Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate

This review can also be found on One Hit Pixel, here.

I had fallen out of love with action RPGs. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance played well, but is obsessed with its own terrible plot, and the less said about what I think of Dark Souls, the better. It was a genre that didn’t feel fun any more; then I played Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It managed to do something I hadn’t seen in the genre for a few years – not take itself seriously, but remain in top form mechanically. If you’re a Monster Hunter veteran, you already know this – but this review isn’t so much for you (reinforcing your opinions aside). Those of you who are cautious newcomers, please read on.

Plot is very light; the tropical settlement of Moga Village has been ravaged by earthquakes and lightning-spewing leviathans. You, a Hunter, are tasked with showing such beasts the business, and reviving the community while you’re at it. As such, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is two games: A more fluid version of Phantasy Star 0 and a menu-based Harvest Moon. Both are compelling, but are even better combined.

As you set out to smack overgrown lizards silly, you’ll find that almost everything gives you items and resources; carved from your kills and foraged from the surroundings. Upon returning to base, you use those items to farm, fish, or best of all make new equipment.

Every weapon and armour piece is made from the skulls you’ve just caved in. It’s a kind of ridiculous joy to come back with a fresh corpse and see what you can turn it into. Giant butterfly-beetles? Now a sweet top hat. Armour-plated bear? Now some giant cymbals. The game is kind enough to give you the base versions of the 12 weapon types, and experimenting with them to find your favourite will push you to explore upgrade paths. The moment I found I could commit monster genocide using a huge metal bagpipe, I was sold.

That’s not to say the combat is easy. God, no. Each weapon type has its own quirks, generally in terms of attack ranges and animation length. Every move will leave you vulnerable in some way, and looking for openings and not committing to risky attacks is key to survival. Once you start fighting boss monsters, you’ll become an instant strategist, calculating but desperate. For those who can no longer get it up unless you’re putting bullet to brain-pan, there’s a set of ranged weapons (Bows and Light and Heavy Bowguns) that work in their own special way, along with armour sets that can only be worn by gunners.

However, despite the daunting nature of larger hunts, death is not swift, nor is it time-consuming. While success takes skill, early on it takes a few solid hits before your health starts getting low. This is a nice way to ease new players in – there’s a whole lot to learn, but the basics are fully explained and you’re given a lot of breathing room to figure things out. Blind and sudden failure is enjoyable only to masochists and those with too much free time.

The hunting locations are wonderfully diverse; forests, deserts, swamps, tundra, and implausibly safe volcanoes. Each comes with a pleasant musical sting upon entry, and then you’re left to the sounds of the wilderness – until you come across larger monsters, at which point satisfyingly tribal beats kick in. This sound design makes Moga Village’s non-stop jaunty tunes a touch grating.

Multiplayer is a major aspect of the experience. Some are happy to hunt on their lonesome (with AI buddies if need be), but after a while, repeating hunts to grind materials became less exciting when I could clear them consistently. However, with other people playing with you, nearly every mission becomes a thrill. Coordinating a hunt with each player taking on a different role (my Hunting Horn is great for this, the music the weapon type plays gives party-wide buffs) is incredibly satisfying.
A warning, though. The 3DS version of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate only allows for local multiplayer. If you want online, the Wii U version is required. The games are cross-compatible – as are the save files – but if you don’t have other like-minded hunters near you, bear this in mind.

The Monster Hunter experience isn’t for everyone, as cult series tend to be. Some resent resource management. Some see repeating missions as grinding (and the main story goes quickly if you only play required missions). Some prefer a more forgiving combat system. And that’s entirely okay – the long-time Monster Hunter players will fondly remember the moment the game ‘clicked’ for them, but no one is going to blame you for being hesitant to roll with the die-hards.

As for me, outstripping any concerns over grinding and resources, I got to be a sartorial king. A skirt made from sea monsters, a top made from shrieking tropical birds, and a cello made from creepy crawlies. Fabulous.

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