Hunting isn't for everyone. With its myriad creatures the world of Monster Hunter is made for a Pokémon-type game, and so the Stories spin-offs feel like an attempt to offer a friendlier alternative, from cute anime-style character design right down to the core of the series. Monster Hunter Stories presents the idea that monsters can be friends instead of foes.
Right from the beginning, you can tell that Monster Hunter Stories 2 doesn't stray too far from its predecessor - you get to design your own character, who begins their training as a rider in the wake of strange happenings in their hometown. Navirou, the feline from the first game, once again comes along to declare himself your navigator and you're off, presumably to learn what it means to be a rider, a friend to monsters instead of their hunter.
If you haven't played the first game, don't worry - while there are references and recurring characters, you won't miss much in the way of context. In general, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is remarkably like the first Stories game. Your silent hero is, just like in the original Monster Hunter games, meant to serve as an avatar - in a game series that is about taking on monsters for the fun of it, that's enough, but just like its predecessor, Monster Hunter Stories 2 takes a very long time to come up with any sort of reason for why you're doing what you're doing, or why it has to be you at all; it doesn't have Pokémon's convenient excuse that both the battle and collection of monsters are the end goal, the way to mastery, if you want.
The overarching story is supposed to be about your rider and a dangerous Rathalos, but in practice it's just a collection of quests that are resolved by going somewhere and bonking a monster over the head. Because this is a JRPG, everyone feels awfully sorry for doing that, but you do it still and then get yourself a nice new hammer out of the monster you killed.
That doesn't stop Monster Hunter Stories 2 from inducing the same kind of flow the Monster Hunter games at large do. Whenever you come across a free-roaming monster on your trek across one of the game's beautiful biomes, you automatically enter turn-based combat. Here, you fight alongside your monster as well as a "battle buddy", usually a friend who is native to the biome you're visiting and is just nice enough to help you out - Monster Hunter Stories 2 isn't really bothered with the whys and hows.
In combat, you can choose from three different types of attack - power, speed or technical. If an opposing monster telegraphs its intention to attack you, you have to choose the right counter rock paper scissors style to avoid being hit and simultaneously do damage. Each monster, and in turn your own monster (which the localisation calls "Monstie" to distinguish the two), has a primary type of attack and an element, both of which you have to guess the first time you face them in order to successfully counter.
Figuring out attack patterns is a lot of fun the first time you meet a new monster, especially since each battle has multiple phases in which patterns can change. Additionally, your choice of weapon can make a difference both on monsters in general and their different body parts. The crux of the whole system is that once you've figured a monster out, that's it, it can't surprise you anymore, because the system isn't flexible. Biomes don't have a lot of variety in monsters, so you'll be doing the same things a lot, which would be better if battles didn't have a tendency to get so long. You can speed battles up, and eventually even insta-resolve them, but these both feel like admissions to both the undue length and missing variety.
But battles, like the rest of the game, look amazing. They come alive with speed lines, great attack effects and really fun special attacks between Monsties and rider, called Kinship Skills. This stuff is so over the top, well animated and exciting, and it's one way the game utilises its biggest strength - the monsters!
If there's one thing everyone can agree on about Monster Hunter it's that the monsters rule, and because of that, the aspect of collecting them and fighting with them in battle just to see what they can do is great fun. I can't overstate how lovingly animated they are on the whole - when you ride them on the open field, each Monstie has a different movement pattern, and there's something almost meditative when you travel with them across the planes and listen to nothing but your Monstie's stomping and the crunching of the grass underfoot.
Because Monsties are so much fun, you're going to want to spend a considerable amount of time collecting and raising them. You can find eggs either by entering monster dens dotted all across the world, or by helping a monster retreat after battle, leading you to its den.
As sorry as I am to the virtual monster mamas, stealing eggs is really fun. From finding one with a new pattern, telling you there will be a monster inside you haven't collected yet, to the neat hatching animation, I just can't get enough of it. And if you want to really get into things, you can spend a lot of time fine-tuning Monstie genes by using special items and sing duplicate Monsties to transfer their genes elsewhere - you're awfully sorry about that, of course. Regular battles don't warrant that kind of effort, but multiplayer battles do, and the optional, difficult subquest battles do, too. Also, and this is equally horrible to say about monsters that are portrayed as friends at best and something you only kill if you're left with no choice at worst, the thrill of seeing what equipment a smithy will make you out of the new monster parts you've acquired is also present here.
It feels weird to say that the best parts of Monster Hunter Stories 2 are those that are closest to the main games, but oddly enough I see MHS 2's great strength in how I didn't mind its lack of, well, stories. I think Capcom knows this - the content that's already been announced for this game in the coming months has nothing to do with the actual story - it's additional monsters from Monster Hunter Rise, both to fight and partner up with, so for this game, too, the monster hunt is very much meant to be the main appeal.
The story may be nothing to write home about, but not everyone likes the original Monster Hunter gameplay, and those people may well find what they're looking for here - I know I did. MHS 2 is a warm and kind game with fun character design, engaging voice acting and some beautiful vistas, and even when things got grindy I wanted to keep going to meet new Monsties and visit friends old and new.
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