Having spent a sizable chunk of my life with turn-based RPG Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings Of Ruin, all that plays in my head when I think of it is an imaginary scene involving Len Goodman in Strictly Come Dancing. A Rathalos has just performed the rumba with its rider Anton Du Beke, and we await the judges' scores. There he is: Goodman. Forever the people's champion. We know what's coming and the crowd swells with anticipation. His paddle breaches the table; say that iconic phrase with him now!
I know we don't give out numbered scores here at RPS, but Monster Hunter Stories 2 is aggressively seven-y. An above average game that grew on me the more time I spent with it, but couldn't quite nudge itself into "great" territory. Instead of the Bestest Bests stamp, I give it an imaginary stamp of Len Goodman's face.
In my preview I said Monster Hunter Stories 2 was a watered down Monster Hunter, and in hindsight that was a bit harsh. I don't think it's that bad, but it takes a good 12 hours or more for MHS2 to hook its claws into you. Slowly, steadily, it introduces new ways to optimise your monsties, and it's only when you've got them all laid out in front of you that the game transforms from a bit of a slog into a satisfying number cruncher.
That's in part because MHS2's story trundles along at a slow pace. You play as the grandson of a legendary bloke called Red, who rode this big dragon and was very nice to monsters - sorry, monsties. The call monsters "monsties", and I hate it. Anyway, a lot of people miss Red. They bang on about it a lot, with frequent flashbacks that left me thinking, "Cool, but what about me, though?" Especially because Red disappeared, leaving the island running amok with enraged monsties. They're really angry about something, and figuring out what's going on is your main plot MacGuffin.
Eventually you get hold of this special dragon egg, and as it turns out, there's a band of hunters who want their mitts on it too. It's all linked and mysterious and actually quite compelling. It just takes a long time to get to this point. By no means is this a nuanced or mature story, though. I'd say it feels like a drawn out anime movie for teens, with climactic moments that hinge on 1). Believing in yourself, and 2). The power of friendship (with giant monsters). There are bits to occupy aside from the main quests, of course: a prayer station that'll give you time-limited buffs in exchange for tokens; side quests that'll task you with slaying powerful monsters or collecting herbs in exchange for more goodies. Everything you do out in the field is a means to earn something at least three times over.
What really keeps you coming back to Monster Hunter Stories 2 are the fights and the monsties, both of which are excellent. As I said in my preview, it's classic Monster Hunter filtered through a turn-based sieve, and it's simple but super effective. At the most basic level, it's a game of rock paper scissors, but replace those words with power, speed, and technical attacks. It's hardly luck-based, though. Once you've observed a monster for a bit, you'll know which attacks they lean towards. In this way, it's a touch predictable once you know for sure that a hammer-head shark on two legs (don't ask) opts for speed attack every. Single. Time.
But that's not to say Monster Hunter Stories 2's fights aren't challenging. Later on, fights can be wildly unpredictable and really quite difficult if you're unprepared. You might fight a Tigrex (a tiger crossed with a dragon), where it'll take frequent weapon swaps and plenty of potions to keep your party from being torn to shreds. The Tigrex will constantly switch up its style, and might sling huge boulders, attack multiple times in one turn, or hit you with horrid elemental effects that need immediate cleansing.
Out in your travels, you'll occasionally spot a Royal Monster slumbering out in the open. And these up the ante even more. I mean, the fact they're audacious enough to snooze in a world replete with folks who like knocking them out says it all, right? Think of these monsters as bosses of each area you'll visit, and totally separate from the story. I won't spoil anything, but you will absolutely need to kit yourself out with the best gear possible. The Tigrex I've described above ain't nothing in comparison to these sleeping beauties.
Through thick and thin, you'll be joined by your party of five monsties. In battle you'll have one by your side, while others wait in the wings to be tagged in. They attack of their own accord if you let them, but you can instruct them to pull off specific skills. My Anjanath - whom I've affectionately dubbed Leonardo for no good reason - has this flamethrower move that sets multiple enemies ablaze. It's a real treat, but it's also a power move that isn't great against speedy types.
When it comes to your own weapons, there are six types in total: sword and shield, great sword, hammer, hunting horn, bow, and gunlance. You can take a total of three into battle with you, and it's fun swapping between them to figure out what's most effective against certain monsters. I have a soft spot for the hammer, which is great for crunching armoured enemies into submission. It's crucial you pick the monstie companion who'll give you the biggest advantage over the monster you're fighting. Easily one of the greatest rewards in MHS2 is learning each enemy's behaviours so you can reliably rinse them when you next face-off.
Although it's tough to beat the literal rewards you get from successful fights. Just like Monster Hunter, you'll earn monster parts from defeated monsters. Perform particularly well in a fight and you might earn rare parts, with which you can construct delightful new threads and weapons in the smihty. And boy do they all look good. I have this one armour set that makes me look like a hulking great rhinoceros, while another transforms me into a fluffy general of sorts.
Unlike mainline Monster Hunter games, you don't need to craft individual armour bits. As long as you meet the requirements, the smithy bangs everything out in one go, and it's super simple to follow. This is great for people like me, who want to crack on, but I imagine those who dig into stats will be left a touch disappointed.
Still, collecting monsties and optimising them should satisfy everyone's tastes. Scattered around Monster Hunter Stories 2's world are monster dens - think dungeons, with chests and materials to collect. Complete them and you'll get a monster egg that can be hatched back at base. The collectathon is decent, but I do find it hard to compare monsties at a glance, especially because you end up with duplicates. But these do have a purpose
Monster Hunter Stories 2 does offer plenty of ways to maximise your monsties if you've got one too many hanging around. Each monstie has genes which contain their abilities and things like passive stat increases. Now this might sound rather dark, but you can splice these genes together to upgrade them, or transfer powerful abilities from one monstie into another. It's a really neat way of crafting your favourite monsties into odd hybrids and flips duplicate monsties from duds into useful enhancement tools. You can also send a party of excess monsties on expeditions for things like rare materials and EXP back at base. These tick away in the background while you go about your day, so when you return back home after a trip, you'll be rewarded for pressing a few buttons.
As much as I enjoy the combat and the elation of seeing EXP bars rise after a good hunt, I can't say the same for exploration. The world in Monster Hunter Stories 2 looks flat and jagged, almost as if I'm playing a PS2 game. I understand it's made for the Nintendo Switch, but it really does look rough. Dungeons and environments are pretty uninspired, and layouts are recycled heavily. The world is hardly teeming with life and flora, either. When compared with the jungles and coral forests of Monster Hunter World, it's rather lifeless. No wonder the monsters are mad.
At least MHS2 runs just fine on my PC. There's a lack of advanced graphics options like shadows, textures, and lighting, but I appreciate its simplicity. You have low, medium, or high presets and that's pretty much it, and everything runs brilliantly on my 1080p monitor with an RTX 2070. Controller support is there, as is support for 4K Ultra HD. Unfortunately, ultra widescreen support isn't knocking around, so bear this in mind if you've got a big 'ol panel.
If you're after a new, turn-based take on Monster Hunter, then Monster Hunter Stories 2 largely delivers. The story isn't going to make your jaw drop, the world's rather bland, and it lacks in-depth crafting options. But - and it's a big but - the combat is genuinely a lot of fun, and collecting monsties is very moreish. Plus, I like being able to ride my monstie in battle and pull off special moves that practically nuke monsters from orbit. Len Goodman would give that in isolation a 10, at least.