Having spent a few years living in Japan, where you’ll find Monster Hunter merchandise around you no matter where you look, it always strikes me a little odd that one of Capcom’s flagship franchises has never really found a large audience in the rest of the world. Seriously, I have a Monster Hunter key ring for the prefecture I used to live in. Monster Hunter is massive in Japan – there are action figures, statues, plushies, even entire stores dedicated to selling Monster Hunter games and merchandise. But while there’s a Western cult following of gamers that have been playing the game since the early days on the PS2, by and large Monster Hunter hasn’t had a great adoption rate from new players in the West.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate looks poised to change that – depending on whether enough players have a decent sized 3DS. Capcom clearly has a great desire to see the game reach a larger audience outside of its homeland, and the result is the most accessibly Monster Hunter game yet.
For those of you not in the know, Monster Hunter games are all about hunting monsters – a shocking revelation, I’m sure. As a hunter, you pick from over a dozen weapon types – bows, swords, hammers, axes, sword axes, and so on – and venture into the world to kill a specific monster. You have 50 minutes to kill your quarry and carve it up for any and all items you could put towards a new armor set or a new weapon. Bigger and better weapons mean you can kill bigger and better things, and it’s this reward loop that has hooked millions of players worldwide for nearly 15 years.
Interestingly, every “big” monster you encounter is unique in terms of size, and the size range of every big monster you kill is recorded on your Guild Card for everyone else to see. Lather, rinse and repeat your kills until you are wearing the most badass armor, wielding the most terrifying (or ridiculous) looking weapon, all made from the most badass-terrifying monsters lying dead in your wake.
In Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, you can either tackle these monsters alone or with 2 of your pet Feylnes (cats), or with one of them and up to 3 other players via the Online Guild Hall. While this all sounds pretty simple on the surface, each species of big monster is entirely different, with different behaviors, attacks and weaknesses to learn. Each type of monster is designed by the studio is designed by a different team to keep the monsters unique – no single person will work on a giant crab monster and a giant wolf monster. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate keeps you on your toes constantly, and each new instalment is good for at least 100 hours of play – my personal record playtime is close to 200 hours on Monster Hunter 2 Freedom Unite, and it rivals my playtime on Skyrim.
MH4U is one of 2 flagship games on the New 3DS, along with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and it’s one which makes fantastic use of the new hardware to hand. There are two reasons
newcomers to the Monster Hunter franchise are instantly put off: the camera and the pacing, which sees players bombarded with lengthy tutorials for a baffling range of mechanics. The camera issue is tackled here with the new C-Stick (or Circle Pad Pro if you don’t want to upgrade from 3DS to a New 3DS), and the pacing we will come onto in a little bit.
Herein lies the first and biggest problem with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate: the console itself. The 3DS family is now so diverse that the four different 3DS versions have 8 (if you count the outchscreen) differently-sized screens. If you want to play MH4U, the bigger the screen you can play it on, the better; I tried it on the smallest (2DS) and the biggest (New 3DS XL) and the experiences don’t really compare.
On the original 3DS, the top screen shows your camera, health, mission map, mission timer and the monster which is currently trying to eat your face. Your touch screen shows whatever you want it to show you – your items, or any of the above if you want to remove clutter from your top screen. With this much information in your face, you really need space to see it, so size makes a big difference (so gentlemen) – especially if you have the 3D slider on the highest setting.
The improved stability on the New 3DS is great, but each of the above info tiles layers against the 3D while cluttering on the top screen. Couple that with the constant pop-up text every time you use an item or carve a beat, and playing in 3D can really jar at times. The best setting I’ve found is on-but-minimal, cranked up to maximum for the game’s impressive cutscenes.
So what’s new in MH4U? How is MH4U different enough that new players will actually take to the game, while familiar enough to satisfy veterans of the series? Aside from the new weapon types and the ability to rodeo monsters, the best new addition is that MH4U has an actual story with proper pacing this time around. Monster Hunter games in the past have pretty much unanimously said “you’re a hunter in a new town; now go kill things” and then just left you to it. That might be fine for people who just want to get straight into the action, but new players can feel overwhelmed by the lack of direction. Any overarching story that is present is usually buried in tutorial screens and mission logs which you can very easily never see.
That’s changed this time around, and it’s to the game’s benefit. In MH4U, you’re a hunter who has gone in search of the merchant caravan Val Habar to register as an official Monster Hunter with the Hunter’s Guild. On your trip over you manage to repel a giant elder dragon attacking your ship in nothing but your underwear and no weapons bar the ship itself. This obviously gets you noticed by the people (they’re not human) in the caravan, who start giving you missions as you talk to them. Some are a little tongue in cheek – one NPC tells you it’s tradition to give new hunters a fishing quest, and while I groaned at the prospect of doing all that again (I’ve played almost every Monster Hunter game and I always hate the fishing quests the most), I did laugh with the script, rather than at the script.
Likewise, I have laughed at every pun in the game so far – Japan is well known for being big on puns as it is, but there is a race of cats in the Monster Hunter universe called Felynes, who speak in cat-puns. The best examples come from the Meownster Hunters – a band of monster-hunting Felynes you come across during the story campaign. Yes, some of them are cringe-worthy, but in a way that raises a smile rather than annoys.
Our protagonist, the Hunter, finds himself/herself joining a new caravan with the owner of the ship who transported you to Val Habar. You travel together, chasing leads on a relic your new boss keeps literally, under his hat. Generally speaking, Monster Hunter games have always isolated you to one town and told you to protect it at all costs. The difference here is that in MH4U you’re always on the move and don’t settle anywhere for long; this is likely to annoy some of the old community as you no longer have a farm to work on between quests.
As I said before, you carve monsters for weapon and armor parts, but if you want to make items for battle – e.g. Potions – you need to collect the Blue Mushrooms and Honey or you ain’t making squat; the old games had a farming area to use between quests to take this burden off of the Hunter while you’re trying not to get eaten alive. It’s with great sadness I found that we don’t have a farm any more; I rather miss the relaxing change of pace of farming between the tension of the more challenging battles, some of which can last upwards of 20 minutes.
There are a few other things which might annoy the old hand. Account Items can no longer be dropped off mid-quest, unless your mission is to deliver X Wyvern Eggs or some other item; carrying that heavy bastard back to your base for the Account Points is quite literally a waste of time – you can’t cash it in. This will lose a few people, so don’t worry – those who know what this means will be swearing. I swore too. A lot.
There are some cool new additions, however. The target-cam from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate makes a welcome return, allowing you to center in on your target with the tap of the L-button. It makes a huge difference, and while the camera does still end up giving you awkward angles to work with, it’s much easier to handle than ever before – particularly if you use the Circle Pad Pro or the C-stick. and resource-gathering spots (for your honey, ore, whatever) now disappear after they’ve been depleted, so you no longer need to keep track of which ones you’ve exhausted.
You can now also rodeo big monsters by leaping off a ledge above and attacking with your sword – this allows you to stab the living hell out of them with your carving knife and attempt to topple them, granting precious items and a few seconds where you can’t be attacked, while you attack the living hell out of the monster. A lot of fun, I promise you – especially if you use the new – and somewhat overpowered – Glaive weapon, which allows you to pole-vault onto monsters.
A new quest type has also been added: Expeditions. Expeditions allow you to explore a new area which the Guild hasn’t approved for lower Hunters yet. You go out and see what fauna you can find. Kill it, report it to the guild and everyone is happy. The difference between this and a proper hunt is that there is no map, no provisions, and you work through a linear set of areas. You can also find new outfits for Poogie, your pet pig (I shit you not), and high level weapon/armor relics to equip.
MH4U is the definitive English version of the game, which somewhat makes up for the lengthy wait (Monster Hunter 4 was originally released in Japan back in and I highly recommend it to everyone; if you’re curious but not sold, go download the free demo from the Nintendo eShop. While it’s not the best Monster Hunter I’ve played, I’ve given up holding out for an English version on of the game on the PS3/PS4 outside of Japan. There are a few new features which add to the overall game experience too; considering this is a 3DS game, you’d expect there to be a StreetPass feature – and there is.
Hunters you pass with your 3DS system will automatically trade Guild Cards with you, allowing them to appear in your Offline Guild Hall where you can send them on errands. After every few quests they will appear to you with a random quest – hunt a Khezu, for instance; you tell these “Hunters for Hire” if you want them to accept the mission and how many extra hunters they should bring. A few quests later they’ll return with items for you – depending on their success, of course. These items may include rarities you can’t get by simply killing the monster yourself, so it’s worth a shot if they ever say they want to hunt something vaguely useful.
All that’s left to address is the graphics and audio. The audio is pretty much your usual Monster Hunter fare – it sounds great, but no different to Monster Hunter 3. Graphically – it’s a 3DS so don’t expect great things, but character models are detailed, monsters even more so, and there’s a decent draw distance. The jaggies (or Jaggis, as Dale expertly put it) are bloody annoying – especially with the 3DS on maximum depth of field. The cutscenes are still amazingly shot and beautifully rendered, however, and can be great fun to watch with the 3D turned up to max. This is certainly a game which would look great on the Wii U if Capcom decide to do another crossover, like they did with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. I for one, am holding out on such a crossover so I get some use out of my Wii U, which hasn’t had a truly exceptional game in the RPG genre for a while now (thankfully due to be addressed later this year with Xenoblade Chronicles X).
So it all boils down to whether or not you should pick up Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and the answer – for both veterans and interested parties wanting to give the series a try – is a resounding yes.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is easily the most accessible Monster Hunter game ever made, but that accessibility hasn’t come at the expense of the staggering depth that the series is known for. The menagerie of monsters is vast, you can easily spend upwards of 100 hours playing – especially if you venture online – and Capcom has done a decent job of improving some of the niggles which have plagued the series since the first instalment, while adding enough new features to make it a worthy addition. Just make sure you pick up a Circle Pad Pro if you don’t have a New 3DS, because otherwise the camera can be a nightmare.