all sorts of options and moves to do, they all boil down to the rock-paper-scissors gameplay. For me, this was the weakest part of the game. It's a shame, as you'll be battling a lot! I don't want to say the mechanic is boring, but for me, it simply wasn't my cup of tea. I'm not even a big RPG fan, but I think a more traditional RPG approach to battles might have made the experience a bit more exciting. Like I said, once you learn monster weaknesses and attack patterns, you pretty much go on auto-pilot. I got that feeling pretty early on, enough so that I upped the battle speed by "x3" to fast-forward through all my picks. I can imagine people being totally fine with the battle mechanic, while others are turned off by it after the first fight.
The one element that does liven up battles are the monsters you have in your party. You don't have to pick one monster and stick with it. You can make monster packs to take with you on your journeys, allowing you to take 5 different monsters on the go. When you're in battle, you can change out to a different monster. Sometimes a monster you have in your roster will be better at tackling an enemy which always goes for a certain attack type. Since your monsters are out there doing battle alongside you and you have limited control over them, making sure you have one battling which the right tactics is important.
You get new monsters by roaming the landscape and finding monster dens. Once you sneak inside, you deal with a few enemies in the area, and then make your way to the nest. You'll dig up an egg and try to escape the den with it. You won't be able to ride out on the back of the monster you came in with, though. The game makes you walk the egg gingerly to the front door of the inner den. If you make it out with your egg, then it's yours to hatch back at town. Sometimes when you're trying to escape, the mother monster will swoop in and cause some trouble for you. It makes egg-stealing a fun diversion, and of course, it's tons of fun collecting all different types of monsters!
The monsters you collect aren't just good for looking different and offering up unique attacks. You'll need specific types of monsters to interact with parts of the map. For example, early on you'll see stones with monster footprints on them. If you have the right monster, you can stand on these and leap up to higher portions of the map. There's also spots where you will need a certain monster to clear a path, or a specific type of monster to help you climb up vines and access new areas. These spots are all over the place, and you'll constantly feel them calling to you. You'll want to see what goodies are hiding up on that ledge or are around that corner. This keeps you looking for new eggs to hatch, hopefully getting a monster to help you unearth those secrets.
You've probably gotten the idea by now that Monster Hunter Stories is jam-packed with things to do. It really is overflowing with content. From the field exploration to collecting monsters, fulfilling sub-quests and tackling the main story, there's all sorts of things to experience. That doesn't even factor in the DLC and StreetPass content! This package has so much for you to explore, especially if you plan on hunting down every single monster there is to collect.
There's no doubt it's a top-notch experience, and it was given a lot of time and attention from Capcom. This isn't a quick cash-in on the Monster Hunter brand or a half-baked idea. Monster Hunter Stories does a lovely job of opening up the Monster Hunter universe to people who many have never otherwise experienced it. If you do make this your first Monster Hunter game and then branch out into a mainline entry, you will have a big leg up on those going in completely blind. While there will definitely be some adjustments to make, there's plenty of similarities here, and simply becoming familiar with the terminology will help in a big way.
Again, the major sticking point is the game's battle system. For me, it remained a point of contention. It wasn't something to ruin my experience, but I yearned to get more out of. It felt a bit simple, and I was only taking on battles to gain the experience. Rarely did I feel battles were exciting. More often then not they were a bit boring, and sometimes a tad unfair. The important thing is, this is just my opinion. I can tell you that the battle system isn't broken and is indeed unique for the franchise. Between the simple battle mechanics and large amount of monsters you can collect for battle, you might really enjoy what fighting has to offer.
In spite of my distaste for the battle mechanic, I can say my experience with Monster Hunter Stories is indeed time well spent. This game is certainly worth a look for those who appreciate the franchise already, and is without a doubt, an excellent jumping point for those who haven't played a Monster Hunter game. Monster Hunter Stories retains the spirit and feeling of a Monster Hunter game, which you don't really get from any other franchise. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate did the trick for me and made me a fan. Perhaps Monster Hunter Stories will be the gateway game for you.