The Monster Hunter series is the very definition of a cult favourite. Ever since the series debuted way back in 2004 – initially gracing the PS2 before really finding an audience on handhelds such as the PSP and 3DS – it is perhaps rivalled only by the Dark Souls games for having a fan base that exuberantly adores it, while often leaving outsiders cold.
A typical Monster Hunter game goes something like this: you’re a hunter (d’oy) in a nebulously Palaeolithic fantasy world where dinosaur-like monsters roam the land, sea, and skies. A particularly nasty monster will likely have gone rogue, so you start slaughtering weaker ones to craft their bones and innards into weapons, armour, and items, allowing you to take on progressively tougher creatures before eventually killing the big bad.
The core games are notoriously light on story, which – along with the slow-grind of repetitive dino-murder – can be off-putting to some. In 2016, developer Capcom tried a different approach with the release of the original Monster Hunter Stories on 3DS. Unsurprisingly a narrative-focused spinoff, Stories took the broad setting and striking monsters of the series, and wove a more traditional JRPG experience around them.
Fast forward a half-decade and that spin-off is back for its own sequel, landing on Nintendo Switch next month. Luckily though, it’s a relatively clean slate story-wise, allowing newcomers to dive right in without needing to have played the first entry. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin – to use its full, slightly apocalyptic title – opens with a festival at the coastal Mahana Village, which shifts from joyous to ominous as the seas turn blood red and the usually fearsome dragon-like Rathalos monsters inexplicably take flight and flee. While investigating the phenomenon afterwards, you encounter a white-haired girl who carries the egg for what might be the last Rathalos – one prophesied to end the world.
It’s certainly higher stakes than a typical Monster Hunter game, and for those who did play the original Stories, a slightly darker and more mature affair, but it’s far from an exercise in grim-dark seriousness. The world of Wings of Ruin is a beautiful and colourful one, with locations and settings alike cast in the same sort of cel-shaded aesthetic as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There’s no shortage of humour either, chiefly in the form of Navirou – a talking, cat-like adventurer from the world’s Felyne race with a particularly high opinion of himself.
Your own character is a fairly typical example of the JRPG silent protagonist, responding to others with only nods and grunts. This is a bit of a carryover from the central Monster Hunter games though, and as with those, the hero here is customisable by the player. It’s a surprisingly robust character creator too, offering binary gender options as a baseline but with hair, facial details, and armour patterns adjustable right down to the colour palette, allowing players to create a protagonist perfectly to their liking. Whatever you come up with, the hero model is then seamlessly integrated into narrative cut-scenes, to better immerse you in the world.
The biggest departure from the usual Monster Hunter formula though is the lack of, well, hunting – the residents of Mahana Village are typically monster riders instead, partnering with creatures to patrol and protect the world around them. The hunting aspect instead comes in the form of Monsties, Stories’ answer to Pokémon. These are the same monsters you might fight in battle, but hatched from eggs and bonded to you as a partner. Once you’ve formed a connection, you’ll be able to take them into battle, or ride them around the world map, where their unique abilities can help you reach new areas.
Finding those eggs requires venturing into monster dens, which randomly spawn on the world map and have equally random layouts. Find your way to the nest at their hearts though, and you’ll be able to abscond with an egg – although sometimes you’ll need to defeat the parent, or grab an egg and scarper while it’s still asleep.
Once you’ve committed grand theft ovum, you’ll be able to take the egg to a stable, where you can hatch it into a new partner. It’s possible to have multiples of the same monster, each boasting different stats, moves, and even genes that affect their performance in battle. We’ll be interested to see how much this allows for deeper customisation of Monsties – and the impact they have on combat and exploration – in the full game as it progresses.
Like its predecessor, Wings of Ruin swaps the real-time combat of the core games for turn-based mechanics, but layers on a rock-paper-scissors tactical element. Each turn, you’ll choose between power, technical, or speed type attacks, each dominating the next in sequence. If a monster you’re fighting is directly targeting you rather than an ally monster or human partner, attacking them will trigger a flashy “head-to-head”, a rapid button-mashing battle for dominance of the screen. If you and a partner both attack the same enemy and use the same attack type, you’ll trigger a double attack, an even flashier special move that prevents counter attacks. Mercifully for the squeamish (or vegans), monster parts are simply dropped as post-battle items to be collected here, rather than harvested from your downed prey.
While the combat system itself isn’t drastically different than in the first Stories, here it’s a lot smoother and more dynamic. Team-up attacks in particular are especially striking, and wouldn’t appear out of place in a high budget action anime. The downside is that all that visual flair seems to be pushing the Switch to its absolute limits. The frame rate can drop to noticeably low levels even in busy cutscenes, let alone combat. Hopefully, a post-launch patch for the final version of the game can improve on performance there, but we suspect players may have to wait to see if the still-unconfirmed Switch Pro ever materialises.
Altogether, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is shaping up to be a fine evolution on the first Stories game, and a welcoming entry to the world for anyone intrigued by the core Monster Hunter titles but put off by the lack of an engaging narrative, or of a deeper purpose than ‘keep killing until you can kill tougher things’. Conversely, those who do love the main games might find Wings of Ruin too much of a departure from what they love about the series, although as you begin to unlock features such as crafting, forging, modifying stats by praying or sacrificing items to the village’s prayer pot, and taking on a host of quests, the game takes on increasing resemblance to its inspiration.
Wings of Ruin is certainly a different flavour of Monster Hunter game to the norm, but for players who want something a bit more substantial to draw them into Capcom’s fantastic world, it’s shaping up to be an enticing prospect.