Monster Hunter is a painfully misunderstood series. Indeed, I’ve never played a game so adamant to undermine its own gaming ethos through its complicated design choices. But its technical oddities, for many, have contributed to a challenge level many have dedicated their time and sanity to navigating, and with veritable ‘Felyne’ prowess. And yet, I just can’t stay away from it. It’s retained a cultural atmosphere so reassuring that it inspires me to keep fighting, even if those wonky camera controls frustrate and impede.
So having ventured from the realms of the PSP’s Freedom Unite, I went ahead and obtained its younger brother. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the latest installment in the ambivalent franchise to come to the West, and in many ways, the most accessible. But despite making some admirable leaps in some places, it displays much of the challenge and caprice (and distinct frustration) of its Playstation-infused roots.
What’s fair to say of the series is that since the release of Freedom Unite, it’s beguiling to see Capcom having fun with it. Character creation, whilst not Bethesda-esque, is noticeably more varied, sporting some humorously obscure expressions that affords a brief titter before the hunting raucous begins.
You’re equipped with a feline friend to aid your hunting quests now too, and although Felynes could be called upon in Freedom Unite’s times of need, it’s fun and ultimately more beginner-friendly, to know you’ve your own miniature soldier – a Palico – to deploy when times are dire. Mine’s called Crakajak. He’s a ginger tabby. Yes, he wears a waistcoat. And yes, he is adorable.
Also, about that pig. Totally still there.
A similar friendliness struck me upon the starting quest. Whilst text tutorials still feel unnecessarily lengthy, they’re much more compulsory in 4 Ultimate, presented with a lighter mood that strikes as welcoming to Monster Hunter initiates. Prompts appear over gatherable items and slain enemies, with hunter notes more easily located than Freedom Unite’s elusive how-to’s.
Since the game erupted more as a beloved culture than it has a series, Capcom certainly seemed to have translated a lot of this sense of togetherness into Ultimate’s environment. Understandably, the result is more welcoming than Freedom Unite ever was. The frost-bitten village of Pokke was homely, even welcoming, but there was always a sense of isolation there (perhaps due to technical hindrances at the time) that kept me very much at arm’s length.
Ultimate’s hot-running Val Habar, on the other hand, is a bustling hotchpotch of caravaneers, smithies, chefs, nomads and anthropomorphic Palicoes. You have to side-step to evade incoming traffic, and are caught between glances within the patchwork variety of the townsfolk. It’s not to say that Pokke couldn’t be a home, but there’s a vivacity permeating Val Habar that makes the ‘safety-hub’ of the game more refreshing to return to after a taxing hunt.
There’s plenty of humour canvassing Ultimate’s welcoming abode, too. Ultimate is much heavier in dialogue than its PSP ancestor, but alongside its still quite lengthy tutorial explanations, each conversation is laced with a decidedly anime style. The Caravaneer is playfully exaggerated, whilst the quest-giving Guildmarm will tease you, with an esteemed tendency to call you ‘Doodle’. Outside Ultimate’s more active narrative, you can expect references aplenty as such Nintendo greats as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario make an appearance during optional side quests and DLC.
In terms of controls and progression, the Monster Hunter series has been moving steadily and slowly upward, and in Ultimate, the notion is literal. Whilst Tri, the previous Wii (and subsequent 3DS) release, included underwater combat, Ultimate presents a focus on climbing, encouraging a more lateral approach when it comes to hunting monsters or items. True, Freedom Unite comprised a labyrinth of snow-capped peaks and moss-sodden caves to explore, but they were circulated easily and required laboriously sifting through each zone during Gathering Quests. There’s much remedy to be had in Ultimate; in addition to remembering the gathering spots of your targeted beasties, you’re encouraged to clamber atop overhead canopies and dip down into shrouded alcoves, and discovering each for the first time feels like a cherished, but intensely secret venture. Gatherables generally stick out more within the luxurious environments, allowing you to take in the scenery without needing to scower it. Whilst this reduces difficulty for Gathering Quests, it does mean that Ultimate presents the explorative experience that Freedom Unite had aimed for six years prior.
Movement is also much more fluid in Ultimate, thankfully incorporating greater speed and agility alongside its trademark, pillar-like weapons. Ultimate‘s hunter is a speedier climber, sprinter and gatherer, and it does wonders for the game’s general pacing. You can even spring from various ledges to initiate a valiant jump attack.
With my frustration comparatively lessened, I found myself much more open to the game’s worlds in Ultimate than I had done in Freedom Unite – and more importantly, the study of each of its irrevocably beautiful fauna. Ultimate introduces 10 new monsters to its already formidable roster; not an unpredictable development considering the game’s premise. They are, however, depicted with a crisp, flowing animation that truly shines on the 3DS, and on the New 3DS, they’re even more attractive. Great, spined behemouths like the Shah Dalamadur are as elegant as they are terrifying, but attention to detail isn’t reserved for more pivotal foes. The smaller, more capricious beings of Monster Hunter often transpire as favourites of mine, and observing the skittish deer-folk, the Kelbi frolic amidst the prehistoric world of the hunt, is more enchanting now than ever before. The visual rift between Freedom Unite and Ultimate is impressive, and I’ve begun to make a habit out of alternating between the two. Kid’s gotta have fun, right?
It’s these reassuring additions that make the series’ antiquities all the more apparent, however. Six years on, camera angles are as integral to combat here as it had been in Freedom Unite, and still sporting an unintuitive camera and a lack of lock-on features, it’s plain to see that the series hasn’t perhaps progressed as much as it could have. Exuberant glades and archaic caverns are stunning to behold, and the graphical leap is stark, but if the controls obstruct the game’s objectives, it feels like Capcom focused their aims on the wrong aspect of the series.
Across the Monster Hunter series, soundtrack has remained at a veritable constant, and perhaps as to be expected, Ultimate matches the valiant compositions of its predecessors. Grand, rich and orchestral, I usually hear a boss before I see it, and their crafted themes really contribute to the notion of grandeur each mammoth beast deserves.
That, and the notion that I’m going to get my ass kicked.
Monster Hunter still suffers from the issues of its predecessors; issues that – unfortunately – obstruct its crossover into the mainstream audience. But coming from Freedom Unite is a real treat. Despite its evident blots, it’s a series that is at least moving in the right direction. With roaring visuals and a friendlier first impression, Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate rallies with comedy and odyssey driving the boat, and with a fifth release looming (and the possibility of its Western ventures), Ultimate shows some reassuring signs.
The most reassuring of which is the return of that pet pig. I’m head-over-heels for that little guy.