For many, the defining moment of Monster Hunter Freedom won't come when you first leave your tiny village to fight dinosaurs in a sweeping, hilly countryside. It won't come when you carve up your first kill for gruesome things you can later use to make other, more gruesome things. It won't even come when you go solo against your first giant, dragon-like wyvern.
More than likely, it'll come when - after dozens of unsuccessful attempts that end with your broken carcass being dragged back to camp on a wooden gurney pushed by yowling cats - you finally figure out how to outsmart that giant beast and bring it down. Then, you'll really feel like a hunter. Then, you'll be ready to take on anything. Then, you'll get cocky and have to do it all over again when you meet the next mammoth horror.
While it might look like a primitive hack-and-slasher, Monster Hunter Freedom is anything but. Essentially a souped-up version of the PS2 original, it casts you as a fledgling hunter in a village that's surrounded by dinosaurs.
Taking on hunting and gathering quests will give you the chance to harvest enough bones, scales and icky membranes, which in turn let you make yourself some really badass weapons and armor. And once your defenses are tough enough, maybe you'll be able to last more than a few seconds against the voracious animals you're tasked with tracking down.
These aren't just simple, cookie-cutter baddies you're after, either. For starters, they're not really "evil" - some are actually harmless - and killing them doesn't serve a greater purpose. They're just big, reptilian animals that you're paid to hunt. Each species has its own attacks and behavior, and while you can brute-force your way through the lower-level creatures, swinging a big sword only gets you so far.
The bigger baddies take planning, skill and - more often than not - offensive items like bait, bombs and traps. This makes for a lot of frustrating-as-hell battles as you try to probe your enemies' weaknesses, but it's just that much more rewarding when you finally bring them crashing to the ground.
Strategy is also a big part of the four-player hunts (ad-hoc only, unfortunately), and while it's fun to just run around hacking at stuff with your friends, you'll do a lot better if you can each specialize in one of the game's five weapon types: quick, defensive lances; huge, powerful hammers; giant broadswords, sort of an in-between weapon; bowguns, which range from crossbows to firearms and allow for first-person sniping; and knife-and-shield combos that might as well come with training wheels attached. Unlike the original Monster Hunter title, Freedom actually gives you all five to start with, sparing you from trying to kill things with a flimsy starter knife. You can't change your weapon in the middle of a hunt, though, which sucks.
Fighting and butchering monsters makes up the meat of the gameplay, but there's much, much more to it than that. Crafting items from the things you find is cool, and simple minigames allow you to cook meat, catch fish and collect bugs. We also liked exploring the vast, beautifully rendered countryside, although the long load times between areas are a drag.
As you get into the game, you'll eventually become the caretaker of a full-on farm and a pajama-clad little pig, whose affection you'll have to win. There's also the Felyne Kitchen, a new addition that lets you hire comical cats to cook for you between hunts. Aside from being cute, each one comes with a special ingredient that can upgrade your abilities before a big hunt.
In short, Monster Hunter Freedom is a huge game, and it fills out especially well on the PSP. The game's short-burst quests and small-scale exploration are perfectly suited to a handheld game, and while it's easy to get into, it gets more fun and involving the more you play. Aside from a few irritations (like immensely frustrating battles against seemingly invincible monsters, a slightly finicky camera and no pause feature aside from the PSP's "sleep" mode), this is easily one of the PSP's deepest, most involving and all-around best games.