I can sum up my somewhat limited play time with Capcom's latest "Monster Hunter" game in one sentence- "Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate" is the perfect game for a summer break. Those are still a thing, right? I mean it's been a while but I'm pretty sure that in some parts, children and teens still get a solid two month block of time to play outside, or rather in many cases, toil away at their gaming obsessions. Don't get me wrong, the life of a gaming blogger is pretty OK. But, with only a limited number of hours in the day, and many job responsibilities, I simply cannot devote hours upon hours on single game as I have with some game in particular.
Take "Skyrim" for instance; I've easily clocked hundreds of real life hours. While this is somewhat of an aberration of my typical gaming habits, the lure there was built on exploration and playing at my own pace without a focus for random drops and obfuscated systems. In this way "Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate" hit a little too close to a genre of games I've fallen out of love with - The Japanese Role Playing Game. I don't want this to be an East vs. West piece, but I wanted to impress a little from where I'm coming. I'll get into this in a bit.
So in that spirit, I have to be up front, that this will not be a full review of "Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate." Instead, I'll lay out a few quick impressions over the dozen or so hours I've spent gathering herbs, making traps, forging weapons, and - most importantly - tracking and slaying dangerous monsters.
Before I jump right into the meat of the review, let me back up a bit. I've never formally played any of the "Monster Hunter" games. Not so much because they didn't look interesting, but because of a general falling out with JRPGs. Don't take this as a hatred for the genre. I have had many wonderful hours grinding through fantasies final and would never take back any of those amazing stories. However, there's a certain weight when tackling a game when you know it's going to be a slow start. And if there's anything that JRPG devs have in common, is that they seem to take it as personal challenge to layer the ins and outs of all the systems beneath a thick blanket of text and slow tutorials. They also tend to take the kitchen sink approach by tossing in tons of subsidiary and mostly unneeded mechanics that impede gameplay, grinding advancement to a halt. Perhaps I'm being too hard and maybe I've just been a little worn down over the years while slogging through for one more level, one more craft item, one more story beat.
Ok, I'm done beating up on the still beloved genre now; you're still with me right?
At any rate, I wanted to tackle "Ultimate" for a couple of reasons. One, the game honestly looks like fun. What's better than going head to head, brains and bravery to tooth and claw, hunting all manner of mythical monsters? And two, peel back the dense coat of menus, systems, and mechanics and learn why these games are so popular. I also wanted to takes this as a challenge to expand my gaming habits. With that mindset I figured out how to shed some JRPG prejudice and learned to love the hunt.
The basic premise of "Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate" is pretty straightforward: you are a monster hunter and you hunt monsters. Seems simple enough. In "Ultimate" you start off on an island that has been besieged by a mighty underwater creature. Drafted by the local village, you're tasked with ridding the waters of this fearsome creature and are given a few basic supplies in addition to armor and weapons. The simple plan is to learn about the habits and weaknesses of this creature and face it head on before going out into the world to take on more terrifying monsters.
Unfortunately, you're not quite yet the badass you wish to be. This means spending some time running errands, finishing quests, making weapons, and learning how to become a master of slaying. The good news is that the village is ripe with quests and a populace willing to pay out for a little help in the field. So, with a little effort and time, you'll be taking out ferocious creatures left and right.
One thing to note (as if I haven't already heavily implied) is the dense nature of the game. There are several systems piled on top of one another. you have mining, bug catching, foraging, trading, in addition to ship and resource management, farming, cooking, fishing, and crafting. Each of these plays a pretty significant part to the overall game. You probably don't have to use each and every last one of these occupations but they go a long way toward helping out your fledgling hunter. If this sounds a bit overwhelming don't fret as there are numerous tutorials to help guide you; though, I found my time was best spent gathering various plants and mining ore for weapon and armor crafting. It's best to focus on a few of these side jobs and really nail down which ones you like to do rather than trying to do all of these at once and getting drained.
In a lot of ways, "Monster Hunter" reminds me of "The Witcher" - both games have a strong focus on prep work and crafting. And both feature stronger, more difficult monsters that will test your mettle and skill. Before encountering the big bad, you'll spend time scouting the local fauna and flora, question the locals about the monsters, and do field work gathering supplies. A smart, well equipped hunter will fare much better as monsters increase in difficulty.
The big divergence comes with a lack of story, or at least a very hidden story about this island tribe and the monster hunting guild. That's a not a bad thing per se, but don't expect some grand adventure that spans politics, religion, and self reflection. Mostly, the story beats are simple introductions to new mechanics whereby you'll meet up with a mysterious visitor that wants to trade. You'll also get some alright looking mini cutscenes when encountering new regions and monsters. There's a small story there but expect to do a good bit of digging with the NPCs. In this case, lack of story might actually be a bonus as I'm not particularly invested in anything other than hunting.
Missions are doled out one at a time, which seems odd to me. I suppose the idea is that the Hunter Guild is evaluating your exploits and can't be bothered to keep track of multiple quests at a time. Getting started is easy. Walk up to the Guild Sweetheart and she'll have a list of rank appropriate quests you can choose, ranging from fetch quests to actual slaying. I say rank appropriate because there isn't a leveling system so much as a Hunter Rank. All upgrades to health and stamina are imbued with your armor sets; otherwise you get temporary boosts with potions and more often cooked food. So grinding comes through collecting and buying ingredients to upgrade your hunter right before you tackle quests.
One thing to note is that quests are populated outside the open world area. That is to say, they might take place in familiar locals that you've been free-roaming for supplies. So if you need anything for your hunt, you'll need to prepare beforehand otherwise you'll have to forfeit and try again if you find yourself over your head. Another thing is the time limit. It's pretty generous for the most part but you don't have a ton of time to mess about. In other words, engage quests with intent.
My biggest complaint is with the actual combat. If I had to pick a single word it's stiff. Awkward would be a close second. Your mileage may vary, but several of the weapons lack precision, more so without any kind of lock-on ability. This is especially egregious on the 3DS version as the touch pad isn't the best solution for a second analog nub. I whole-heartedly implore you to pick up a Circle Pad Pro.
If you could simply toggle a fixed point from foe to foe, it might be more bearable. I often missed more than I connected and spent a lot of time reorienting my hunter. The larger weapons like long swords and axes especially take some finesse to properly use. Don't expect to charge in swinging as you'll just end up draining your stamina and getting worked over. Fortunately there's a wide range of weapon types so you should be able to find a rhythm with at least a couple; though, you'll need to master the weapons for later challenges.
Seeing how "Ultimate" is essentially the director's cut of the Wii's "Monster Hunter Tri," on the Wii U it's more or less an up-rezed version of the latter. Graphically, the port has a bright, vibrant palette and some nice scenery that is mostly pleasant to the eye. I noticed a fair bit of choppiness with framerate, which surprised me as at any given time, the regions are pretty sparsely populated with monsters. And I would have to knock it down a few pegs for some muddy textures. However, its animations are simple but effective at conveying a sense of weight to each attack and the sound effects are clear enough to distinguish each creature. Even on the 3DS, the overall look is pretty clean, with beautiful vistas and saturated colors. Also to note is the designs of the monsters with mythical dragons, serpents, dinosaurs, etc. and it's a real delight to discover something new around the corner.
However, on that note, expect a bunch of load screens as the each main region is divided into several sub areas. The loads are quick on the Wii U but bog down the flow of the game a bit. I suspect there are so many loads as each area can populate several different creature types depending on some algorithm in the data.
At the end of the day, I can finally say that that I think I'm getting it. What started out as a rocky start, I had to shed my preconceived notions of these types of games and once the real hunts began I was having fun. It's a shame that so much of the game is buried underneath enigmatic stats and systems that it would scare away anyone new to the series. The hurdle from systems and menus, shaky combat to rewarding hunting and slaying is very high. The real fun comes with overcoming serious odds, and when you finally tackle that big monster and successfully cross it off your hit-list you'll feel the joy of becoming a true hunter.
"Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate" available for Wii U and 3DS March 19. Review copies provided by Capcom.