Adaptations are a tricky thing. How do you retain the core appeal and themes of work while also presenting it as something ideally new and unique? Is it possible to make sweeping fundamental changes to a formula and still capture the same magic that made it work in the first place? With Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin, Capcom gets as close as it’s ever been to a far more accessible and wholly refreshing take on the long-running Monster Hunter series.
It’s a game that holds true to the appeal of the series from which it has been spun off but radically shifts its focus from real-time action to methodically rewarding turn-based combat. It is impossibly cute at times, sporting a welcoming soft aesthetic and recontextualisation of the titular monsters and how they relate to the people in these far off lands. But it’s also needlessly awkward and remarkably unambitious, marring its outstanding achievements in game design with a persistent stream of small issues that eventually threaten to drag the whole experiment down with them.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin Review
Wings of Ruin follows suit from the original Monster Hunter Stories, casting you as a Rider rather than a Hunter. The difference being that Hunters hunt the majestic monsters that roam the lands while Riders…well, also hunt them but under the guise of friendship. You’ll be playing as the offspring of the legendary Rider Red, your grandfather whose kindness left such an impression on the land that you’ll scarcely be able to enter a village without someone comparing the two of you. In the fifty years since his adventures, things have been relatively stable in the region, monster and man coexisting peacefully even with the uneasy alliance between Riders and the Hunters from the mainland.
The core distinction of the Riders is their far more “peaceful” dynamic with the monsters, ostensibly seeking out naturalistic partnerships with the creatures rather than outright subjicating them with violence. Except, of course, you’ll spend the game violently clashing with monsters while nabbing their unborn children to raise into warriors you’ll then use to clash with more of them in an unironically horrifying cycle. Concessions must be made in games such as these but given that the Riders are both a selling point for mechanics and textual narrative devices, the lack of self-awareness around this is a little amusing.
Unnecessarily direct reads of the text aside, Wings of Ruin takes this wobbly premise and spins gold from it. Throughout the game you’ll gather up countless monster eggs, considering their qualities before taking one back to the stables to hatch and make your Monstie. Fans of the series should be pleased with the sheer number of rideable monsters present in Wings of Ruin, especially given how well translated these creatures are into the softer art direction. The high fidelity realism of Monster Hunter World’s designs is perfectly rendered here in cartoonish but detailed models that capture the spirit of Monster Hunter immaculately.
There’s an addictive core loop of exploring Monster Dens (seemingly randomised small locations such as caves and the like), finding an egg you’re happy with and running it back to the local village. Each egg offers a chance of a better monster, though you’re able to directly impact the genetic traits of the creatures with skill slots relatively early on. There is a lot of minutiae for fans to sink their time into here, Wings of Ruin offering up a steady stream of rewards for those looking to heavily invest in the Monstie raising business.
Your Rider is fully customisable too, the game’s character creator offering up a fairly decent selection of face and hair options with a blessed two-tone hair dye scheme. You are a silent protagonist however, your best interactions relegated to an endlessly charming greeting animation and appropriate gasps. Wings of Ruin does let you change the shading of your armour however, and pair it with increasingly fabulous fashion pieces, so self-expression isn’t entirely off the table. With your fit looking just right, and your team of new Monstiea in tow, you’ll be thrust into the beautiful but sadly unremarkable world of Wings of Ruin.
So off you go on an adventure that is steeped in familiarity that players will either find comforting or entirely unengaging. Across Wings of Ruin’s surprisingly lengthy campaign, I found myself wavering between the two reactions, entertained in fits and starts but never fully engrossed in the tale it was spinning. Which for a game named after its storytelling potential is more than a little troubling. Wings of Ruin overindulges in tropes but rarely ever elevates them, content to present you with a story that has the subtlety of Pukei-Pukei. Obvious care has gone into the presentation of the narrative with well-directed and acted cutscenes but they are ultimately in service of a script that is composed of broad strokes and digestible moral bites.
The slack from the lacklustre narrative then has to be picked up by the rest of the game’s mechanical systems and here at least Wings of Ruin, mostly, sticks the landing. Unlike the mainline Monster Hunter series, combat has been completely retooled into a turn-based system. The result is a multi-faceted and engaging game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that is only somewhat held back by AI that can’t quite keep pace. As a huge fan of the complexity of Monster Hunter World‘s interlocking combat systems I was pleasantly surprised just how well it almost all translated into Wings of Ruin‘s take on it.
Riders can deploy Power, Speed or Technical attacks, along with a huge arsenal of special abilities, items and, of course, hopping on the back of your Monstie and doing battle together. Enemies can directly target you for their next move, meaning you need to choose the appropriate response from the trio to counter their attack. Power beats Technical, Technical beats Speed, Speed beats Power. It’s intuitive and adds a layer of skill, and luck, to the classic turn-based formula. Monsters typically attack in patterns, giving you a chance to study their preferred approach and counter appropriately.
Once you’ve decided on your method of attack you’ll often have the ability to choose which part of the monster you want to target. Does the raging beast store its poison in its tail? Probably best to focus on lopping that thing off. Likewise for thick armour scales protecting weak stomachs and so on. It’s both a clever adaptation of a series staple and yet another layer of complexity added to the formula. You’ll also need to consider what type of damage you’re inflicting, both elemental and physical, as well as bolstering your own defences against brutal rebukes. It’s dense but surprisingly manageable, eventually turning each combat encounter into a thrilling little puzzle to solve.
Rewarding mechanics are made doubly enjoyable thanks to Wings of Ruin’s stellar presentation. Dynamic camera work that weaves in and out of closeups, a boppy soundtrack and cleverly deployed animation loops give these instances a charming cinematic feel worthy of Monster Hunter’s signature style. Both Riders and monsters have an array of unique animations for different types of attacks, and the Kinship Skills that unlock when you mount your Monstie during battle are particularly thrilling to watch play out. There are also quick-time event battle moments that aren’t overly difficult to beat but keep you on your toes during longer bouts and heigten the sense of scale.
The game also lets you speed these animations up to three times faster, or skip entirely, for the more grindy battles, a welcome option as even the best looking elements can become quite time-consuming.
But combat is also riddled with unforced errors that can turn a phenomenal core set of mechanics into a chore. You’re often paired with a Battle Buddy, Riders with their own Monsties, who offer up suggestions for which body part to target during the battle and so on. “Let’s focus on that tail!” they cry before spending their moves targeting the left-wing. Monster parts have sizable individual health pools that need to be depleted before it can stop impacting your party so the AI’s insistence that we target them to give us an advantage while also refusing to help chip away at the task is mildly infuriating.
If you’re low on health there’s also a chance they’ll decide to spend their turn healing you, but only a chance, so if I spend my turn doing the same for fear of being KOd, we double up and waste precious resources. You’re not given control over these buddies either, a choice I find inoffensive in its own right but paired with the irrational AI it becomes grating. Worse still, you’re not even able to control your own Monstie, meaning it too is at the whims of the same sporadically helpful AI system. There are a smattering of other annoyances throughout combat, notably the invisible health pool on monsters and difficulty spikes during story related encounters.
Outside of combat, Wings of Ruin offers up a vibrant world that isn’t half as fun to explore as it looks. Each region houses a different climate and topography, your expected run of forests, mountains and deserts. Each brimming with an assortment of wonderful monsters, ores to mine, herbs to scavenge and dens to pillage. But each feeling distinctly empty despite these things. Space in and of itself isn’t an issue in game design, Breath of the Wild masterfully uses the emptiness to thematic effect, but Wings of Ruin is missing the key element in achieving that same feeling. Fun traversal. Riding your Monstie across open fields is fun enough but it never goes beyond that, only offering specific instances of jumping or climbing that require swapping out monsters to do so. There’s no flow to exploration, just halted moments and repetitive resource gathering.
You’ll drop those resources, as well as the game’s two types of currency, at market stalls and blacksmiths in the villages. Within each class of weapon, there is a healthy variety of elemental variants, upgrade paths and some very flashy looking high-end gear to chose from. To earn some extra coin you can partake in sidequests, dolled out from NPCs and the local community board that also grants access to arena battles and multiplayer. These systems are fine but quests can offer little outside of the core combat and exploration loops so if you’re not vibing with those already it just ends up adding more grind to the pile.
I hesitate to label Wings of Ruin an outright grind because the game has so much joy to offer when it’s not making small but repeated mistakes. The world itself is brimming with personality, quiet instances of people and monsters living their lives in harmony in small rustic villages. The vast stretches of land bathed in the cooling glow of a setting sun, an irritated but adorable Arzuros gorging itself on honey under a nearby tree. Traversal is awkwardly stilted yes but you’re also able to actively avoid encounters, comically running away from a charging monster who spotted you from across the clearing.
The story didn’t move the needle for me but I can’t say I wasn’t touched by the Disney-lite bond between my Rider and the baby Rathalos cooing by his side. It’s overly simple and plays to base reactions but it’s so bloody cute. Same goes for the sense of pride I felt when I finally earned my poison slicked blade or my first set of big boy armor. Wings of Ruin is dabbling with greatness at every turn but never quite gets across the line, save for the combat system that every other turn-based monster focused RPG should be taking notes from.
From a technical standpoint, the game runs extremely well on PC. Achieving a consistently smooth 60fps (though this can be adjusted in the settings) and loading relatively quickly. There’s some spotty texture work here and there but nothing too noticeable, all is forgiven when the overall aesthetic is as strong as it is in Wings of Ruin.
Wings of Ruin is the kind of experimentation I welcome from developers, taking an establisher and succesful formula and upending it in search of something new. It’s far more accesible to new comers, kids especially should adore this thing, as it neatly translates the best elements of the mainline games into an enjoyable spin off.
Still, it isn’t quite fully realised, hampered by weak exploration and an AI that needs a stern talking to. If the “Stories” series continues in the future, which I sincerely hope it does, it needs to find something to more to say for itself than warm, but tired, tropes. For all it’s charm and mechanical depth, Wings of Ruin only just manages to fly.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin was reviewed on PC using digital code provided by the publisher.