‘Monster Hunter Stories 2’ review: a stunning RPG world that the Switch struggles to tame

Gotta hatch 'em all

The Monster Hunter franchise has often touched on themes of ecological balance, but the concept has never been as integral as it is in Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. When the mighty Rathalos – effectively an alpha monster apex predator – disappears during an ominous celestial event, the world is thrown into chaos, with the remaining fauna straying into unfamiliar territory and threatening humans and animals alike. As the grandchild of Red, a legendary Monster Rider who partnered with his own Rathalos decades before, you’re off on a quest to uncover why nature is under threat.

Yes, it’s all fairly JRPG-by-the-numbers, but then that’s rather fitting for the Monster Hunter Stories spin-offs – narrative-focused excursions into Capcom’s popular fantasy world, swapping the meticulous tracking and blade-against-claw battles of the core Monster Hunter games for turn-based battles and monsters you team up with rather than simply slaughter.

Visually, Wings of Ruin is both a stunning example of how beautiful and striking anime-style games can be, and a worrying strain on the ageing Nintendo Switch hardware. Character, monster, and world designs all delight, as does the game’s use of colour and light. You’ll often be able to choose the time of day when you leave the safety of a village – there’s no real day-night cycle (although certain monsters or harvestable items only appear at particular times of day), we’re pretty sure Capcom just wanted to show off how beautiful its world looks painted in the inky blues of night.

It’s also a real animation showcase. Cutscenes are practically TV animation quality, despite being presented in real-time to incorporate your user-created player character, and even special attacks in battle are flashy and impressive enough that Capcom considers them worthy of an in-game encyclopedia entry for you to rewatch them. This is a game that knows how to show off.

However, all that flamboyance comes at a cost, as the frame rate appears to struggle throughout. It was of concern during our preview of the game, and continues to rear its laggy head throughout the full game. It’s oddly most notable when wandering the overworld or in cutscenes, rather than in the often hyper-kinetic battle animation

Hyper-kinetic? With turn-based battles? No, that’s not an oxymoron. While Wings of Ruin’s approach to combat taps into some of the oldest conventions of the genre, it does so in a way that keeps them entertaining. Each encounter is a rock-paper-scissors style clash of power, technique, and speed moves, but with added layers of tactics. Line-of-sight attacks can trigger dynamic head-to-head clashes, which you and your partner monsters attacking an enemy with the same move type launches a powerful double attack. Build up enough charge and you’ll be able to mount your partner, delivering unique ‘Kinship Skill’ attacks, and if you time ride attacks well with your ‘Battle Buddy’ – other human or elf-like Wyverian characters who join you throughout the game – you’ll unleash devastating area attacks.

It’s all very flashy, giving you the sense that you’re constantly doing something in battle. On top of that, there’s a satisfying layer of tactics and personalisation in weapon choices. There are multiple weapon types – greatswords, hammers, bows, gunlances, daggers, and more – but can only carry three. You’ll be able to switch between them once per turn, but selecting which three to have equipped allows you to customise how you approach combat. Factor in swapping between active partner monsters in battle to utilise their individual talents, and you end up with a system that feels increasingly complex the more time you spend with it, despite its simplistic roots.

Best of all, Wings of Ruin even tackles the biggest gripe many players have with turn-based, of grinding through grunt enemies. Once you’re a high enough level, you can simply activate a ‘Quick Finish’, killing all enemies at once. It’s a good way to rack up items and cash during downtime.

One of the best parts of Wings of Ruin is how weird it can get. Despite the deeper themes at work, it’s not a game that takes itself too seriously, and is more than happy to stray from its predominantly established tone and aesthetic to deliver fanciful treats. Take the Bnahabra Armour – a prehistoric top hat and tails made from giant insect carapaces. Does it fit with the rest of the world or even the fashions of its inhabitants? It does not. Is being able to slay evil dinosaurs in chitinous evening wear so beautifully dumb that we kept it long after we could have upgraded to better armour? It absolutely is.

Upgrading and forging new armour and weapons is one of the signature parts of any Monster Hunter entry, and it’s no different here. While you might not be tracking and harvesting remains from monsters – in true JRPG style, all the bones, skin, shells, scales, meat, and other grisly bits are magically and invisibly gathered as post-battle item drops – you’ll still end up with an inventory full of components to use. Each trip back to a village is a fresh opportunity to visit the smithy and convert all those monster parts into fresh tools, or enhance the ones you’ve already got.

Early on, you’ll mainly just want to go for the most powerful weapon available, but as you venture further into the world and encounter more dangerous monsters that require specialised tactics, the availability of weapons with different elemental effects or armours with particular resistances offers a nice bit of strategy when planning your next expedition. You might opt for an armour set with less overall protection but a poison blocking effect in an area with many venomous enemies, or a weapon with a fire effect to better inflict the burn status effect on foes. It’s the area Wings of Ruin that most feels like the core Monster Hunter games.

Where it’s most different is the monsters themselves – or rather, the Monsties. While plenty of the series’ familiar creatures roam the world as enemies, those hatched and raised among humans serve as partners, Pokémon style, allowing Riders to explore the world and assist in battle. Once you’ve completed an event called the Rite of Channelling, you’ll be able to play Palaeolithic scientist, swapping genes around to breed and customise Monsties with new abilities for use in battle. It’s one of the deeper aspects of the game, but also results in quite the time commitment as you hunt down fresh eggs to hatch for your experiments.

Exploring with Monsties means making use of their world map skills, allowing you to hop over crevices with a Velocidrome or shatter rocks with a Yian Kut-Ku. Early on you’ll encounter obstacles that you won’t have any Monstie abilities to help with though, giving you incentive to return later with new skills.

Unfortunately, the exploration loop begins to feel repetitive rather quickly. Even before you’ve left the first island of Hakolo, you’ll begin to recognise the layout of monster dens – where you can find those precious eggs to hatch into new partner Monsties/gene-swapped abominations – which, although randomly spawned, appear to recycle the same handful of map parts to create their cavernous innards. Wings of Ruin’s greatest JRPG cliché is the use of, essentially, corridors linking parts of the world map together, and these too become overly familiar fast, feeling boring to traipse back through to mop up previously unreachable items. Even once you have access to all the skills you’ll need, collecting everything and exploring every area will likely be the domain of only the most committed, obsessive players.

Through it all though, there’s an effortless charm that keeps you playing. Even when you’re wandering through your 4768th canyon corridor or spelunking through another overly familiar cave looking for eggs, Wings of Ruin’s world and story draw you that bit further in. It may be too sedate for fans of the prime Monster Hunter games, but for JRPG fans who want something light but involving, it’s a solid entry in the spin-off series

We reviewed Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin on Nintendo Switch. It’s also available on PC. It will be released on 9 July.

The Verdict

Ultimately a Monster Hunter game for people who don’t like Monster Hunter, Wings of Ruin offers enough spectacle to keep players engaged before surprising them with unexpected depth in combat and customisation. It’s let down by repetitiveness in exploration and a slower pace, and Switch players will see how much it strains the hardware, but it’s still a good time for JRPG fans.

Pros

  • Gorgeous world and stunning animation
  • Dazzling and involved turn-based combat
  • Surprisingly deep customisation of weapons and Monsties

Cons

  • Frame rate on Switch really suffers
  • Repetitive Monster Dens
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