Monster Hunter is one of those game's that probably best described as being "Big in Japan" - and up until fairly recently, much less so elsewhere. A tale of one man (or woman) versus a cavalcade of gigantic monstrous beasties, it was a game that first took flight on the PS2, and which almost single handedly made Sony's PSP handheld a real threat to Nintendo's dominant 3DS, thanks to the seemingly insatiable appeal of its four player co-op.
Making its Playstation 4 debut, Monster Hunter World is a game with a familiar premise, yet one that's finally seen it make a real impact on the charts on these shores. Playing as a character of your creation, you'll join forces with a band of brigands as you set sail to the "new world" - an uncharted island which feels more like a lost world than a new one, and which is crawling with all manner of humongous creatures that you'll need to research, study, and most of all, slay.
Really, that's about as deep as Monster Hunter's story gets, and anyone who describes this as a role playing game needs shooting. With almost literally nothing in the way of a plot beyond a series of "quests", almost every single one of which simply asks you to go out, find monster X, and kill it, it's fair to say Monster Hunter World won't be winning any awards for its storyline. Instead, the appeal here lies solely in the monsters themselves - and how you'll need to hunt them.
When you first start playing the game, you'll be given a choice of weapons - but unlike most games, there's a whopping 14 to choose from here, with some rather unusual ones added to the mix for good measure. From slow and bulky great swords and mallets, to exotic monster botherers like the Kinsect Glaive - a double ended lance that lets you send out an insect to attack an enemy on your behalf, in turn netting you a variety of bonus effects depending on your combo; and even a set of chuffing bag pipes (well, we did say monster botherers...), to say there's a huge range would be an understatement, and it's well worth experimenting with a few when you get going in order to find the weapon that best suits your play style. While it may be an overused turn of phrase, each weapon here really is unique, with its own very distinctive set of strengths and weaknesses.
It's one thing having a massive weapon slung across your back, of course - but if you want to use it, you'll have to actually find the monster first. This is where things start to get a bit more interesting. Starting from one of the camps in the fairly small world, you'll have to stroll around the undergrowth, until your handy navigation fireflies get the scent of something interesting. This could be a footprint, a pile of goo, a feather, a claw, or even a skidmark (lovely), which you'll need to examine a little bit more closely. The more you find, the more your fireflies will get the scent, and the better they'll be able to lead you to your prey.
In fact, hunting out these bits and pieces does more than just show you where your enemy's hiding. With each beastie being designed to be hard to topple unless you know its weaknesses, the more footprints you find and bits you track, the more the researchers back at your base will be able to study the monster, and in turn will update your Monster Field Guide with all they know about its weaknesses.
Tracks tracked, mounds found and skidmarks sniffed, with the help of your fireflies, you'll be well on your way to finding your monster - but now comes the tricky part. Actually bringing it down. As just one person against a monster the size of a tower block, even landing a blow without getting smushed into a once fearsome puddle can be a bit of a challenge - yet the approach you take will vary depending on the weapon you're using. Each monster is "weak" to a handful of weapons, but of course, you won't know which ones until you've managed to research it enough (something which involves taking a trip back to base, and effectively starting the quest over). With no health bars, or any indication of how much health they have, the game may well give you a little number pop up every time you do damage, but you'll have no real way of knowing how close you are to toppling your foe until it starts limping.
It's a bit disappointing, then, that in our experience, it's actually a lot more fun tracking the monster down than it is attempting to slay it. No matter how much the game may make out there's a variety of strategies you can use to try and tip the balance in your favour, in practice, each and every monster hunt turns into a very, very, very protracted game of hacking a few times, dodging, and occasionally running away to top up your health (and that's if you can outpace a monster with legs as long as giant redwoods.) With your average monster taking around half an hour to defeat, that's a lot of repetitive button bashing, with very little in the way of variety to get through, as you slowly but surely drain the monster's health.
That being said, it's not that there aren't some cool moments that can happen. If by some stroke of luck you happen to lure your monster into the path of a bigger one, the two will end up in a real clash of the titans, letting you just sit back and watch until the one has enough and runs away. However, even this divine intervention doesn't usually cause a huge amount of difference to either the battle, or your target's HP, and you'll still find yourself needing to do plenty of hacking and slashing on your own.
But what's perhaps the most frustrating about Monster Hunter is how much here seems to have been deliberately designed to make the game artificially harder. Like Dark Souls, there's so much here that seems to have only made it into the game as it has the potential to make you suffer, or and trip you up - and the longer and more protracted the battles get, the more frustrating it becomes.
Top of the list of irritations is that your weapons will blunt as the battle goes on. If that happens, you'll suddenly find yourself doing even less than the already pitiful damage you were dealing - and the only way to fix it is to sharpen it. To do that, you need to create some distance between you and the monster (something which is much easier said than done), so you can take time out to get out a stone, and start whacking it against your blade to bring it back up to maximum slicing power. It's frustrating enough when you need to do sharpen your sword, but when your weapon of choice is a mallet, you do have to ask what on Earth on the game thinks it's doing by forcing your to sharpen your famously blunt, bludgeoning weapon?
Then there are all the limits. Rather than just letting you hunt to your heart's content, each quest has an arbitrary time limit slapped on it - anywhere from a generous 50 minutes to as low as 15. Why, we're not sure, but with no counter on screen (the first warning you get is when you're down to your last ten minutes), it's yet another thing to add a bit of artificial pressure. Oh, and did we mention that you only get three lives in each quest (at most?). Faint three times in a battle, and it's back to base for you, with nothing to show for it except a few more bruises and a lot of wasted time. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if your character levelled up, but as the only way to get stronger is to get the stuff to craft new weapons and armour - and the only way to get that is to slay the giant monsters - any failed quests are almost literally a total waste of time.
There's also a few interface issues and oversights here - like the lack of a usable quick menu. In the middle of a boss fight, you don't have time to take your eyes off the beast and squint at the tiny icons in your inventory in the corner, as you scroll left and right through it to find the item you're after - you just want to be able to press up to use a potion, or down to sharpen your stupid weapons, or what have you. Yet you can't. It's also worth mentioning that the font is absolutely tiny, with the all important tutorials for the game's many, many systems delivered through text so small as to be all but unreadable for those who aren't playing on TVs the size of a family car.
While there may be a broad range of weapons here, too, there are few that really seem to be all that usable in battle. While ranged weapons are little more effective than using a pea shooter to try and knock down a brick wall, the few weapons that can do enough damage are so incredibly slow, and have such a pitiful range that by the time you've swung back to ready your strike, the monster's either moved an inch to the left, or it's already killed you. Nothing is more frustrating than going in for the kill, only to have the monster simply move out of the way, and watch as your guy executes a perfect combo on mid air. To make matters worse, if you need to close the distance between you and the monster, you have just two options - you can either slowly edge forwards with your weapon drawn, or you can slowly roll forward with your weapon drawn, expending your stamina as you do so. Try and run, and you'll put your weapon away - something which, as we're sure you can imagine, is really helpful. In fact, you'll often find yourself automatically putting your weapon away regardless - unless you're constantly attacking, the game often decides you'll want to be totally unprepared for anything that comes your way.
As our final complaint about deliberate frustrations, though, we can't help but be a bit disappointed that there's nothing in the way of an adjustable difficulty level here. It's one thing adding in all these intentionally awkward systems, but why would you not let players tweak the challenge to suit? Instead, if you find any of the quests here too difficult, there's literally nothing you can do. While you could call on another player online, doing so makes the enemies you face even tougher, so there really doesn't seem to be any escaping the game's difficulty. We should also mention that, while you don't actually need to be connected to the internet to play the game, it does automatically put you into an online lobby, with no way of saying "I'd like to play on my own". The best you can hope for is to start a private lobby, where only you can join - if you're in a lobby with other people, you'll need to set a player limit, and whether you want your quest to be private or not before every single quest.
But beyond the awkwardness, perhaps Monster Hunter World's biggest issue is that it all seems so very samey. The whole tracking/hunting thing may be OK in small doses, but you just can't shake the feeling that this should be just one part of a much bigger thing. If these giant baddy battles were boss fights in a full on role playing game, they'd be great - but on their own, it all becomes far too much of a muchness way too quickly. With bonus quests simply asking you to hunt the monsters you've already hunted over and over again, there's really very little variety here beyond half an hour of solid button bashing, which can all too easily go horribly wrong.
While this may have been the first Monster Hunter game to really find success in the west, it's definitely something of a marmite experience, that players will either love or hate. With little variety, protracted battles, and many a limit in place to make your life that much harder, there's still fun to be had here - but if you're the kind of player that likes difficulty as a feature, chances are you'll get more out of this than we did. On the other hand, if you're looking for a Monster Hunter game with more of a story, be sure to check out the incredible Monster Hunter Stories on the 3DS, as the chances are it'll be right up your street.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4