Monster Hunter is a series with a longstanding tradition of being impenetrable to casual first-time players, with systems layered upon systems and tricky combat. In the mainline series Monster Hunter: World provided a multi-platform mainstream breakthrough, while on Switch the recent Monster Hunter Rise followed that lead in applying copious quality of life improvements, and at times aggressive streamlining, to make the experience more palatable for a wide audience. That said, the IP's broad universe and the intricacies of its monsters are still vitally important factors, and no genre is better suited to making sense of a complex world than a traditional RPG.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin may be a sequel, but it's worth saying right away that you don't need to have played this spin-off's debut to jump into the new release — this reviewer hadn't, despite a borderline obsession with the main games. There are some returning characters along with some assorted nods and winks that no doubt raise a smile for those that fought through the 3DS epic, but nevertheless Capcom takes a generational approach to storytelling and it is certainly a standalone game.
Playing Wings of Ruin with a lot of background knowledge of the main games isn't necessary either, but it helped us recognise that this could be another welcome gateway for newcomers. Though some settings, monsters and general environs remind us more of the last generation of Nintendo-centric MH games on 3DS — and indeed World — this is a title that opens up an understanding of how monsters have ticks and behaviours, and introduces all the familiar items and their effects. Although knowing monsters from first-hand battles in past games can help a little in initial encounters, the systems and tutorials on hand here make the game accessible to pretty much any player.
As an RPG, Wings of Ruin isn't shy about simply tagging along with decades-old genre tropes and methods. You have forests, ice areas, a desert and... you get the idea. You visit a village or town and to earn trust you set off completing quests to prove yourself — it's almost always the same "this monster is causing problems, deal with it for us" scenario. So yes, it's arguably a bit of a grind, but games like this are designed to be slowly digested over a number of weeks; in that context it works well.
However, the particularly intriguing aspects of Monster Hunter x RPG come in the combat and party building. You are a Rider, part of a group of rather charming folk that opt to raise, befriend and team up with monsters rather than hunt them. Yes, it's a bit Pokémon to a limited degree — with a questionable practice of stealing eggs from nests, but let's not go too deep into that — but as a playthrough develops there's staggering depth to the setup. Each monster has a preferred 'type' that feeds into a rock-paper-scissors combat, and they then have varied special moves, abilities and buffs.
You could absolutely bury yourself in the stats, especially once you have the ability to 'channel' abilities between monsters, but the game is also generous enough that you can pay minimal attention and just about get away with it. The setup is clever, and you earn ways to expand your roster of monsters and even send them off on expeditions to level them up when outside your party. Particularly later in the story, you find powerful monsters that you want to use but are 20+ levels lower than desired, so sending them off on 20-30 minute jaunts to level up while you continue with saving the world is smart design. This is a game that encourages you to dive into the detail and build the dream party, but doesn't judge you too much if you instead opt to stick to your old favourites.
Then there's your Rider, a charming individual that can buy, forge and upgrade a dizzying array of armour and weapons derived from monsters you've faced. As always the Monster Hunter fashion is genuinely fabulous, and we had family members react with amusement to seeing our character in a different outfit pretty much every time they watched us play. There's depth to admire again, as you carry three weapons and conveniently all the varieties fall into three categories — sword, bow, and hammer / horn — that add yet another wrinkle to the combat. Forging armour and weapons with your preferred moves and buffs is genuinely fun, and then you ditch them for something snazzier within a few hours. That part of the Monster Hunter life is brilliantly recreated here.
As mentioned previously, the combat itself incorporates a rock-paper-scissors format, as you try to second-guess opposing monster's moves to successfully counteract them. When you know a monster's patterns you have the tools to win well, as you can determine your accompanying Monstie's next move or swap them out for a different type. There's the option to target specific parts, and when you trigger combinations you build up to the option to 'Ride' your Monstie for a powerful special, healing you both in the process. As enemies become tougher you also learn how to use various items such as bombs and traps, too, so it's kept interesting.
Despite the notable positives it's not quite a clean kill with the combat, despite its solid construction and clever variety. For one thing, later in the game battles can drag on to 20 or more turns, even when you're doing well and heading for an S rank. If you're working through a dungeon and are getting snarled up in regular fights it can feel a little long-winded as a result; we spent a lot of time trying to duke around enemies as a result, as thankfully they're visible on the field. You can also speed up battles, which helps a little, and if you're over-levelled in an area you can also quick resolve a battle for an instant win. AI 'buddies' are another very small complaint — they can be very useful at times, but occasionally a little dim in their moves. They don't intuitively target the same monster parts as you and will use a heal at silly times. These are relatively small complaints in the big picture, however.
When it comes to equipment, party building and combat, the mechanics in place are strong and clearly introduced. There's far too much depth to go into fully in the space of a review, but suffice to say Stories 2 does an excellent job of keeping things varied.
Out of necessity, a lot of mechanics and detail are introduced slowly, with clear guides to help you find your way. It's carefully put together so that it's easy to grasp, but the victim of this is the story progression early on — another genre trope that is inescapable here. There are long stretches of busy work, where you may spend half a dozen hours on quests that achieve nothing of note but introduce useful mechanics. That's the nature of RPGs, yes, but we would have preferred some slicker storytelling in the early stretch, in particular.
The story itself is quite simple but enjoyable, all told, and it's certainly boosted by the lead protagonist and the utterly charming relationship they have with their 'Monsties', and 'Ratha' in particular. It feels like a while before the plot truly lifts off, but the pay-off is effective because of the lead-up and the excellent cutscene work — they mostly run in-engine, and the animation and direction of these scenes is terrific.
What you will notice in cutscenes are performance dips, and you're going to see a fair bit of that during gameplay, too. There's no getting around the fact that this title is not particularly well optimised for Switch, which is disappointing considering the stellar work that went into Rise. It feels like this was developed for PC primarily — where it is getting released on the same day — and then squeezed onto Nintendo's little hybrid. The framerate even appears, bizarrely, to be unlocked, though it only nudges above 30fps very rarely when indoors with very little on screen.
Even if you don't worry much about performance, especially in a large-scale RPG where there's no real-time combat, it's still noticeable. It can vary wildly depending on location and time of day; we've seen an area be smooth-ish at daytime and a juddery disappointment at sunset, and there's a forest area early-on that runs downright poorly, especially in portable mode. It doesn't stop you playing, but it is nevertheless hard to completely overlook in the worst-affected areas. That's a bit of a pity, especially as the art-style is a brightly coloured pleasure, while copious voice-acting and beautiful music elevate the storytelling.
Intriguingly, an effort is being made to boost both story progression and no doubt postgame activity via multiplayer; a big strength of the main series that is getting a chance in this spin-off. Only unlocked after a decent number of hours and progress, you can either go into battles against others or embark on co-op quests — the latter is given more focus. The environments are similar to 'dens' you find in the story, with the option to team up with assorted players online or use room IDs. We weren't able to test it extensively for review - though we tried each option for our video footage - but as a means of teaming up with friends and boosting Monstie collections and resources it's a fun implementation that could add even more longevity.