I had been one of the last in my circle of friends to wait this long. It seemed daunting and quite a big deal; everyone else loved it so, and what if I was simply bad at it?
But last night, with a trusted partner, I gave it a go. And sure enough, it was quite awkward to begin with. I confess that I hadn’t watched any internet videos ahead of time, nor had I done any reading to educate myself. Oh sure, I played around a little by myself, but this was quite different. I wasn’t exactly sure how everything worked. Was I doing it right? Was I even hitting the right spots? I got the distinct impression that my partner was doing all of the work, and that I was pretty much along for the ride.
Such are the perils of a Monster Hunter virgin.
And yet, it wasn’t as rough as I thought it would be. If, like me, you have never played a Monster Hunter game before, you’ve probably been told a variety of contradictory things about the series.
“It’s an ARPG!”
-“No, it’s not an RPG at all!”
“The combat is clunky!”
-“No, it’s brilliant!”
And so on. This doesn’t make it easy for us non-veterans; all of these contrasting viewpoints can’t possibly be true, can they? But here’s the odd thing – they are true. Because it’s all about upgrading your character, it does indeed have RPG hallmarks, but it doesn’t offer a typical leveling-up experience (the experience points system, such as it is, consists of utilizing the materials and bounty gained from a successful hunt, which you will use to upgrade your gear). Nor does it suffer typical RPG tropes. This game is entirely about the art of the hunt; coming-of-age melodrama isn’t the order of the day.
But it wouldn’t be accurate to call Monster Hunter a pure action game, either. Why? Well, the combat isn’t a manic succession of chained combos. Your character speed is slow, striking with weapons can take an age, there is no Z-targeting (so you’ll constantly be adjusting your camera), and the agility of the monsters you’ll be facing makes it clear from the first moment who the most powerful character onscreen is at any given time. You will get hit, you will have to run for your life, and that attack you were measuring up will miss the mark and get you killed.
But you know what? It not only works, but once you get a feel for it, the combat is damn near elegant. It shouldn’t be, not with those mechanics. But it is. In an age of flashy chained attacks and semi-automated gameplay, Monster Hunter is a throwback. The mechanics don’t feel like a digital autopilot; it feels organic. Landing blows doesn’t feel like the product of chance or an algorithm doing the dirty work. It feels like there’s a genuine connection between you and the game.
For example, I chose to start out with dual swords (bone scythes), which offer you relatively nimble movement at the expense of defense. If you were to look down at the controls, you would find two attacks (one fast-but-weak, one stronger-but-slower) and a dodge button. Sounds like a recipe for a hack ‘n slash, doesn’t it? It’s not. Since your quickest movements occur with your weapons sheathed, you’ll be doing a lot of running around, not button mashing. You’ll also have to find opportune moments to drink health potions, because you can’t slash and drink at the same time. Only after you’ve considered these factors can you plan when to strike. But when you’ve timed a dodge just so, and find yourself staring at a monster’s soft, unguarded underbelly? The blades’ attack transform into a well-choreographed barrage that would do Legolas proud. And better still, the whole process feels as if it is connected exactly to your input. When you do well, it feels like an achievement, the kind that doesn’t need an annoying onscreen pop-up to inform you of what you’ve just done.
Nothing feels exactly like Monster Hunter. It isn’t an RPG, except when it is. It isn’t an action game, except when you’re sweating out an epic battle. It’s a bafflingly complex, precipitously deep experience that throws a lot at you. But the essentials? They are actually pretty easy. If an idiot like me can play this game, anyone can. You go online, choose a hunt, eat a meal to boost your stats, then buy a few supplies – potions, whetstones, drinks – and go after the monsters. Or you can hang out offline and gain experience against monsters of less ferocity and power.
More simply, it feels like an old-school beat ‘em up made love to Shadow of the Colossus. It’s beautiful, not thanks to shiny texture work, but due to stunning art design and incredible animation. It is the work of artisanal masters. A lot of love and care went into this title.
If you didn’t buy this game at $60 out of fear that you wouldn’t like it, I can’t blame you. I didn’t, either. But now, while it’s on sale for $20 on the eShop? It’s a bargain. At a third of its original price, it’s not a large investment, and the upside is huge. If you enjoy what is on offer, you’ve found a game with hundreds of hours of gameplay.
By the end of my first night, I was playing hardcore – with three partners, up until the early morning hours. I think I could get used to this.