With a more finely-tuned introduction that satisfies both beginners and veterans, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate may finally open up the series to a wider audience without sacrificing any of the depth that makes it special.
What Is It?
Laying out the framework for what you actually do in a Monster Hunter game may be the best way to clarify what the game is: Individual monster hunting quests are selected from a hub town, preparations are made, then the action takes place on one of several diverse maps. Once the specified monster is found and killed, you’re rewarded with loot based many factors, including which body parts were damaged. There are no experience points, so the sole method of character improvement is through crafting better equipment in order to help you fight more powerful monsters.
This loop is fun, rewarding, and addicting in and of itself as you progress from fledgling hunter to master destroyer, in terms of both your custom character and your own personal skills, but it’s far from the only satisfying aspect of the game. Monster Hunter also features a deep skills system that lets you tweak your stats and buffs based on mixing and matching different pieces of armor and applying decorations and talismans, and each of the fourteen weapon types offers a truly unique range of deep mechanics to learn and master. All of these things and more combine to create a profoundly satisfying experience.
While previous Monster Hunter games consistently overwhelmed newcomers with the series’ variety of unique mechanics, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate trumps its predecessors with a clearer and more gradual ramp up in difficulty and complexity. Although you can use all of a weapon type’s mechanics and tweak your skills, stats, and buffs from the start, you don’t need to worry about any of that until much later in the game. For beginners, the process of learning the structure of the game and the basics of a single weapon type is a heavy enough burden, and the game is designed with that in mind. For example, the monsters in the first tier of quests can be handily defeated by only paying attention to base defense and attack stats without regard to extra skills or elemental effects.
However, although the tutorials are much better than those in previous entries, there is still room for improvement. The tutorials are too often nothing more than a string of text, easily forgettable and sometimes baffling if you fail to immediately grasp the concept. The best tutorials are text followed by user-controlled gameplay that demonstrates the concepts, such as the weapon tutorial missions at the beginning of the game, but even those could be handled better, such as actually showing you how to perform the actions they describe. Fans of the game have made their own video tutorials on YouTube in this fashion (which are a great resource), but Capcom would do well to learn from those videos and put something similar in the game itself.
Why Should I Care?
Once you get over the initial hurdles, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate becomes a game about ritual, risk, and reward. Through smart application of these concepts, the game is specifically designed to mold you into an expert hunter who is guided more by instinct than active decision-making, and it succeeds spectacularly. Even though many of the deeper mechanics aren’t explained directly in the game, learning new things on your own or through a mentor becomes an integral part of the process.
For example, after several quests, you will develop a pre-quest ritual, usually consisting of taking necessary items, equipping yourself based on the monster’s strengths and weaknesses, and eating a meal to provide specific buffs, among many other things. At first, this can seem like a chore as you struggle to remember all of the things you need to do, but the more you do it, the more it becomes ingrained into the hunting process as a whole. It’s like gearing up before playing a sport; it’s something you always have to do, and everyone uses that time to prepare for the coming match in their own way.
Even the battles themselves become part ritual, part reflex, as you learn each monster’s tells and attacks and respond to them instinctually. Most of the weapon types are imbued with temporary boosts that must be earned continually throughout the battle by completing specific actions. For example, the new Insect Glaive weapon type grants temporary boosts to attack, speed, and defense if you harvest different parts of the monster’s body with your launchable insect. Since this is my weapon of choice, my ritual when first encountering any big monster is to harvest from its head for an attack boost, its body for defense, and usually an appendage for speed. This requires a delicate dance around the monster, sometimes taking a few seconds, sometimes taking much longer if the monster is agile. No matter what, the ritual is always gratifying, even when it’s necessary to perform it several times over the course of one fight.
Aside from rituals, another core design philosophy of Monster Hunter is a strict application of risk and reward to basically everything. Attack animations are locked in at initiation, so each attack is a commitment. The weapons with higher attack ratings have the longest animations, so the reward of high damage is tempered by the risk of every attack needing to be more precisely timed. Every item used during a quest, from healing potions to weapon sharpeners, is accompanied by a deliberately lengthy animation to force a risk in order to reap the reward. Even the very act of going on a quest can be a risk if you’re looking for specific loot, since that loot may not drop and your time and resources will have been wasted (though you can take certain actions to boost the likelihood of getting that loot, which can itself be a risk, depending on what you might have to do).
All of these risks, as artificial as some of them may seem, add up to make the reward even more satisfying. The process of escaping a monster’s reach, timing the use of a potion, then avoiding the coming attack at the last second is satisfying every time. Conversely, failed risks can result in equally intense frustration, not from any fault of the game, but from knowledge that you should have been more careful.
Why Is It Worth My Time And Money?
It took me about sixty hours to see the credits of the story mode, and there is still much more content after that. Normally, I would be frustrated by such a lengthy game; however, the progression is designed so brilliantly that I have yet to get bored. New mechanics are introduced until the very end, and monsters get bigger, faster, and more dangerous, requiring more preparation and more skilled play during the hunt. The mechanics in every aspect of the game are deep enough to allow this kind of progression to keep building, even after so many hours of play.
Fighting the same monsters and doing the same quests multiple times is certainly a part of Monster Hunter, but it rarely feels like grinding. For one, the beginning of the game is tuned to limit grinding. Most of the early armor sets and weapons require relatively common resources to craft, and that equipment will last quite awhile before needing to be upgraded. Even later on, when necessary loot becomes more rare and harder to attain, the fights are varied and intense enough that each battle remains a true challenge, rather than a mindless repeat of what came before.
On top of that, trying a new weapon type changes the experience as well, to the point that it can feel like an entirely new game. There are fourteen weapon types, all available from the start. Each weapon type is distinct and features its own mechanics that make the fight about much more than simply bashing the monster until it’s dead, such as the aforementioned buffing process with the Insect Glaive. All of the weapons are incredibly deep and offer a wide range of strategies. Even the Sword and Shield, which is offered as the beginner’s weapon, has an amazing amount of nuance to it. The learning curve to mastery is steep with any weapon; however, the basic attacks are enough to get you past the early monsters, and the process of improvement is rewarding every step of the way. In fact, the sheer depth in each weapon type is probably the main draw of this series.
Playing online is another way to get a different experience out of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. The online mode is contained within the single player mode, so all of your items and equipment can be used either online or offline. The online mode has its own quest progression separate from the single player and with fewer story elements. One of the greatest benefits to playing online, aside from being more fun with other people, is that monsters can be taken down much more quickly with three other people, so grinding for loot becomes a relative breeze if you hop online. It’s also a good way to observe other people’s strategies and to show off your equipment and achievements. The online mode is robust enough that it could be a standalone game; in some ways, the story mode acts as a long tutorial for playing online.
Thankfully, going online is far less convoluted than in previous entries. Your Friend List is always live within the game to show you who is currently playing online at a glance, and joining them is as simple as a tap. Finding random rooms to join or creating your own is also simple and quick. Lag within the quest is handled smartly so that neither you nor the monster will lag or stutter, though you may notice the other hunters being a little off. Chat is handled by free typing in the lobby and customizable phrases during the hunt that can either be triggered by an event in the game (such as when you get stunned) or by a tap on the touch screen. It works well enough, though the more complex and difficult battles would certainly benefit from voice chat among friends.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate isn’t just another Monster Hunter game. Even tweaks that may seem small, like the ability to mount monsters by attacking from above, have a major effect on the feel of the game. There’s simply more to do, both during battle and outside of it, and the overall structure has been changed just enough to create an even better experience. The new monsters are cool, the new weapon type is different and interesting, and the equipment is just as impressively designed as ever. If you play with the New 3DS, the textures and framerate get a slight boost, and the C-stick is fully supported, which makes camera control much more manageable.
For newcomers interested in testing the Monster Hunter waters, this is the game to try. For veterans, the changes should freshen up the gameplay enough to warrant another 100+ hours spent with such a special franchise.