'Monster Hunter Stories 2' is gorgeous, engaging, and laggy as hell

The perfect way to dip your toes in the Monster Hunter universe — if you can get past its repetitive nature and performance issues.

Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is not a Pokémon game. This is a mantra I repeated to myself many times over during the game’s first few hours, lest I slip into forgetfulness and attempt once again to try playing it like an attempt to catch ‘em all.

Capcom’s Monster Hunter is a series I’ve long admired from afar without much hope of ever actually enjoying it myself. Every review I’ve read of the series, beginning with the first PlayStation 2 entry in 2004, mentioned the steep (read: near-vertical) learning curve, which can be difficult to master even for veterans of the series. I found this to be the case with Monster Hunter Rise, released earlier this year, which I failed at just as spectacularly on minute one as I did four hours in.

Imagine my surprise to find there is an easier version of Monster Hunter and, yes, it’s more like a Pokémon game than a traditional Monster Hunter game. The Stories series is set in the same universe, albeit with less button-memorization and more turn-based chaos. And eggs. Lots and lots of eggs.

And the best news: playing Monster Hunter Stories 2 doesn’t even require any knowledge of the first Stories game (released a few years ago on the 3DS). The protagonist of this one is related to the first title’s main character, but the connection ends there — making it the perfect way to slide into the world of Monster Hunter. Unfortunately, it’s also disappointingly reductive at times and, worst of all, has overwhelming performance issues on the Switch.

Monster-hunting for newbies

Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is your classic turn-based RPG. It’s filled with cutscenes for narration and plenty of directions for learning its fighting systems. As long as you pay attention — or, at the very least, are willing to go back and read your in-game journals — there are few aspects of the game that are truly difficult.

Here’s the basic gist: Accept a story quest or a side quest and follow the map (usually with a handy orange guide marker) to the prescribed destination. On the way there, you’ll see a variety of monsters mulling about; avoid or approach them at your will. Running into a monster (I almost just called it a Pokémon again!) sends you spiraling into battle mode.

You’ll quickly end up spending most of your play time in these battles — which is good, because they’re very entertaining. Your pack of Monsties (those are the friendly ones) fight alongside you as you choose between three basic types of attacks: Power, Speed, and Technical. These operate like a game of rock-paper-scissors; each can be more or less effective depending upon which move your opponent chooses.

Then there are the monster eggs. These are your most prized possessions in the game, though they’re generally not that difficult to come by. Raid monster dens and grab one while the parent is sleeping or away; your trusty cat companion can tell you how heavy or stinky it is, which directly corresponds to how rare the Monstie’s genetic makeup will be once it hatches.

And that’s it. Well, there are attack combos you can rack up dependent upon your kinship with each Monstie, plenty of weapon and armor upgrades, and a myriad of items you’ll collect but maybe never need — but the basics, once you pick them up, stay with you throughout the game. Because the technical aspects of gameplay are kept to a minimum, the game’s story is allowed to take precedence at front-of-mind. That story becomes the most important motivating factor as the game progresses.

The limitations of a limited world

Monster Hunter Stories 2 is downright breezy, for the most part. I keep coming back to the word entertaining, a term which feels a bit abstract but really describes the experience well. Playing Monster Hunter Stories 2 isn’t stressful; it’s just fun. And weird. The humor, especially, verges often on the side of oddities, and the game shines because of its willingness to do so.

But there are some caveats to this entertainment value. In streamlining the gameplay experience, developers have sometimes cut out too much freedom.

This is most apparent when you’re out exploring on the back of your trusted Monstie friends. “Exploring” is maybe too strong a word for what the game allows you to do, which is really just to run along a predetermined path until you reach your goal. You have some choices to make in terms of navigation, yes, but mostly they boil down to left or right? and either option will get you there just fine.

I can’t swim here, but I can swim plenty of other places. The game never explains why.

The areas themselves end up becoming fairly repetitive early on in the game, too. You’ll end up in slightly altered iterations of the same forest multiple times over — and you won’t even be able to hop up onto boulders to find unique ways around each area. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Breath of the Wild, but in many of these instances it feels like the game is refusing me some fun in an effort to just direct me to the finish line.

The Switch struggle

The animation in Monster Hunter Stories 2 is glorious and cinematic. The cutscenes in particular are gripping, bright, and engaging — though this charm does carry through to the rest of the game as well.

There’s just one problem with these graphics — a glaring one. The Switch cannot handle them. The game’s frame rate chugs along at a variety of speeds, spurned by seemingly random events, making for an overall choppy gameplay experience. I’m not talking rare hiccups here; the Switch struggles with processing the game from its very first cutscene. None of it is smooth. For this reason, the game’s flashiest moments are often its biggest letdowns but even just wandering the forest is bumpy.

I haven’t had the chance to play the PC version of the game but I suspect a gaming computer would handle this title much better than the Switch’s outdated hardware. Too bad we’re not even getting a better processor in the console’s next iteration!

For someone intimidated by the franchise’s usual antics, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is a well-crafted immersion point but its cutdown on technicalities and mastery might prove too off-putting for hardcore Monster Hunter fans, though. And sometimes that honing process is just too limiting, no matter what type of player you are.

I’d like to say I’ll go finish playing through the game’s main storyline after I file this review — but I make no promises. Those frame rate issues are really off-putting. If anything, Monster Hunter Stories 2 has made me want to try my hand at previous iterations again. Maybe this time, with my toes accustomed to the world’s bright blue waters, I’ll have more fun. Or perhaps I’m just craving Pokémon instead.