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‘Monster Hunter Stories’ Review – Gotta Hatch ‘Em All, PoogieMon!

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While the franchise is only just starting to catch on in the West thanks to Monster Hunter World, Monster Hunter has been one of the biggest gaming brands in Japan for more than a decade. Very few gaming series have managed to break through on a cultural level in the country in the way that Monster Hunter has. It’s on the level of things like Dragon Quest, Pokemon, Mario, and Final Fantasy, and it shows few signs of slowing down over time. That said, compared to some of the other big-in-Japan franchises, Monster Hunter has always been a little more demanding. As such, it was missing out on one of the more lucrative demographics: elementary school kids. Score a solid hit with them, and you won’t just sell a bunch of games. You’ll also sell toys, merchandise, an animated series, and maybe even yearly movies.

With eyes on the Pokemon prize, likely bolstered by the smash success of cross-media sensation Yo-Kai Watch, Capcom expanded the Monster Hunter universe with the release of Monster Hunter Stories ($4.99) on the Nintendo 3DS in late 2016. A more user-friendly take on the Monster Hunter setting, Monster Hunter Stories is mainly a single-player JRPG that sees players befriending the monsters instead of just skinning them to make hats out of them. Oh, you’re still doing the latter, but in a more indirect and entirely less grisly fashion. It’s bright, colorful, and features a bevy of collectible buddies to help you on your way. Alongside the game came an animated series, Amiibo figures, and other bits of merchandise. It got favorable reviews, and it looked like Capcom had another slam-dunk on its hands.

Except it didn’t. The game did alright sales-wise, but nowhere near the level of the usual Monster Hunter games. The animated series came and went. It lasted for a couple of seasons, so I suppose that’s something. The Amiibos are still sitting on the shelves of local shops, alongside unsold Waluigis and Chibi Robos. Nintendo localized the game and published it outside of Japan in 2017, where it again met with generally good reviews and relatively muted sales. A couple of months later, Capcom published a mobile version of the game in Japan, and now we’ve got a lovely little English version of the same. Will its fortunes be different this time around? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t pretty good in its own right. On top of that, this mobile version is decisively better than the 3DS original. Unless you really hate touch controls or really love Amiibos, there’s no reason whatsoever to choose the other version of Monster Hunter Stories.

In fact, let’s get this out of the way right away. How is this port? Well, you do lose a few things. Button controls, for one. There’s no MFi support here, so you’ll have to make do with some really well-implemented virtual controls. I’d imagine most of you can, if you’re reading this. Amiibo support is obviously out, and so is StreetPass, at least in the form that it appeared in the 3DS version. The guest appearance from The Legend of Zelda‘s Epona has also been cut, naturally. In return, you get a game that finally runs on hardware that can handle it. The resolution is higher, the draw distance is farther, and perhaps most critically, the framerate is silky-smooth. Monster Hunter Stories really pushed the 3DS to its limits, and even those using a New 3DS would run into occasional technical issues. It’s all clear here, and it’s simply wonderful to see the game reach its full potential. Another crucial addition is an auto-save feature, which marks your progress after important events or when you move to a new area. Please don’t forget to make a hard save when you can, though.

Excised cameos notwithstanding, the mobile version of Monster Hunter Stories contains every bit of content found in the original game. You’re looking at around 40 hours of gameplay to clear the main story, and you can faff about with some post-game dungeons, Poogie-collecting, and filling out your Monsterpedia for another 20 hours or more if you’re that-way inclined. Like with most big-name JRPGs, you get a lot of bang for your buck here, even if some of it feels like filler. It’s a visually rich game, perhaps one of the best-looking JRPGs you can get on iOS, and it’s packed with fully-realized areas to explore, a refreshing oasis in the mobile sea of menu-based towns and dungeons. If you’re looking for a proper (moderately) high-budget JRPG to play on your mobile device and are tired of replaying decade-plus-old Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, this is your stop. The game also holds considerable appeal for Pokemon fans who don’t mind something with perhaps a little less mechanical depth, and Monster Hunter fans who just want to enjoy the world of the games from a different perspective.

The premise sees you playing as a custom character who lives in a village where the people learn to befriend monsters, which they call Monsties, with the help of special artifacts known as Kinship Stones. As it tends to go in games like these, you’re playing a youngster who is just reaching the age where they can bond with their own Monstie and become a full-fledged Rider, taking on quests and sub-quests to serve the village’s interests. Unfortunately, at almost the exact same time, a phenomenon known as the Black Blight begins to affect the monsters of the world, turning them hyper-aggressive and even more dangerous than usual. If you’ve already guessed that it’s going to fall to you to solve this problem, congratulations! You pass the first test. Although your village remains isolated for its bizarre approach to dealing with monsters, you’re going to have to break out into the wider world to bring things to a close. Will you learn the power of friendship on the way? Yes. Yes you will. And you will like it, by golly.

It’s not the most involved of stories, but it’s engaging enough. The characters are all the basic sorts you generally see in products aimed at this young demographic, but a lively localization and the game’s eye for cinematic angles help to spice things up enough to probably keep you following along. Even if you opt to check out on the story, and I can’t blame you if you do, it’s hardly the main point of all of this. That framework is just there to give you a reason to scour the world for Monstie Eggs and try to hatch a big ol’ army of cute-ified beasts from Monster Hunter games past. In keeping with Monster Hunter tradition, you’ll also need to keep your eyes open for resource points where you can gather goodies to upgrade your gear and earn some cash.

There are also tons of sub-quests that will require you to go forth and either fetch something, kill something, or kill something and fetch what it drops. Between collecting, completing main story goals, checking off sub-quests, and just exploring the beautiful world, the game moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace most of the time. It’s nice and chewy in the way that the Pokemon games tend to be, and many of the systems stapled on from Monster Hunter proper only make it more compelling. It’s interesting how such a different game can feel so true to the brand just by paying attention to the little details, but that’s just what Monster Hunter Stories does. We’ve never seen this world so candy-colored, but it most assuredly feels like the same world.

That being said, Monster Hunter Stories biffs it a little on one of the usual ways games that aim at Pokemon do. The combat system just isn’t deep enough. It relies heavily on a rock-paper-scissors system where choosing the right type of attack greatly affects the damage you deal and take. There are lots of supporting skills and such, and at least in the beginning it’s pretty fun to learn the kinds of moves enemy monsters favor and counter appropriately. As the game winds on, however, enemy behavior gets more complex and random, leaving the whole basic attack system feeling a bit too reliant on chance. Might usually makes right even when fortune works against you, but it’s frustrating that it wasn’t more well thought-out with regards to the long game.

There are also some flashy and fun combo attacks and ride moves you can make use of, and they will generally tilt the tables in your favor if you’re having too much trouble. Even the combo attacks rely on chance, though, since they require your AI-controlled Monstie to use the same attack that you choose against the same vulnerable monster. Elements are accounted for but are actually of very little practical value in the main story compared to the core rock-paper-scissors system, making choosing your gear a lot less interesting and strategic than in the main games. You’re going to be doing a lot of battling in this game, and while it looks good and feels fun at times, too many of the things that matter are out of your control, and too many of the things under your control barely matter at all. Capcom nailed the part of Pokemon‘s appeal connected with collecting cool monsters, but missed out on giving players a reason to use all those cool monsters in truly meaningful ways.

It’s too bad, because the monster breeding in Monster Hunter Stories is really amazing. You can fuse your Monsties, choosing the genes that you want to pass on in order to create unique and sometimes ridiculously overpowered results. This system, dubbed Gene Channeling, is one of the more compelling features of the game, allowing those who opt to learn its intricacies the opportunity to create Monsties that are truly their own. Unless you plan on taking on the post-game content, it’s probably not necessary to tinker around too much with this part of the game, but I think some gameplay systems can get by even without a useful end beyond the process itself, and this may be one of them. I suspect you know yourself well enough to know if this is going to appeal to you, so I’ll just leave it there.

Capcom has gone about this mobile version in as fair a way as possible. You can try out a fairly substantial demo of the game via Monster Hunter Stories The Adventure Begins , which allows you to play the opening part of the game to see how well you take to it. After playing it, you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not the game is to your tastes. If you like what you see, you can move over to the fully-paid, premium Monster Hunter Stories ($4.99), where you can import your data from The Adventure Begins and pick up right from where you left off. How about that? There are no IAPs or any other shenanigans. Just a premium game at a very fair price, and a free demo that not only lets you try out the game but also carry over your progress to the paid app.

It’s kind of wild to think that a game launched less than a year ago in the West on the Nintendo 3DS for $40 is now available in a greatly enhanced form on mobile for half that price. I may have my nits to pick with Monster Hunter Stories, but the game is certainly quite a good JRPG all-around. It ranks fairly high even among the impressive JRPG library of the Nintendo 3DS, so in the increasingly dry traditional JRPG landscape that is today’s mobile gaming market, it’s a real blessing. It’s not as good as a mainline Pokemon release, nor will it keep you playing as long as a mainline Monster Hunter game, but I suspect fans of either looking for something to play on their phones or tablets won’t be unhappy with Monster Hunter Stories.

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