Anime was weird last year.
While I undoubtedly enjoyed 2019’s Pokémon Sword and Shield, I’ve just as much been left thinking over what more it could have been. The Pokémon series has always been an entry-level sentiment of what a JRPG can be, fostering simplicity first and foremost, but that simplicity has become an all encompassing definition of what the series feels capable of. Despite being the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, the rushed nature of their production schedule, as well as continuingly baffling choices from management over difficulty and depth, means that the series never makes any real substantial leaps forward (or even if it does, it takes a big step back in the next installment). Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is an all too rare competitor to Pokémon’s creature collecting genre, and while it’s not necessarily the panacea to my Pokémon yearning, its focus on making a more complex and original take on that rock-papers-scissors format that took the world by storm has left me satisfied and hopeful.
Wings of Ruin is a love-letter to Monster Hunter, featuring a level of mindfulness and reverence to a series that I haven’t seen in quite some time. Each facet of the game, from the way the monsters attack, scream, and interact with the world around them, to the animations and translations of the ideas behind iconic Monster Hunter weaponry and movesets, represent a fascinating methodology to translating what a series means and represents across the different languages and forms a medium can have. Mainline Monster Hunter games have primarily been real-time endeavors, focused on learning things like animation priority for your character, each of the various monsters’ attacks and behavior, and managing your gear in a tangible and meaningful way. It could never be a 1:1 translation, but Wings of Ruin manages to bring each and every one of those core concepts that make the series what it is into a completely different format.
Taking place in the same world as 2016’s Monster Hunter Stories, Wings of Ruin follows a lot of the same setup beats as its predecessor: you’re a friendly Rider who rides the monsters instead of hunting them, and you’re gonna figure out what the heck’s going on to make all the monsters in the world so aggressive. Wings of Ruin expands upon that conceit ever so slightly by integrating more traditional and basic JRPG iconography and themes into the mix in the form of Ratha, a seemingly legendary Rathalos who propels much of the narrative forward. Along the way, you’ll solve all sorts of problems and take down dozens of familiar (and new!) monsters and make all sorts of new friends just like any other creature collector.
It’s definitely nice to see an earnest attempt at trying to integrate a genuine story concept into the world of Monster Hunter, but that’s never really been the series’ strong suit, and that’s particularly evident here. When it comes to my qualms with Pokémon Sword and Shield, much of it revolves around their simplistic and lackluster narratives, and general attitude that whoever is engaging with this story is nowhere near smart enough to understand what’s going on. A common thread often brought up when discussing how to create media for younger audiences is this idea of how much they can understand, and then compensating for the lowest common denominator of viewership: Wings of Ruin unfortunately has a similarly wrong idea of how to handle this. Every scene is punctuated by a paragraph-long explanation of what just happened, and oftentimes that entire explanation is repeated multiple times to every member of the cast in the span of ten minutes to make sure you really understand that Monsters aren’t evil or some other absurdly easy concept.
My problems with this simplification stem from a misconception over just how much children understand, or more specifically how much they’ll try to understand. Most children (and unfortunately many adults for that matter) aren’t going to attempt to ingratiate themselves with the theme of this work in a meaningful and compelling way, and will instead fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand about this story’s world with their own imagination and attempts at understanding. When you create a story that’s so unconfident in the ability to convey things through its presentation and general vibes, and instead has to rely on a banal wordiness akin to textbook literature (something kids definitely love), it’s going to fail not only at holding the player’s attention, but also at remaining in their thoughts further down the line.
Even more egregious is the character of Navirou, a mascot-style bastardization of the friendly feline Palicoes that have long become a Monster Hunter staple. Similar to Paimon in Genshin Impact, Navirou acts as a cipher for the player’s customizable main character, and like many cipher characters in games, his actions are treated as yours, and holy shit does Navirou need to stop doing things. Every time you get to a new city and start to interact with a new set of characters, Navirou decides to go off about how he rules super hard and is the coolest of all time and that everyone around you is really stupid. Now normally I can deal with a character doing stupid stuff like this in a JRPG (at times it feels like an unfortunate genre requisite), but instead of being taken to task like Tales of Berseria’s Bienfu, or Persona 4’s Teddie, everyone turns to your player character and acts as if literally everything Navirou just said was your doing, and that you need to do whatever menial tasks they require to make up for it. It’s perpetually exhausting, especially when you have to deal with this ongoing plot line about raising Ratha the Rathalos, where every character is questioning how you’re treating and handling Ratha, and much of that drama is driven by Navirou’s shit-talking rather than your character’s genuine actions.
Since so much of the story is driven by Navirou’s mistakes, it leaves little in the way of substantial time spent on forwarding the ideas of what Ratha is meant to represent. Ratha is supposed to have the titular “Wings of Ruin” which are prophesied to either bring great destruction or benevolence to the world, and a lot of the story works around this framework in an attempt to get across the timeless argument of how we should engage with and attempt to understand the more naturalistic aspects of our world. When you get to do cute little nuzzle sessions with Ratha, or discuss the nature of the problems behind an organization dedicated to the hunting of monsters inevitably being corrupted and quick on their trigger finger about “solving” problems, the game excels! Unfortunately much of it gets sidelined by a lack of focus, and by the end of the story things felt more like they were going through the motions of JRPG genre staples than actually trying to have fun with their world.
Which is in stark contrast to literally everything else about Wings of Ruin! While I’ve spent a long time complaining about narrative failings, when it comes to actually interacting with the game’s world and systems things are much more consistent. Earlier I mentioned that the way things are translated from the mainline series is incredibly well-done and that’s instantly apparent through the game’s combat system. The first Stories game took the Rock-Paper-Scissors underpinnings of Pokémon’s type advantage system down to its most basic and rudimentary form with a system of three types: Power, Technical, and Speed. The player character can choose what type of move they want to use from these three at any given time, but their ai-controlled party member Monsters will tend to favor a specific type in their moves. Opposing monsters will generally favor a type as well, and you’ll want to use a Power monster against a monster using Technical Moves, and so on and so forth. The wrinkle that makes this a Monster Hunter game is that most monsters change the type of move they do depending on what specific powers they’re tapping into, or if they’re particularly riled up right now, translating the concept of learning a specific monster’s animations and patterns intrinsic to Monster Hunter. With the ability to switch between any of the six monsters in your party at any given time, this means you’re able to force your AI party members into more or less doing exactly what the situation requires, perfectly reflecting the idea that you’re wrangling these monsters as a rider and gradually syncing up your techniques as partners.
Wings of Ruin expanded upon this already impressive ludonarrative assonant system by iterating upon the weapon system inherent to Monster Hunter. Now every single Monster has a specific secondary weakness (copied directly from their main series tendencies) tied to weapons you can switch around as frequently as your monsters, as well as a tertiary weakness (again, specific to them and taken directly from the main series) that you can leverage for bonus damage and effects like breaking body parts faster (wow like in Monster Hunter!) Also new to Wings of Ruin are additional party members, both Rider and Hunter, each with their own mechanics and abilities. Both of these changes make this interesting translation of Monster Hunter into more than a one-off gimmick game, and instead creates a compelling system where you’re rewarded for learning exactly what each monster you face can do, and what you should do about it.
Furthermore, Wings of Ruin also gives you full access to the gene splicing aspect of the first game that was mostly relegated to the postgame of Stories right from the get-go. This system, called “The Rite of Channeling,” lets you sacrifice older monsters that you might no longer be using (or never have intended to use, sorry Diablos I will never respect you), and put their abilities or skills onto another one. If you really go for it, this system lets you create ridiculous game breaking creatures, like the early-game herbivore Aptonoth becoming a chain-stunning machine, or even something as simple as a Tigrex shooting a laser beam. This system is interesting, and it’s nice to have better access to it right away, but I didn’t find myself using it all too often. While the post-game areas present a modicum of challenge, the amount of time and luck needed to farm the Monster Eggs with the right genes to do anything super crazy felt like a waste when I could just bash my head against a fight a few times with my chosen squad of besties.
Monster Eggs in general represent the only other real failing of Wings of Ruin as a game, which I suppose in a sense continues its faithfulness to both Monster Hunter and the genre it’s chosen. Every time you want to get a new monster, you’ll have to roll the dice by going through the randomly generated Monster Dens throughout the world, which always contain an egg nest to poach. There are Rare Dens that guarantee an opportunity at getting a monster with really good genes, and there’s a method to guarantee a specific kind of monster egg at a den through traditional Pokémon methodology (only with paintballs instead of pokéballs), but no way to do both at the same time. The process of going through each basic and procedurally generated den can get extremely tedious at times, and takes away from the general loop of the game in an incredibly distracting way that made me actively try to ignore the system in every way. It’s almost impressive that in mirroring the idea of what an egg means in the Monster Hunter world, they perfectly translated the frustration and pace-breaking that egg quests brought to the series.
The eggs weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying the core gameplay loop of Wings of Ruin however, and there was more than enough about the monsters themselves to push myself through the acquisition process in order to get my most favorite monsters all set up to be as cool as they’ve always been. Just as with everything else about the gameplay, the translation of every monster’s animations and techniques into the turn-based framework of the game is incredibly spot-on. Every monster replicates their funny animation quirks that help characterize them flawlessly, with monsters like Zinogre gradually buffing itself and gaining its iconic electric blue mane, or Velkhana covering its tail with ice to create a deadly attack while increasing its own defense. There’s just so much love and attention on display, even when it comes to the player’s attacks, with certain weapons having different sound effects (like the more guitar-looking hunting horns sounding like they should), and the signature movesets of each weapon being translated into moves that retain the animations Monster Hunter players have seen thousands of times while making them work for what this game is.
There’s all sorts of other cool ideas on display, like the addition of multiplayer modes like Co-Op or Versus Battles, and the really fun super attack every monster has, each with a unique bombastic animation, and they all help push Wings of Ruin past its failings into a genuinely fun and engaging experience. The level of respect and detail paid to Monster Hunter and its world is something that I think a lot of people found lacking in several Pokémon games like Sword and Shield, where most of Pokémon’s battle animations are often basic and barebones. Obviously Pokémon is working with a slew of hundreds and hundreds of creatures, but the fact that Capcom was able to do as much as they did for the hundred or so monsters present in Wings of Ruin is still genuinely impressive, and I think games like New Pokémon Snap have shown that the series could stand to learn from its quality over quantity theology.
Despite my frustrations, I ultimately had a lot of fun with Wings of Ruin in the thirty or so hours it took me to beat the main story. I’ve only dabbled a bit into the post-game, but I could definitely see myself continuing to fight my way through High Rank to keep on seeing my favorite (or even my least favorite!) monsters show up in new and exciting ways (like their adorable baby forms you get to see for a split second when they hatch), and puzzle out how they translated their unique gameplay ideas to this entirely different format. Wings of Ruin might not accomplish everything it sets out to do, but what it does, feels like the type of celebration every game deserves.