Video Games Review: Monster Hunter Stories (3DS, 2017) is a Tale Beautifully Told

It’s been a long time since I’ve been genuinely surprised by a video game but Monster Hunter Stories achieved just that, and then more. From the distinct, beautifully designed world to the fun combat and exploratory gameplay, the Monster Hunter spin-off left me genuinely floored. For those new to the franchise, Stories marks a perfect entry point, with easily accessible lore, a wide, open world to explore, and characters that are relatable, and somewhat miraculously, avoid cliché.

While the main Monster Hunter series follows the adventures of monster hunters (rather obvious, we know), Monster Hunter Stories presents the tale of the ‘riders’, those who raise and befriend monsters. Despite these stories taking place in the same worlds, they feel distinctly different, with Stories focusing more on exploring, collecting and befriending monsters as you undertake a range of quests and adventures.

The world of Monster Hunter Stories is frankly stunning, and I was blown away by how crisp, neat and stylish the visuals were. The animations were smooth and slick, and featured some of the best CGI hair I’ve seen in a long time (in-game hair rendering is a very valid form of technical judgement, I assure you). The game makes full use of the often-underused power of the 3DS system to deliver some of the best graphics found on the console.

The opening cutscene, which features the protagonist mid-way through a gripping egg heist set the tone for what would turn out to be a beautiful, colourful world that felt alive with personality and flair. Venturing out with your monster bestie, your ‘monstie’, reveals an open world populated by a variety of enemies to defeat, plentiful objects to collect and no shortage of beauty to marvel at. When not out exploring the wilds outside Hakum Village, the protagonist spends a lot of time interacting with villagers, gaining quests and gathering items that progress the story.

The majority of characters have quirks that mark them out as unique, including a rhyming Elder, a mysterious Felyne named Navirou, and a vengeful friend named Cheval. It’s very easy for JRPG characters to fall into a common mould, but for the most part, Stories avoids this, much to its benefit. I found myself almost instantly attached to the cast of characters that populated the story, particularly the protagonist. While Stories adheres to the trend of the silent player character, the customisation options, reactiveness and sheer style that characterises the protagonist injects them with a hefty dose of personality and lovability. Having that extra layer of depth allows for a much greater investment in the game, and involvement in the story.

Despite the style and panache of the visuals, Monster Hunter Stories does tend to fall back on well-worn high fantasy tropes when it comes to the main story. Before getting swept up in the tales of Stories, I had just finished playing Level-5’s Fantasy Life, and by whatever twist of fate (or rather, lack of originality), they shared a common story. Monster Hunter Stories begins with a warning, and explains the danger of the ‘Black Blight’, a powerful force of darkness that has begun to take over the land’s monsters. You, as the protagonist are ultimately tasked with banishing the Blight, as dictated by an ancient prophecy.

This summary could easily apply to either game, and indeed, many other JRPGs. However, the incredible visuals, and the style with which they’re pulled off makes this minor crime seem almost trivial. Combining these visuals with engaging combat, depth of exploration and a variety of fun collectibles will make you forget about this gripe almost immediately.

Combat is turn-based, and requires a sharp memory – monsters will generally use one type of attack, and it’s up to you to determine the best counter attack to use. Sometimes, monsters will trigger a ‘head-to-head’ battle, requiring you to select the right move to overpower and defeat your opponent. The randomness of these moments spices up battles greatly, lending a sense of excitement and urgency to the slower combat mode. Further, players can combine their abilities with that of their chosen monstie, forming a more powerful attack the greater your kinship levels. Thankfully, battles are not random, and require players to approach a wandering monster, or be spotted by one. This allows a great deal of planning and preparation that players wouldn’t otherwise be afforded.

While exploring the world of Monster Hunter Stories, players can come across a variety of collectables, my favourite of which was the collectable ‘Poogies’, creatures that resemble pigs, but wear tiny golden crowns and colourful pants. There are 100 collectable Poogies to be found in the game, along with a variety of herbs, mushrooms and ores that aid health, and the improvement of armours. Further, players are able to hunt down and discover new eggs through raids of monster dens, which appear randomly on the map. These eggs allow for a range of monsties to be discovered – over 61, according to Nintendo, although in my time with the game, I came nowhere near close to discovering them all.

Gameplay is fun, and quest-based, although players can choose to explore wherever they like. As per the usual fare, there are also many side-quests in addition to the main quest available for the player, with requests ranging from simple fetch quests to monster hunts and collectible gathering. While these side-quests can often feel quite repetitious, and more like padding for the main story, there’s still a lot of fun to be had in taking a break for some peaceful adventuring and exploring Stories’ wider world.

Another feature that marks out Monster Hunter Stories from its fellow JRPGs, and one that bears mentioning, are the designs and architecture of its villages and costuming. Each outfit made available to the protagonist is genuinely gorgeous, and clearly crafted with deep thought to bring out the uniqueness of the village. Often in games, armours that afford greater protections are usually far uglier than their previous incarnation (one only needs to look at the otherwise stellar The Witcher III to confirm this fact). Not so in Monster Hunter Stories. Each armour set was better designed than the last, and upgrading options allowed me to choose whichever armour set I desired to keep. It may seem like a minor thing, but the armour styles available really highlighted the distinct and unique style that characterised the game.

Each of these features showcases a love and attention to detail that characterises the entirety of Monster Hunter Stories. From the moment I entered its vast and unique world, I was completely smitten – it’s not often that I’ve come across a game built on such strong and gorgeous foundations, but Stories belied all my expectations.

In describing the aesthetics and gameplay of Stories, I can’t help but compare it to fellow monster-raising franchise, Digimon World, but with the stylish aesthetics of 2010 film, How to Train Your Dragon. Despite these comparisons, Monster Hunter Stories feels like entirely its own beast, a game that takes the best parts of other franchises and spins its own unique and beautiful tale. For those new to the Monster Hunter franchise, it’s a perfect and well-rounded entry point, and for those already invested in the series, it provides a distinct and beautiful alternative to the main Monster Hunter games.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights:  Beautiful world and character design; fun strategic combat; great collectables; wide range of quests
Lowlights: Generic story
Developer: Capcom, MARVELOUS!
Publisher: Capcom, Nintendo
Release Date: 9th September
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS