The PSP’s Monster Hunter Freedom Unite became one of my all-time favorite games. I spent hundreds of hours crafting new equipment, farming with Felynes, and perfecting ways to take down terrifying rage-beasts. I was hooked. So were my brothers, and together we made hunting wyverns and dinosaur-things, a watershed moment in multiplayer gaming for ourselves, akin to the experiences we shared decades prior in games like Super Smash Bros., Secret of Mana and Phantasy Star Online.
It’s possible to play MonHun solo, but it’s much more fun to play with dedicated hunters, which may be why the series never caught on here like it did in population-packed Japan, where ad-hoc local play is a cafe away. We’re spread out over thousands of miles here in the States — not exactly conducive to multiplayer gatherings unless you convinced your friends to buy an ailing system for a somewhat obscure, challenging game — so when Nintendo helped Capcom bring Monster Hunter Tri to the Wii back in 2010, complete with online multiplayer, it was almost a godsend. It lacked voice chat, or any means of communication really, but it was the best legit way to play with far-away friends. It didn’t hook me as much as Freedom Unite – I realized that I much prefer my hunting on handhelds – but I still had a good time.
Now we have Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, an updated and expanded version of 2010′s Tri for both the Wii U and 3DS. If you have both, you can share save data between the 3DS handheld version and Wii U console version, and even engage in co-op cross-play via local multiplayer. Unfortunately, online infrastructure play is exclusive to the Wii U, leaving only local multiplayer cafe-play for 3DS. I got my hands on the 3DS version, and despite no online (something that 3DS-only Monster Hunter 4 will remedy eventually), I can say it’s well worth it for anyone looking for a challenging, addictive action-RPG.
The main hurdle in Monster Hunter may be getting used to how it plays. Anyone used to Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls should feel right at home with its real-time item-selecting and powerful enemies, but either way, 3 Ultimate eases you in. The first several quests act as tutorial missions. You’ll learn how to control the game, how to gather materials around the world and how to manipulate the camera and customize the user interface on the bottom screen, which is as simple as dragging and dropping icons around. These training wheel quests don’t give everything away — such as how to combine herbs and honey to make potions, and how to effectively combo attacks — but they give you a good idea to get going. These opening quests are the closest Monster Hunter ever gets to holding your hand. The rest of the game must be discovered on your own or on online FAQs… Not that you would resort to that, would you?
From then on you’re free to go on slaying, capturing and gathering. These quests can be as innocuous as retrieving rare stones to harrowing battles against electric sea dragons. After each quest you gain money and materials to craft new armor and weapons. (You can collect things during each quest as well — mine for ore, catch bugs, scavenge carrion.) Each monster slain — bash them with a Hammer or shoot them with a Bowgun, then carve ‘em up – yields potential materials like hides and tails. Then go back to town and see what new goodies you can make at the blacksmith. There are no traditional levels in Monster Hunter. Any new weapons and armor you make, and any augmentations you make to them with decorations or Materia-like spheres, are your tickets to empowerment.
With 12 different weapon types and tons of armor choices, you can imagine the customization possibilities. You can also imagine the addictive nature of the game! “Just one more quest” will go through your head often. Not only that, you may want to try each weapon to see what fits you best. And certain weapons may be better for certain monsters. There are tons of variables to play with.
There are tons of things to do in general. Between quests, you assign farming duties to cat-like Felynes, trade with sailors for rare items or free-roam in the woods for extra resources and some extracurricular monster hunting. There are also meals to eat before missions to enhance your stats. Ultimate will keep you busy.
It will keep your fingers busy. Like I said in my Comic Con preview, the 3DS’ analog pad works well, as do the face and trigger buttons. The R button makes you run fast (keep an eye on your stamina gauge!) while the L button snaps the camera behind your back. You can use the L button in tandem with the touch pad to soft-lock on the big monsters, keeping them in view — a new and very welcome feature to the series. The touchpad gives you a few more options. You can customize it any way you want: keep the map on the bottom screen to free up the top screen of clutter, or access the item pouch rather than selecting items by holding the L trigger and scrolling through the inventory with the face buttons. I prefer to use both methods when I can. Same for the camera. I like to switch between the physical D-pad located beneath the analog pad and the virtual D-pad depending on the situation. MH3U gives you plenty of options.
Although I got used to it after hours of play, playing MH3U on the original 3DS felt a bit cramped at first. If you can help it, this game fares much better on the 3DS XL. Besides fitting more comfortably, the larger display helps reveal a lot more graphical detail. Besides that, the game’s biggest flaw, by far, is the tiny, blurry text. It changes fonts at times too, from a skinnier, more legible one to the default chicken-scratch. You can sort of see it in the screenshots, but it’s worse in motion. The text really should get fixed in a patch as I imagine it’s going to get a lot of complaints.
It’s a shame too, since the localization is a delight. The people of Moga Village, the hub town, joke and pun and overall act like warm, inviting individuals. The neurotic Guild Sweetheart, who dispenses your quests, and sailors of the Argosy trading ship stand out as the most charming. The game abounds with that particular kind of cartoony sense of humor inherent in classic Japanese games. Cat bandits run around and try to steal your items, monsters like the Plesioth exhibit personality (oh, you will detest him), and you can pull out a barbecue spit to start a cooking mini-game to make big Castlevania-style hunks of meat that will increase your stamina.
If there’s one more shame, it’s the dated graphics. Monster Hunter basically looks the same now as it did in 2009. Or 2004. That sounds damning, and maybe it should be, but Monster Hunter‘s low-fi look is practically a trademark at this point. While stuck in the PS2 era, fantastic art design makes up for the sharp jaggies and weak textures. Armor and weapons look cool while monsters strike a brilliant balance between cute and intimidating, and the large environments manage to impress with some nice effects. Sometimes some dusty dunes and starry nights with shooting stars are all you need to build a convincing atmosphere perfect for exploration and adventure. And a soaring symphonic soundtrack! Adrenaline-pumping theme music accompanies each giant monster encounter. The only tune missing is the ultra-relaxing town music from Freedom Unite. Moga Village’s theme doesn’t compare. The sleepy/happy Pokke Village theme would be a great bit of DLC to accompany a text patch.
Speaking of DLC, there’s already a fair amount of extra quests and challenge missions ready to download for free. On top of the normal amount of content, that’s a lot of hours of gameplay. Hundreds, even. There is no grand story or end to Monster Hunter. Just a lot of charm and addicting, deeper-than-the-Mariana Trench gameplay that ought to make up for graphical hiccups.
Monster Hunter excels in its sense of teamwork and community, much like Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast over a decade ago. It combines the 4-players-only community aspect of Phantasy Star Online with the challenge of Demon’s/Dark Souls and the complexity and choice of Capcom’s own Street Fighter. It’s hard for me to be objective about this game. I love it, and encourage anyone curious to give it a chance. There’s a demo on the 3DS eShop for unbelievers to try. If it’s intimidating, that’s understandable. It’s a poor entryway for beginners. Stick with it, and you may find one of the most worthwhile handheld gaming experiences to date.
Give it a shot. You might like it.
You can buy Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate at Amazon.com for $39.96.