Monster Hunter Stories is a spinoff from the main series in the sense that Capcom has decided to change the basics of what we know of the franchise, this time giving us a different perspective on the world of hunting fantastic beasts. Real-time combat is gone in favour of a turn-based system; anime aesthetics replace the more realistic art style; there's no longer a hunter-prey relationship, instead, there's now a partnership between rider and mount; and finally, complicated mechanics have been swapped for something seemingly simpler...
The game features a renewed battle system, and in this system turn-based strategy takes over, featuring a rock, paper, scissors system. However, with more than 50 hours in the battlefield, we came to realise that it would be more apt to compare it with the modern variant: rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock.
Landing several successful attacks on your enemies causes them to fall, and engaging them when you're on your mount makes the special attack even more powerful. They have their own tricks, though, as some monsters can call upon allies, others have other ways to buff themselves or the hunter.
Sounds like a perfect mix to shape a strategy game, right? Wrong. The idea is gone for good as soon as the battle starts. You can tweak the genetics and attributes of your monster as much as you want, but in the end they will always act randomly unless you give them orders, but if you do that, the bond between both of you will weaken. It's a way of representing natural behavior, and the whole story revolves about the bond between monster and human, but makes it virtually impossible to work out a battle plan.
Knowing a little bit more about both your monster and the enemy helps. In the main Monster Hunter series, you must know your prey before initiating combat, by studying patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. So it is here as well, but when you face a new boss (or the same one with different behaviour), it's possible to go from having total control of a fight to losing your three lives and biting the dust in a couple of turns, and this is quite frustrating.
Luckily, this isn't a challenging game. The campaign mode is quite easy, although Capcom has some added challenges in store for advanced players, and the hard content comes after the game ends the first time. What comes after the credits will really make you sweat. We spent more than 30 hours on the main story, completing side missions, gathering eggs, forging equipment, and testing formations. After all that we found that the biggest challenges awaited us during the second run, and that a lot more remains to be discovered after completion.
Time goes by quickly if you let yourself enjoy the game world, but it gets boring when you try to follow the plot. It starts with a plague, a trio of characters who want to become Riders (horsemen), and a prophecy. As a part of this, the main character decides to leave his hometown and starts on a journey. The story isn't something that particularly stands out, as events don't always link together logically and you often question why you're doing what you're doing.
The lightweight plot is further proof of the type of player this is aimed at. Don't expect a script worth remembering, or memorable characters, then, as the archetypes are so obvious that it's easy to catch their personalities with a simple glance. This includes an almost mute protagonist, a friendly rival (who resembles a cross between Sasuke Uchiha and Shadow the Hedgehog) who's resentful of the world, a friend who tries to mediate, and another very annoying companion. You meet many others, but their lives are so empty that it's hard to remember why they were there. The script doesn't invite you to delve into their background either, and although some secondary missions try to get into their stories, they do this so superficially that they barely bring anything interesting.
However, all of this doesn't matter too much, because being a Rider is cool enough as it is. The depth offered by the mechanics and the huge amount of content and possibilities that this world offers effectively covers the whole of its history. This is an RPG to be carried along by gameplay rather than its plot, to spend many hours exploring the map with the abilities of your monsters to reach inaccessible places, fighting or invading nests to get your umpteenth Velocidrome.
The latter is a much more common situation than it seems because it's very difficult to know which monster each egg belongs to. Here is where genetics come into play, a system to decide a creature's skills based on another one absorbed, all represented with chips placed in a 3x3 grid. Toying with attributes, colours, and positions on the board result in a completely different monster from the one that came out of the shell.
The appearance of the game also dazzled us, as models, animations, effects, and its stereoscopic 3D view are all over the top when you consider the power offered by this little piece of aged hardware. The only drawback is an erratic frame-rate, and the draw distance or NPC silhouettes may not satisfy everyone. But, what does it matter, when everything is so colourful and lively?
Overall, Monster Hunter Stories is a rather lightweight adventure, but it's loaded with content and fully stocked with solid mechanics. Don't be fooled - Monster Hunter Stories hides a lot behind its appearance, as it inherits much of what Monster Hunter offers in terms of universe, monsters, and mechanics, and turns it into something different with a turn-based combat system and an open-world full of surprises. There may be things to be polished, aspects to further deepen, but the basics are so sturdy that they can shape something very big for Capcom and the fans of the series in the years to come.