As monolithic as it is intriguing.
Monster Hunter is one of those series that aren't exactly mainstream in the West so the hottest market for it is Japan, side by side with many other games that seemingly sell like water in a desert in Japanese markets yet the rest of the world doesn't feel so strongly about. The fact it's developed and published by Capcom never helped the game for me either. I'm not exactly the biggest Capcom fan around. So like mostly everyone else I let this one slide for as long as I can remember.
Still, the fact this was one of the few games that sported a decent gain in performance when upgraded from the original 3DS to the New 3DS caught my attention. Not because I had a New 3DS and wanted to see it outperforming the old one, quite the opposite really. I bought and played on the XL version of the original console, anything else just spiced up my curiosity.
I'm kind of glad I ended up buying it because Monster Hunter is a truly unique game. It's not a game I'd deem without flaws but it's certainly a game that its own flaws might be one of the selling points for some people.
The first thing you need to know is that this game is hardcore. Yes, its core is hard as a diamond, unbreakable in its purest form. It was never developed to be just an experience on the hands of the player like many modern games are, neither was it developed to be a simple cash-in for quarters in an antique arcade machine. This was designed to be incredibly hard, unforgiving in the most pragmatic sense of the word, but it's not a cheap game.
We all know the drill when it comes to RPGs, you start small-time fighting your way through enemies that near the end basically can't even hit you. You develop the character, but it develops a whole lot. Monster Hunter doesn't follow this basic structure, instead, it only offers players with upgrades for equipment that will merely make you slightly stronger than you were before.
There is no leveling up to be found except for the palicoes -- members of you party. It features a deep battle mechanic that takes a lot of time getting used to. In fact, most of the first 5 or so hours will be spent figuring out how every weapon in the game works and completing tutorial quests. Of course, you must be open to give this one a try to really enjoy the ride, if you're the kind of person with very limited attention span who gets bored easily this definitely isn't for you. This is not a traditional game in any way, shape or form; keep that in mind at all times.
It does feature a whole lot of hand-holding in the beginning, though it still feels like the game abruptly throws you out there to figure things out. These mixed feeling occur because even though the game does try to walk through everything it has to offer, it's all so complex that only time will really get you going. You should feel overwhelmed at first but things only get better when you finally get the hang of it.
It's also unclear at the beginning if this features a main story or not. After spending hundreds of hours playing I can safely say; both are true, it does and doesn't feature a main story, at the same time! No kidding, I can explain. It does have a main story that unfolds as you progress, it does revolve around incentives for going through the campaign, but it's definitely not traditional. It's just a fancy way to tell you "well, things have gone to hell somewhere, go out on this quest!".
The quests revolve around hunting beasts in several different maps, gathering items from specific locations, mining ores and other stuff; or anything that has to do with these things in slightly modified fashion. Hell, some quests only require you to go and do whatever you want for two minutes, it's that crazy. And you know what? These are awesome, they simply take all the pressure for a few moments and you can simply gather resources knowing that not dying is your only priority.
Most quests have a 50 minute limit so you can't just stick around for as long as you'd like, knowing how stuff works overall is pretty important especially in more advanced ones. From the items you gather in quests you can trade with merchants, earn money or combine items to create other, more useful items. I call myself a minimalist when it comes to RPGs, I always want to face challenges without having to spend items I might need in the future, when I reach the final boss I generally have enough to fight it 10 times over. This can't be done here, unfortunately.
Combining items is such an essential part that even people like me who tend to focus on character evolution instead of a strong medicine box will have to rethink the way they see RPGs. Making stuff like Potions and Energy Drinks is essential to move through the game. You also have a limitation on how many you can take on a quest so over-preparing can only be done to a certain limit. Anything else you need to gather in that run and around the map you're currently at.
You also have way too many things to keep taking care of. For instance, your weapon gets noneffective as you use it, so it's always wise to bring sharpeners. Hunting a monster with an unsharpened sword is basically useless. As you move around and run your fatigue bar not only drains out, it also gets smaller. Having items to restore it is as important as keeping your health bar in good shape. In maps with lava or ice your health/fatigue bar can be depleted without ever reaching combat, so you need cool or hot drinks to keep your character up from intense cold/heat.
To fight you can choose up to 14 different types of weapons. From run-of-the-mill sword and shields to gunner weapons that require being loaded with ammunition constantly. Each of these 14 styles have unique ways of functioning and combos so most people will actually find out which one suits best for them and try to master it instead of constantly keep changing it. Another thing that comes into play are upgrades, it's hard to keep a vast arsenal upgraded, so two or three weapons might be the way to go for most people.
Also, the monster you're hunting won't simply stay there and wait to get hunted, so you need to bring stuff like paintballs with you to track him down easily on the map instead of running around waiting luck to be on your side when it decides to flee. Another aspect is that the game is never paused -- unless you hit the HOME button on the 3DS -- so the actions you take must be done in real-time while dealing with monsters that might chop off half of your health bar with one nicely landed attack.
The nature of the monsters are all very distinct, they are often separated in grounds of stars, the more stars a monster has the more dangerous it is. Some of them are just herbivores that barely attack you while others are incredible beasts that might take the whole of the 50-minute duration to plan out, find and execute your strategies of hunting them down effectively. Especially since some of them can throw stuff around, like some kind of corruption that hampers your defenses and only adds other items to the list you need to bring with you to recover from ailments.
You see, Monster Hunter has a wacky sense of humor, both in its comical dialog and interactions and the overall sense of it. The characters are awesome, the humor added in every bit of their character is refreshing and quite amusing. The game makes you at least grin in positive demeanor from its sillines while constantly slaps you in the face with its hardcoreness. You need to be prepared for whatever you're about to face, if you aren't, you will fail, and the game will make sure it happens without any trace of mercy.
The maps are simple overall, just a few numbered locations connected with each other; each map has like 8-12 locations disposed in varying ways. In low-rank you always start out in the camp with a few items needed for the quest to come. When you reach a certain point in the adventure you get promoted to high-rank which will randomly cast you out there with no primary equipment to fend for yourself. By the time you reach high-rank you'll be able to discern which items you need and which items you don't.
There's also the palicoes which are adorable fighting cats that will accompany you during your quests. You have your main palico which will be the leader, after a while you'll be able to find palicoes in maps and ask them to join you. Palicoes have differing attributes like healing, fighting, bombing, protection, and you can quest with your main palico and another one of your own choosing. Contrary to your main character your palicoes have levels which can be brought up as well as upgrades in equipment and skill set, though the end results are not as stark as the main character's.
A few other game modes are present like quests to be done with friends both online or local. Generally the same ones you face in single-player but with some added difficulty when played in group. There's also the expeditions which you don't have a time limit and can explore and fight monsters to earn guild quests. Guild quests are good for those willing to grind since every time you beat a challenge you level up the challenge, and hunting higher leveled monsters generally hands out better loot.
Everything seems pretty nice and it is, though there are some things that actually bug me. Most of them are not exactly problematic in the most worrying sense of the word, but it makes the game a bit tedious at times. I'll try to list every one of them.
The most problematic aspect in my opinion -- and naturally the worst aspect of it all -- is hunting during expeditions. Instead of a limited time for completing the quests it features limitless exploration. The problem is, to even out the system, they added a mechanic that makes the monster to flee after some time. It only makes the game frustrating because if you have entry-level gears you won't be able to effectively kill or capture the monster in time. In fact, even with high-end gear some monsters are purely based on luck for having them stay long enough.
Something else that might frustrate some but it's certainly part of the Monster Hunter experience is how often you need to sharpen you weapons. During a normal hunt you'll probably do it twice while some harder monster might require 3 or 4 sharpenings. That's a little frustrating when you have so many stuff to be taking care of. Some monsters also run away too fast, especially when hurt; I know it simply makes sense, but still bothersome.
It's sad to see how limited you are when it comes to items, if you could somehow carry whatever you wanted you could probably bypass the insane difficulty by taking more potions for example, the time limit would still be present so it wouldn't be too steep of a change, allowing people to at least have a shot at higher difficulty challenges. All of these aspects are just me nit-picking on some of the more hardcore mechanics that would actually make the game more accessible while still maintaining its core gameplay.
Overall, this game is truly unique. Certainly not an adventure that will please most gamers, especially those accustomed to today's standards where developers are too afraid to hurt their targeted userbase's feelings with unnecessary difficulty. Monster Hunter seems to have a laugh at those who can't penetrate its monolithic wall while pleasing those who dare further the steps onto it. If given enough credit, this game might please many while making others cringe in disappointment.