Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
Monster Hunter has always been a decidedly Japanese take on the videogame power fantasy. It’s a series that gives you the ability to fell giant beasts, yes, but you’ll need a strong work ethic before you can conquer these forces of supernature. You’ll need to spend time mining ores and crystals, catching bugs and fish, plucking mushrooms and herbs, and carving up slain creatures for the materials to craft gear good enough to compete against the largest wyverns in the field. It’s an approach that hasn’t always sat well with western audiences accustomed to more immediate gratification, so perhaps Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s finest achievement is that it streamlines the process without compromising its formidable core.
Training quests now offer an introduction to each of the 14 weapon types, teaching you the basics while allowing you to discover their nuances in battle with a Great Jaggi, the least of the beasts. And by casting you as a member of a travelling caravan, you’re no longer tied to a single hub, instead moving between a series of colourful villages pulsing with life and character. There’s even an early chance to go head to head with Ultimate’s signature beast, the ferocious Gore Magala.
Likewise, instead of the best of MH4’ s new enemies being held back, they’re introduced in Ultimate’s early stages. The Kecha Wacha is a fanged lemur that gobs mucosal projectiles, the Nerscylla is an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare, and the coiling, beaked Najarala is a snake that violently sheds its tail plates, shattering them with a piercing shriek to damage nearby hunters. Perhaps the pick of the menagerie is the extraordinary Zamtrios, a shark with legs capable of producing a temporary coating of sharp ice armour or bloating itself to an enormous size – one minute you’re jousting with the jagged blade on its nose, the next you’re sprinting to avoid being squashed by a monstrous space hopper. Monster Hunter’s strong comedic undercurrent is intact, then, and terrific localisation plays up the silliness: this isn’t a dialogue-heavy game by any stretch, but there’s wit and personality in your interactions with NPCs, and a surfeit of puns at which to grin and groan.
Previous games have cast you as a trapper and a matador, but here you more frequently adopt the roles of mountaineer and cowboy, clambering up walls either to simply reach higher ground or to leap off them onto the back of your prey. Coaxing enemies into position can be tricky, but you don’t have to nail the landing: so long as a jumping attack connects with an enemy’s torso at the right time, you’ll watch a canned animation play out, squeezing the right trigger to cling on as the monster thrashes and bucks like an enraged steer. Maintain your grip for long enough and you can mash the attack buttons to deliver substantial damage without fear of immediate reprisal, a fitting reward for pulling off such a high-risk manoeuvre.
Then again, there’s a way to make that process more straightforward. Debate rages over the Insect Glaive: is it the best thing to happen to Monster Hunter in years, or a difficulty modifier, easy mode in weapon form? This long staff enables you to vault from flat ground, in theory offering easier access to the rodeo show. In practice, it can be awkward to use on fast-moving foes, though once you’ve learned to read their tells, mounting them isn’t particularly challenging. And with the ability to buff yourself by sending in the glaive’s insectoid ally to harvest empowering essences from enemies, you’ll find yourself finishing missions before the quest timer has even reached the three o’clock position, so it’s little wonder most online hunters are equipped with one. The Charge Blade, by contrast, is a more advanced option that favours aggressive play: successful jabs with the sword form fill phials that are used to coat the edges of its accompanying shield, adding extra force when you choose to unleash its axe form. It makes the regular sword and shield a less engaging option, though the trade-off is that it requires a little more skill to wield. If Ultimate is still a better game with four hunters working in harmony, the campaign works harder to recreate the collaborative experience of multiplayer. Palicoes are feline allies that can be scouted during quests, and two will accompany you thereafter, each having a different role – some are healers, others attackers, and others still boost your loot haul. Your affinity with them will grow the more you use them, and they’ll become useful assistants. Between hunts, they can be pressed into further service along with any reserves you’ve recruited, too. A fishing minigame sees them reeling in Plesioths and bits of lobster armour, while they can earn their own gear via simple quests, presented as a playful puppet show. Both are faster, more entertaining methods for gathering resources.
Capcom has changed about as much as it dared for a series as established as this one, making Ultimate as substantial an update as you could reasonably expect. There are still moments of frustration – timing errors and positional misjudgments; incidents where an unseen Konchu bowls you over, removing your last sliver of health just as you’re quaffing a restorative; or moments when the camera gives you a close-up of a lo-res flesh texture as you battle a colossal beast in a confined space. And yet that’s all forgotten in the elation of delivering a finishing blow after a half-hour skirmish, not least when it involves sprinting off the edge of a ridge and jabbing a lance – fashioned to resemble a shark – deep into the abdomen of a hovering arthropod. Here, spectacle is not simply presented, but earned. As with many of its peers, Ultimate expects you to grind, but few games reward your investment in such exhilarating fashion.
Previous games have cast you as a trapper and a matador, but here you adopt the roles of mountaineer and cowboy