The Monster Hunter franchise was always destined to jump on the monster-catching bandwagon – with so many unique and iconic monsters to tame, it was only a matter of time. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to ride a Rathalos, right?
I wasn’t able to get my hands on Monster Hunter Stories 1 upon release as it was only released to the Nintendo 3DS with very little fanfare and it was nigh on impossible to find a copy in second-hand game stores (I buy all of my console games second-hand) until earlier this year, 4 years after its release. Thankfully, the sequel was much easier to get hold.
So I played both games, determined to love them just as much as I love the mainline games – god knows there’s no franchise I stan for harder than Monster Hunter – but in the cold light of day, I can’t let my bias for the franchise get in the way of giving an honest account of my experiences.
There’s going to be a lot of red in this article.
Despite being released 4 years apart, Monster Hunter Stories 1 and 2 are so similar that they can be reviewed as one.
Problem #1 – The Combat
What comes to mind when you think of Monster Hunter? For me, I think of causing absolute carnage in epic one-on-one battles with beasts five times my size. But you know what doesn’t come to mind? Playing a glorified game of ‘rock paper scissors’ which is all that MHS’ combat really boils down to.
Here’s how it works: each turn, both you and your enemy will choose one of three attacks – a power attack, a speed attack or a technical attack. Speed attacks beat power attacks, technical attacks beat speed attacks and power attacks speed attacks. In order to actually deal damage to your enemy, you need to pick the right attack to counter the attack that your enemy picked. So if your enemy chose a speed attack, you would need to choose a technical attack in order to deal any damage; if you chose a power attack instead of a technical attack, then the enemy would do damage to you instead.
How do you know which attack the enemy will pick? Certain monsters are more likely to use particular types of attack (for example, as shown in the battle scene above, Yian Kut-Kut and Nargacuga are technical and speed attackers) so you can predict which attacks will be used to a degree, but for the most part, practice makes perfect.
Aside from using special abilities (which exist in a catagory of their own) or using items, those three attack types are your only real options in battle.
As you might image, this combat style is intensely repetitive and, by its very nature, formulaic. Monster AI has to be predictable in order to give the player a chance, otherwise every battle would come down to nothing more than a game of luck against the RNG… but in making the combat system predictable, it is stripped of its flavour, intensity and challenge. Every monster behaves the same way, so once you’ve fought one, you’ve fought them all.
MHS2 did attempt to make it’s combat slightly more varied by introducing weapon types and weapon resistances – for example, you can’t use a slashing weapon on a Barroth because it’s hide is too thick, so you need to use a crushing weapon instead – but all this is almost totally redundant given that you can carry a slashing, piercing and crushing weapon at the same time with no problems. All you need to do is switch between the three types until you find one that hits for the best damage.
I have no idea why the develops didn’t just stick to regular turn-based RPG combat. Each monster already has an arsenal of cool abilities that they use in the mainline games – couldn’t they have just translated those abilities into ‘moves’? Rathian being given ‘Poison Tail’ and Lagiacrus being given ‘Storm Ball’ etc? That would have given the monsters so much more flavour!
As it stands, MHS combat is the series’ weakest aspect, which is a real problem considering that it’s the main focus of the games.
Problem #2 – The Story
Let’s be real – Monster Hunter has never been known for its elegant and thought-provoking storytelling. It’s a game about bashing dragons over the head with an oversized hammer, for crying out loud. But whilst the mainline games barely even have a real story to speak of, Monster Hunter Stories proves that having a boring story is even worse than having no story at all.
At least in the mainline series, the game just lets you get on with it. Monster Hunter Stories insists on holding your hand the entire way through the way and it makes the game feel very restrictive to play. The game forces you to hunt monsters in a certain order and do a bunch of non-descript side-quests in order to progress. There’s no feeling of autonomy or choice, you’re just being swept along with the story, which isn’t even very interesting.
The attempt to make MHS a more ‘narrative-focused’ experience ended up making the games altogether too structured and prescriptive, with monsters being fought in a very particular manner and locations being explored in a very particular order. There’s no sense of adventure like there was in the main series of games which really let players off the leash in comparison – your job is to kill monsters, but how you did it was entirely up to you.
Perhaps this change in style would have been worth it had the stories in either MHS1 or MHS2 been interesting, but they just… weren’t.
Problem #3 – The Difficulty (or lack thereof)
I never considered the Monster Hunter franchise to be all the difficult, unless you wanted to get into the really high-rank multiplayer hunts (but then again, I always use the dual blades which are the easiest weapons in the game to use…) but the MHS games are both far too easy. Provided that you keep your gear updated and look up the elemental weaknesses of the monster you’re fighting, you’re unlikely to die more than a handful of times throughout the entire game. MHS2 is slightly more challenging than MHS1 due to the introduction of more mechanics to keep track of and a greater number of group battles with multiple enemies, but still not difficult.
The thing that really tips MHS from ‘not challenging’ to ‘laughably easy’ is that you get 3 lives in battle that you can spend before you’re actually dead. I wish there was a way to turn this feature off and just have 1 life instead.
Problem #4 – The Graphics (3DS MHS1 only)
It’s no secret that most 3DS games look positively ugly due to the severe limitations of the 3DS’ hardware, but even still, MHS1 looks very poor graphically. Terrible draw distance, awkward pop-in, jarring colour palette, low-resolution blocky environments, monster sprites that aren’t even close to scale… it’s a mess.
Luckily, most of these issues are fixed in MHS2 on the Switch which was a high step forward in terms of graphical fidelity. MHS2 looks amazing with superb quality animations, textures and lighting. Thankfully, MHS2 also fixed the scaling issue and make the monsters feel like… you know, actual monsters instead of weird-looking scaly horses.
Capcom should probably stick to the 3rd person action genre
Certain IPs are built from the ground up to suit one genre. Just as you couldn’t take Dragon Quest and expect to make a soulslike platformer out of it, you can’t take an action-orientated franchise like Monster Hunter and expect to make it a successful turn-based RPG – at least, not the way it was done here. Things might have been different if they’d stuck with the classic turn-based combat system, but even then… it’s hard to see how this could have worked.
Are there any real differences between the first and second MHS games? Not really – the only discernible difference is that the second games looks miles better, but as for playing miles better? We’re out of luck on that one. All the same problems persist across both games.
I hate to say it, but Monster Hunter Stories and Monster Hunter Stories 2 are both giant flops in my book. I would sooner recommend them to somebody who had no idea what Monster Hunter was all about than a long-time fan – at least then they wouldn’t know what they were missing…