I don't get that urge to play Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings Of Ruin, you know? I'm not scrabbling for my controller the moment I get home in a desperate bid to take my pet monster, Sandra, out for her daily fight.
I think it's because Monster Hunter Stories 2, the second in a new series of turn-based RPGs spun off from Monster Hunter prime, just feels like a watered down Monster Hunter. It takes the well known bits from the mainline series and packs them into a Pokémon mould - but only some of them stick, while the rest spill over the edge.
I've spent a few hours with MHS 2's opening chapter, which was basically a tutorial island. I can't speak for the depth of the story in Stories, but it seems, you know, fine. You play as the grandson of Red, a legendary bloke who tamed and rode a big dragon. They kept the peace, which was nice. And you're a fledgling member of his Rider tribe: folks who make friends with monsters, breed them, and fight alongside them. The tribe affectionately call them "Monsties", a word that makes me wretch and I hate it.
Anyway, since Red effed off, nasty monsters are now - gasp! - on the loose. It is up to you, a cute anime child, to become a true Rider and figure out what in the fresh hell is making these powerful monsters so lary all of a sudden. This is achieved by gathering your very own party of Monsties and knocking the ever-loving crap out of island wildlife in turn-based battles.
These fights are absolutely the best bit of Monster Hunter Stories 2 so far. It's classic Monster Hunter king-lizard battling, but distilled to a turn-based system that's simple, but really fun. In the most basic terms, it's a game of rock paper scissors, but replace those words with power, speed, and technical attacks. On your first encounter with a monster, you'll need to learn its attack patterns and cater yours accordingly to deal extra damage. So, if they're nimble, for example, they'll likely use speed. Technical beats speed, so you'll lean towards these attacks initially.
I say "initially" because fights in MHS 2 often feature curveballs that keep the turn-based combat from feeling stale. You might encounter a raptor-chicken that whips out a boulder and uses it as a shield mid-fight. To counter it, you'll need to switch to a blunt weapon, like a hammer, to smash it to pieces. You might find that a Pukei-Pukei's tail lets it blanket your team with poison, which is highly unpleasant. Well, you can target that body part specifically to lop it off and prevent it from ruining your day.
Your Monstie's there by your side the whole time too. They'll attack of their own accord unless you instruct them to pull off a specific skill, of which they each have a couple early on. Some have healing spells, others bombs, charges; the usual. If you find one Monstie ain't doing it for you, you can swap them out between turns.
Five Monsties form your party, my favourite being the wonderful Sandra. She's plucked straight from Jurassic Park and looks like one of those docile herbivores that do things like graze and move in herds. But in battle she's a ferocious beast who has healing spells to keep me topped up, and this special move that knocks down enemies for a turn so I can whale on them for guaranteed critical hits. I also have Gareth, a blue raptor who's been with me from the very beginning. He's speedy and powerful, but his appearance frightens me. He has razor sharp teeth and bulging eyes. I imagine he'll try and eat me later on.
I particularly enjoyed the ability to ride my Monsties into battle, once I'd dealt enough damage to fill up a blue orb-shaped gauge. Not only did this replenish our health, it lets you pull off a "Kinship" special move that features a cool animation, and often ends with the monster you targeted basically being nuked from orbit.
So for the most part, Monster Hunter Stories 2's combat captures that unpredictability of classic Monster Hunter. Although, they're not particularly challenging, the fights feel organic and sometimes messy, as opposed to a rigid number trade.
Gathering your Monstie companions is cool too. You get eggs from monster dens, which are basically dungeons with paths and chests and materials scattered about. Once you've nabbed one, you can hatch them back at base. I liked the collectathon, but I did find it hard to compare Monsties at a glance. When presented with two identical Monsties, I struggled to decipher which one was better than the other.
I had no such trouble with armour and weapons, all of which you get from the local smithy. Hand in materials and monster parts you've gathered out in the field and you can make some sweet looking gear. - another classic Monster Hunter feature. I had this armour set which made me look like a lobster with multi-coloured flares.
Unlike other Monster Hunter games, though, you don't need to craft individual armour bits. As long as you meet the requirements, the smithy just bangs out entire sets in one go. I appreciate this because I'm lazy, but I imagine those used to treating their equipment like an Excel spreadsheet may be left wanting.
Thinking about it, the lobster flares combo might be the nicest looking thing in MHS 2. The cartoony aesthetic is charming on character models, but zoom out and the world seems flat. Shockingly so. I get that it's made for the Switch, so blowing the visuals up onto a large monitor isn't ideal, but boy does it look rough on PC.
And I'm afraid the quality of the exploration doesn't make up for it either. Practically every dungeon feels identical: they all have the same paths, the same rocks, the same tedious tunnel layout. Some Monsties let you jump, or detect herbs, or climb vines, and you'll need to switch to select the right one in order to reach new areas. But that's about all they contribute outside of fights and it never feels necessary. I could totally ignore these spots and still progress just fine. This all might change later on, but I'm not holding out hope.
As I play more Monster Hunter Stories 2, I really do hope the story and the exploration turn a corner. Maybe the combat will keep me engaged enough to plough on through the dungeon crawling. Plus, Sandra wouldn't forgive me if I just abandoned her, or FaZe Mon, a Monstie prodigy who's joined the legendary FaZe organisation at only level 8?! Unbelievable.