Well, I'm totally hooked on Monster Hunter. That happened fast. It's frustrating, confusing, and completely entrancing. From the outside, it always looked like one of those games I'd admire people playing but never actually get into myself due to ultra-high barriers to entry. That was Dark Souls for a while, and still describes games like EVE Online. But Monster Hunter, thanks to this latest entry and some patient friends, has become a fast favorite for me.
The Monster Hunter series is a long-running one, going back to 2004 and the latter days of the PlayStation 2. From there, it blossomed into a huge beast of a series for publisher and developer Capcom, appearing on at least 11 more platforms since then.
Despite starting as a console game, though, it quickly morphed into a primarily handheld title. Always more popular in Japan than in the west, it adapted to match the mobile-focused Japanese market, and spent more time on the PlayStation Portable, PS Vita, and 3DS than it did on home consoles. Even when it did land on home consoles, it didn't always make it over here, and it still had the high barriers to entry associated with the game – complex systems with minimal tutorial, confusing multiplayer, and tough combat with unclear progression.
Nowadays, consoles are selling faster than ever, and the PC market is exploding. Meanwhile, handhelds languish as the latest pure handheld from Nintendo is a 3-year-old revision of a 6-year-old system, while developers (and gamers!) continue to figure out exactly what the Switch is, even if the love for and sales of the system are beyond question. Looking at the market, Capcom decided to bring its series back to consoles in a big way, bringing us the biggest, prettiest, and most approachable Monster Hunter game yet with Monster Hunter World.
World still has many of the hallmarks of the series, and Monster Hunter fans aren't going to mistake it for anything other than a Monster Hunter game, but those of us new to the series have a way in we've never had before. I can play Monster Hunter without cramping my hands or my brain.
A beautiful day in the park
The most immediately apparent advantage to jumping to the much more powerful modern consoles is the genuinely impressive visuals on display across all versions of the game. No longer held back by tiny handhelds, World is the best Monster Hunter has ever looked, without question.
But it's not just that things have more polygons, more colors. It's what that does for the game moment to moment, and how it changes playing it. The monsters feel truly huge, and the better sense of scale makes them feel that much more intimidating. The monsters have much more detailed animation, too, and that movement fleshes them out as not just opponents to take down, but living things. You can crouch in a ghillie suit and watch them just do their thing.
After hacking and slashing at one of these beasts for a few minutes, it starts to show signs of wear and tear. It runs away. An earth-bound monster, though, will drag unsteadily, damaged and exhausted. Watching a Tzitzi-Ya-Ku limp off to hide and rest made me question what I was doing for a split second. I felt bad chasing down this wounded beast.
But then I remembered I needed to make a coat out of it, and I went back to hitting it with my sword. Because Monster Hunter is not about monster hunting, but about monsters, hunting.
No matter where you look in Monster Hunter World, though, there's tons of detail to find. Each of the game's areas has its own separate look, keeping the game from ever feeling visually stale. The act of tracking monsters keeps you engaged with the world around you, too, helping you grow more familiar with and aware of your surroundings. Each monster has its own look that varies and changes as you get deeper into the game. Each of the countless weapons you'll wield and armor suits you'll wear has been carefully designed to be desirable on its own.
All of this comes together to to make me wonder about the PC version coming this fall. Monster Hunter World is already gorgeous, but a maxed out PC version is sure to be enough to bring a tear to our collective eyes.
Truth in Advertising
The second thing you'll pick up on is how accurate the title is. Previous titles in the series have had confusing titles like Unite, Tri, and Spirits. But with Monster Hunter World, it's easy to see that you're in a whole new world with this entry.
Monster Hunter World is an expansive place. It's not so big that you won't become familiar with it, but it's big enough that you'll still be finding new places after 10 or 20 hours. While chasing a Rathalos and Rathian pairing – a couple of dragon-like beasts all-too-eager to light an annoying hunter on fire then chomp down the roasted body – I found a campsite I'd walked by countless times. While tracking down a beast in the ancient forest, I found myself in the treetops, criss-crossing rope ladders I'd never seen despite having taken down tens of beasts on various missions right below.
And yet, there are enough landmarks that I've been finding myself more and more familiar with the land, like an experienced hunter picking out trees and elevation changes that gives them crucial clues to their whereabouts.
Even the opening area, the Ancient Forest, has tens of hours of playtime buried in it, with multiple levels of the canopy hiding their own collections of secrets, monsters, and opportunities for encounters. But what you really want to work toward is the Coral Highlands, a sort of sea-on-land biome covered in the sort of elements we normally would need a scuba tank to view. Everything here is oversized, pastel-colored, and beautifully lit to make you feel like you're in a truly alien world. The forest feels jurassic in its size and layout, and the desert feels big and lonely, but they're both still pretty familiar. The Coral Highlands feel like the ultimate treat from the game's artists for our journey into this world.
You might not believe it going in, but this is the most approachable, accessible Monster Hunter game yet, something my friends keep reminding me of as I gripe about different systems.
Some of it is well-designed and lends itself to long play over time. Even 30 or 50 hours in, you'll still be unlocking new systems, areas, and monsters. It's just as you're finally getting your character dialed in that new customization options open up. And at that point, you're barely halfway through the possibilities for available weapons. The fourteen weapon classes are immediately available at the beginning, but new aspects of these classes are still revealing themselves dozens of hours into the game, with new strengths and weaknesses, new abilities, new ways to use them.
But then there are countless questions that have come up during play that I've ended up searching for online. There are menus within menus, and systems within systems. New weapons will have new abilities that require specific gloves or charms to unlock them. Weapons will have abilities that aren't described in the move sets available in their training areas, requiring you to find them yourself or dig them up online.
The many loading zones of previous games are gone, replaced with fewer loading screens that take you from the hub area of Astera to each of the individual zones. Because the game is now on a hard drive instead of a memory card, the loading screens you do encounter are much longer, which can sometimes be frustrating when you're trying to get into a match with a friend.
Speaking of that, this may be one of the most frustrating aspects of Monster Hunter World. Again, I'm assured that this is the best it's ever been, but at times it feels like the game is doing its best to keep people from playing with their friends. It's not like Dark Souls where that's the whole point, either. If you haven't played a story mission yet, you'll need to watch the unskippable cutscenes for that mission, leave the area, and then post a mission to go back in with your buddies.
If your friends are all playing in a higher level mission, you're stuck playing alone or buddying up with someone else. Instead of powering you up to make you viable, you simply can't play. If you have a busy week that puts you behind your friends, playing with them means that they'll have to re-play missions they've already passed and, worse, don't provide much in the way of useful materials for the upgrades they seek. Many Monster Hunter players relish the chance to replay missions and grind gear – most of my friends included – and that speaks well of the community and spirit engendered by the game. But it's still a stumbling block in my opinion.
Don't hunt alone
And that has the potential to be a frustrating disappointment, too, because multiplayer provides some of the very best moments Monster Hunter has to offer. Over the course of one weekend, I put off writing, eating, and going to a movie because sitting at home waiting for me was an online session with three friends. I spent hours and hours hunting down Anjanaths (fabulous T-Rexes), Paolumu (poofy bats), Kulu Ya-Ku (angry chickens), Tobi Kadachi (electric squirrels) and more, as we each built up our collections of monster parts to build new weapons and armor. When I finally got my Giant Girros armor set completed, I was excited to show it off, finally finding an outfit for my hunter that was something between "bikini" and "Onion Knight from Dark Souls." Playing with friends also means that exploring those confusing menus and systems is fun instead of frustrating. It's conversation and investigation instead of barriers. In that way, Monster Hunter isn't unlike Dark Souls – there's a high barrier to entry that a few good friends can help you climb over so that you can fly on your own.
It's a tough, deep game
Monster Hunter World is a bit different from other RPG-style games in that you're not leveling up your character. Your character is the same person at hours 1, 50, and 150, with the exception of the ability to change your hair color. Instead, it's your equipment and knowledge that you're upgrading. At hour 50, you know enough to know how to get around, but also enough to know that you still have a lot to learn. Those 14 weapons I mentioned before all have their own fighting styles, allowing you to charge in, play defensively, and buff your group. To hit and run, or build up combo attacks. To play with precision, or just take big sweeps at the battlefield.
You can pick your poison and stick with it, or you can sample each of the weapons to find your favorite flavor. Either way, there's all kinds of depth to each weapon provided by both its advancement tree and its built-in mechanics.
But these monsters will kick your butt. You'll get yourself into tough situations and miss out on needed monster parts. You'll faint when a beast poisons you, stuns you, and then tosses you into the air – all in the course of about 4 seconds.
But if you pay attention, each of these battles teaches you something about these monsters. You learn what abilities they have and when they're going to bring those to bear. You'll dig into your field manual and see what secrets you've unlocked, finding new weak points. Your first encounter with that Anjanath is a clumsy dance, but your 100th is a ballet. You'll switch out equipment to counteract its fire, set a loadout to trap it instead of kill it. Then you'll break it down part by part until you're extracting every possible item you can from its scaly exterior. Then, when you think you have it mastered, you'll start fighting High Rank versions of these beasts, and frequently you'll find battles interrupted by bigger, meaner monsters. It's time to learn a whole new dance.
A quick note about the story
The story is the last reason you should play this game. The cutscenes are exciting, but the story is bare bones. There's a bare minimum of voice acting, and most of the exposition is delivered by a perky, nameless handler who acts as your entry point into missions. It's a dumb, surface-level story, and if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself skipping text before long, and wishing you could skip cutscenes. My brain turns to fuzz anytime the story pops up.
The big set-piece story missions too, are a big misstep. While most story missions have you playing in the regular maps, a couple missions take you to a specialized map where navigating is more than enemy than the monster itself. Here, the tedium that's normally mixed into the fun stuff takes center stage. You're stuck climbing a confusing morphing map that looks all-too-alike and attacking unmoving masses stuck on timers. Then you load a cannon over, and over, and over.
A meal fit for royalty
Before each battle, you'll take a moment to visit the Canteen, a bar run by a "meowscular" humanoid cat who cooks huge meals that provide buffs for you in the battlefield. It's too much food for anyone but an anime or video game character. Faced with one of these in real life, I'd back down.
But that's Monster Hunter. An intimidating, huge meal with countless flavors and ingredients, with all kinds of nuance to explore and uncover.
It's enough to put some off. But if you've ever wondered about Monster Hunter, now is the best time yet to dive in. There's a whole world to explore, just waiting. I can't honestly say it's the best Monster Hunter, as I haven't played the others, but it's the best way to get into Monster Hunter, for sure, and it stands on its own as one of the best games so far this year and likely one of my favorites going forward.
Disclaimer: We received a review code for Monster Hunter World for PlayStation 4 from Capcom. We played about 50 hours before writing this review.