With Monster Hunter Stories, Capcom gives their star series the Dragon Quest treatment
Running the rules and world of Monster Hunter through a turn-based filter makes for a delightful little JRPG.
Dragon Quest, one of the biggest success stories in all of Japan, got to where it is today by making an existing and highly difficult video game experience much more approachable. (Plus, some weapons-grade nepotism certainly helped.) Creator Yuji Horii took a look at what was going on in the world of computer RPGs—namely Ultima and Wizardry—streamlined the essential elements, and made the resulting product much friendlier to meet the demands of a different audience.
That's sort of what's happening with the 3DS' newly-released Monster Hunter Stories. While the core premise of the Monster Hunter series isn't all that complex—whack at a thing until it dies—the multitude of options, choices, and systems involved make the experience violently intimidating to newcomers. I needed someone to essentially mentor me through the first dozen-or-so hours of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate before things clicked and Capcom's creation became one of my favorite series. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or resources for this kind of dedication. For these people, there's Monster Hunter Stories: all the essential Monster Hunter stuff, presented in a way that doesn't require nearly as much commitment.
Though Stories is essentially "Monster Hunter for kids," Capcom didn't half-ass this spin-off series in a way they absolutely could—though you can safely ignore the fugly tie-in CGI anime currently on Crunchyroll. I used Dragon Quest as a means of explaining how Capcom streamlined an existing series, but this version of Monster Hunter is more akin to Pokemon than anything else. And this approach actually makes a lot of sense: I've previously lamented that playing Monster Hunter always comes with a bit of guilt, seeing as you're slaying scores of fairly believable beasts, who, for the most part, seem to be minding their own business. To be fair, you still do this in Stories, but your party members consist of cute-ified versions of Monster Hunter monsters made even more appealing thanks to the game's Wind Waker-ish art style. (Seriously, Stories could be the best-looking 3DS game I've ever played.)
Stories' turn-based battles even borrow a bit from Pokemon's mechanics, but add an element of chance to keep you on your toes. Enemy encounters revolve around a paper-scissors-rock triangle, where each type of attack has a corresponding strength and weakness. In Stories, though, this element matters most when enemies target your (human) character—the sole monster you bring into battle from your party has a mind of its own. So, when an enemy has you in their sights, the challenge lies in choosing the right type of attack; if you do, you essentially cancel theirs out and do more damage than you normally would. Lesser enemies tend to rely on one attack type, but bigger ones and bosses switch between two or three, forcing you to learn their patterns and, often, risk using a type of attack that could end up being useless. (It's a bit tough to articulate, but essentially, the triangle of strengths and weaknesses only matters when you choose to attack an enemy that will attack you on the next turn.)
There's more going on than you'd expect, so battles end up being more engaging than choosing the attack your enemy is weak to and looking up at whatever Netflix happens to be streaming while things play out. Sometimes, (thankfully, non-annoying) button-mashing challenges pop up during battles, and, once you fill a meter, you can hop on your "Monstie"—your "monster bestie," in Stories' parlance—for some gorgeously-animated, and, frankly, hilarious tag team attacks. And, as with any triumph in Monster Hunter, you're rewarded with scads of items and parts to use or craft into better stuff.
After I dug into Stories for a few hours, I couldn't help but be surprised by how much of the core Monster Hunter stuff Capcom smashed into this new format. Stories' biggest diversion from Monster Hunter—outside of the turn-based battles—can be found in its new focus on exploration. Unlike the main series, you don't sign up to fight specific monsters, then get spat out into arenas consisting of many small rooms. Instead, Stories provides a fairly huge Zelda-style overworld, filled with monsters wandering about whether or not you've expressly chosen to fight any of them. Outside of this change, most of the essential Monster Hunter experience exists: the quests, the crafting, the kitties, the resource-gathering, and the fact that everything is in service to an elaborate game of dress-up. But, deep down, isn't that what every RPG is?
My love for Stories may be assisted by a Pavlovian response to the Monster Hunter elements packed within, but after finding the newer iterations of Pokemon too dull and Yo-Kai Watch too tedious, Capcom's latest 3DS release completely fulfills my craving for a collection-based RPG. Plus, it's not exactly a timesink in the way that kids' games can easily turn into; right off the bat, you can speed up battles three times faster than they normally play out, and skip elaborate combat animations, cutting a lot of the fat from this style of RPG experience. Clearly, they had a good framework to work from, but it's still been interesting to see Capcom jumping back into turn-based RPGs 15 years after the last Breath of Fire without losing a step. The fall season's already getting pretty crowded, but if you have time for another 3DS RPG before Nintendo sends the platform to Valhalla next year, you can't go wrong with Monster Hunter Stories.
Monster Hunter Stories launches Friday, September 8 for the Nintendo 3DS. Be sure to check out the free demo in the 3DS eShop!