It goes without saying: you should love Monster Hunter. Statistically, though, if you live in the United States, you probably don’t love Monster Hunter at all. That needs to be rectified. Also, if you’re a game designer, just stop reading this post and pick up the game. Immediately. This post will serve as an introduction to a three- or four-part series on Monster Hunter. This one is just an introduction to the game.
From the sounds of it, you might think of this as being some kind of mix between Pokemon and Monster Rancher. It is not those things. It is as far from those things as a game can really get. In Pokemon, you run around and catch animals in balls where they’re all nice and happy and everything is nice and happy and everyone is nice and happy — your captured Pokemon don’t ever “die”, they just “faint”. In Monster Rancher, you raised a nice farm of healthy monsters in the hopes that one of them, just maybe, will be your cash cow for the coming season.
In Monster Hunter, you hunt down monsters, you kill them, ad then you carve off parts of their body that you can use to forge weapons or armor. That’s right. Every enemy in the game provides you the opportunity to walk around in their skin. These monsters exist to be your wardrobe and tools of battle. That is what you see them as: components.
Before you start seeing them as components, though, you first see them as opponents. Most of these monsters are “bad” monsters, per se. They’re just incredibly aggressive about their turf or their source of food or just don’t like humans around (and why would they, when you’re wearing their cousin as a hat). There are some exceptions, like the main antagonist monster who has the “frenzy” (and sees everyone around it going crazy), but for the most part: they’re just wild animals.
Well, they’re very big wild animals, as the picture below shows (you’re the guy in the lower-left).
That particular set of monsters is from Monster Hunter 3G, but I’ll be talking about Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate which came out about two-ish weeks ago exclusively for Nintendo 3DS. No, don’t sigh or “ugh”, it actually makes perfect sense that it would come to this platform. For one thing, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate came out for both the Nintendo 3DS and the Nintendo Wii. The 3DS version of the game sold 4.6 times as many copies. And for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Capcom actually appears to be pulling out all the stops to try and get this game to stick with the North American players. In Japan, believe me, they really don’t have to try all that hard. As of March 31, 2014, the series has sold approximately 28 million copies. The percentage of those sales that occurred in North America? Not very high.
What’s the Deal with Monster Hunter?
So, maybe you’ve never heard of Monster Hunter. Maybe you have heard the name, but nothing about it strikes your fancy — once again, probably some Pokemon kind of thing. Or, hey, maybe you’ve even got as far as trying out the game and determining that it’s not your cup of tea. The thing about that last point is that, initially, I don’t think Monster Hunter is anyone‘s cup of tea. The beginning is overwhelming, has you mostly fighting “small” monsters, gathering herbs and berries and honey and iron, and all of this is being done without much of a purpose.
Which is what the initial issue with Monster Hunter has been for years: lacking a driving purpose to hook people in. With Monster Hunter 3, Capcom tried really hard to get players invested in the game, but the setting was — quite frankly — unappealing, the problems had to do with some big bad that you haven’t seen, and then there’s all that text. Oh, the text. It contains a lot of useful information, but eventually you just want to quit reading and get to playing. After all, you’ve played video games, you know all there is to know already and just want to get down to hunting some monsters.
The problem is this: you don’t know anything. Sure, your initial video game skillset might have prepared you for battling the game’s smaller monsters, but there are 23 small monsters throughout the entire game. And there are 98 monsters total. What are the remaining 75? Well, they’re all big bads. Most of the game is dedicated to the continual annihilation of 75 different boss monsters all ranging in size from “bigger than you” to “way fucking bigger than you.”
But none of this really tells you what kind of game Monster Hunter is: at its most general, it is a third-person, cooperative Action/RPG. Except there are no levels, you don’t ever gain experience points, there are no mid-mission checkpoints, there is just you, your objective, and you doing whatever it takes to reach that objective. Maybe you want to get crazy and also tackle the subquest (new in Monster Hunter 4), I don’t know, I don’t know you. Maybe that’s your thing.
To call Monster Hunter an Action/RPG feels wrong on every level.
This is not an Action game. Although once you’re in the middle of a battle, it feels much like one as you somersault through a small opening in a monster’s leg just to dodge its next attack. And then maybe you start using your weapon to unleash a damaging combo at the monster’s feet (ie. as high as you can see). That kind of stuff does sound like the makings of an action game, sure, but Monster Hunter is about hunting. It’s about tracking your target, it’s about watching its tics and cues to know what it’s about to do next, it’s about careful use of your resources so you don’t have to scour the environment to find herbs and bitterbugs and honey to make another Mega Potion because you ran out and oh god the monster has found you and has a “you’re my dinner” look on its face. But if, at any point, you treat Monster Hunter as an action game, you’re going to lower your lifespan immensely.
At one point, I saw a Great Jaggi in a quest I was on. Now, a Great Jaggi is one of the first true monsters you encounter in the game. They’re like big velociraptors combined with the frilly spitting monster that kills Newman in Jurassic Park. The Great Jaggi is tough in the beginning (especially if it’s your first time through the game, in which case you’ll probably restart the mission numerous times), but by the time you’re a hardened hunter of monsters and have long since discarded the armor you made out of bits and pieces of the Great Jaggi, he’s just a nuisance. And so I treated him like one. And then he stunlocked me in a corner and proceeded to just use knockdown attacks until I fainted. Luckily, every quest allows for two faints before you die, so I went back to the area, armed with a new appreciation for the Great Jaggi, and treated it like I would any other monster fight: carefully.
Anyway, back to the Action/RPG thing. As for the RPG part… sure, you have armor and weapons, and seven slots to fill with a dizzying variety of weapons, armor, and accessories… You also have hit points and stamina. Oh, and you have crafting. Can’t forget the crafting, as it’s one of the primary tiers of the game. There are also a lot of numbers. A lot of numbers. But if numerical complexity is the gauge by which we judge whether or not a game is an RPG, then I don’t think any of us have been able to play a new RPG in years.
Monster Hunter is an Action/RPG solely due to its aesthetic similarities to Action/RPGs mor so than its gameplay or content. Truth be told, there is no other genre to label it as, as it is truly its own game.
In fact, I’d say the closest game it could be compared to is Demon’s/Dark Souls. They’re approximately the same level of difficulty, though Monster Hunter‘s monsters are much better at telegraphing (as briefly as it sometimes is) their forthcoming attack. And there are no instant kills. The same ethos applies to both games, though: when you die, it’s your fault. I think the Demon’s/Dark Souls game have more exceptions to that rule than Monster Hunter does. In Monster Hunter, nothing will ever one-shot you. Attacks may bring you close to death, or you could get stunlocked like I did with the Great Jaggi, but this is always the fault of the player to pay attention to the cues the monster is delivering. And there are always cues. Always. They may be incredibly brief or subtle, but the cues are always there to tell you what a monster is going to do next and, if you learn its attacks well enough, you can always avoid that next hit. There are some general rules of thumb to follow: learn how long your attacks take to hit an opponent and then start rolling and running away from that spot. This is more true of short-range characters than it is with long-range characters, but still applicable, none the less.
Speaking of short-range and long-range, here’s another reason that this game is still largely unapproachable to beginners: there are fourteen different weapon types and you’re given one of each variant to start the game with. That doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but in practice it makes all the difference in the world. I still have yet to ever try any of the long-range weapons, but I’ve tried (in this order) Dual Blades, Great Sword, Long Sword, Switchaxe, and Charge Blade. So far, I’ve tended to stick with Long Sword as it’s my safe place, but all of the weapons are equally valuable and the best co-op parties you’re going to find are ones that have a good mix of attack/support/range. Essentially, each weapon is a game all on its own. These aren’t simple reskinnings or one weapon with a bunch of knobs tuned in different ways, these are fourteen completely different weapon.
For instance, you might think that the Long Sword and Great Sword function similarly to one another. They’re both enormous swords that look unwieldy, after all. But they’re not. Oh, are they ever not. As a Long Sword player, trying missions with the Great Sword is a wholly different experience — one that I am terrible at. The Great Sword is a weapon that rests entirely on a player’s ability to predict an enemy’s movement and strike a single, solitary charged slash on the enemy when it becomes fully charged. You then sheath the sword, and run away, just to do it again. Like every weapon, the Great Sword has its own combos and timings, but the Level 3 Charge Slash is what makes the Great Sword so… great. Whereas with my long sword, I’m dealing about a quarter of the damage, but I’m dealing it more quickly. I also rely on each strike of my sword to fill up my power gauge. When the power gauge is full, I unleash a four-hit “spirit combo” and so long as the last hit of the spirit combo comes in contact with some enemy, my overall charge level is increased to white — rinse and repeat to yellow and again to red. Keeping a blade sharp and building up my power gauge are the keys to success with the Long Sword. I can’t even talk about how to most effectively use the other weapons — for instance, the Switchaxe is a weapon that transforms from a giant axe into a quickly-striking sword — but my goal is to eventually learn as many of them as I can, so I can properly decide what gear I need whenever I go into battle.
Going into Monster Hunter is just an overwhelming experience in that way. It just has so many options for how to play the game that many players become paralyzed just trying to decide what weapon to “main”. The game, at no point, makes this incredibly simple point: no matter what weapon you choose, it’s going to be just as good as the rest of the lot. It’s just about weighing pros and cons. Constantly poking and slashing and fade slashing and rolling around means I’m likely to take a lot of hits, but it’s the play style that I most enjoy. And that’s really all the matters: find a weapon which encourages the play style that’s most well-suited to what you want to get out of the game and then learn it inside-and-out.
And upgrade it. And your armor too, while you’re at it. These are the things that will make-or-break you as you advance through the game. As I alluded to earlier, the weapons and armor that you can craft/upgrade are entirely dependent on the monsters you hunt. For a nice bit of shock, check out the possible weapon trees for a single weapon in the game: the Long Sword.
There are essentially three modes of play: low rank, high rank, and G rank. Low rank is the first 40-60 quests. High rank is the next 40-60 quests. And G rank is… Well, I just unlocked it for the first time this morning and it’s basically the “end game” of Monster Hunter, which means that I’m going to get annihilated unless I bring a good group with me. Luckily, the community for this game seems incredibly nice. You also can’t get to G rank without being very good. I’m 90 hours into the game so far, and I still have a whole lot of content to play through (for reference, I put 160 hours into Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate).