Monster Hunter fights last up to 50 minutes; 50 minutes of full-on claw-evading, potion-swigging, monster-cleaving concentration. Fingers Riverdance over buttons, rolling and leaping. Eyes dart for safe ground, hungrily searching for the five seconds needed to sharpen a dulled blade. Gobbling meat claws back in-game stamina, but does nothing for your own, sapped after nearly an hour of constant action. As the Classic Controller Pro threatens to slip from your moistened palms you ask yourself: outside of Wii Fit, when did you last break a gaming sweat?
Monster Hunter Tri is a hands-on role-playing game. It has all the variables of a Dragon Quest or Pokemon, but none of the distance. Everything is here and now and in your hands. Stats don’t whirr away under the hood. Hits count when they connect. Potions are drunk if you find time to drink them. By all means craft a defensive blade, but the description means nothing if you don’t time the block. Think a monster would be safer sans teeth? Better sock him in the jaw, then. This is a manual RPG, freeing actions from a menu selection. What menus there are exist in real-time; monsters pause for no menu.
Not that Tri feels like any other third-person action game. Although it revolves around decidedly videogame-y concepts of evading and stabbing, Capcom make them awkward, almost deliberately oblique. Go in expecting the immediacy of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden and Monster Hunter Tri chews you up and spits you out. Hunters handle sluggishly, a bit like armoured men hefting eight-foot swords. Which they are. Capcom aren’t here to make you look cool, but to test hunterly mettle. The emphasis on dodging and precise attacking is reminiscent of old-fashioned boss design. Beating Wyverns – Tri’s big creatures – is pure pattern recognition.
Tri also has seven combat systems in one; such is the gulf between weapon classes. With quick attack animations, the sword and shield ape traditional hack-and-slash. Contrastingly, great swords handle like cabers. You don’t swing them, you push them. Hammers force frightening proximity, hitting hard and close. And don’t get us started on lances. Our Monster Hunter-crazed Capcom rep calls it the ‘pro’s weapon’, but sticking foes with these overgrown cocktail sticks is like trying to eat fondue blindfolded. Fondue that can eat you right back.
Bowguns are relegated to their own paragraph. Handling with incredible precision (courtesy of a first-person sniper scope) they’re in a game of their own. Built from three parts – stock, frame and barrel – the collective weight of the three decides its class, altering its handling. Oh, and each of those three parts can be levelled up and developed along its own skill tree. Oh, and it fires 41 varieties of ammo. There aren’t even 41 varieties of ammo in real life. Tranquilisers, fire bullets, electric bullets, healing bullets – yes, it even fires anti-bullets. How did this game ever fit onto PSP?
Above: Water levels are a wonderful addition to the Wii version
But Tri’s double-edged swords are, well, double-edged swords. Initially, handling is horrible. A great sword chop is so slow that enemies often wander off by the time it lands. When the enemy in question is a tortoise-slow Aptonoth, this is embarrassing. But Monster Hunter Tri is about learning. Over time, monster behaviour becomes recognisable and attack strategies emerge. Experimentation introduces combos. Great swords – our personal pick – can both chop and shunt, barging enemies down for a second whack. And Capcom wisely hold back more outlandish weapons – a sword/axe hybrid – until ten hours in.
As pieces come together, and monsters come apart, enjoyment skyrockets. Take an encounter with a Great Jaggi – a frilled, pink velociraptor and Tri’s first Wyvern. Sprinting in, she covers ground like a toothier Usain Bolt. Side roll and she skids in the dirt, opening up her hind quarters. Up close, split-second rolls evade her tail swipes. Smaller Jaggi chip in and aren’t so lucky; big Jaggi’s shoulder barge smashes them, too. We’d laugh, but mom’s clucking yelp calls a fresh batch to her side. Health waning and stamina shortening (the bar shrinks over time), we turn to find a second Great Jaggi running in.
This is Tri playing it small. Later on you’ll fight fat-breasted Qurupecos, capable of calling fire-spitting Rathians to the fray. The stone-plated Barroth is such a hulking creature that even dropping his body into a sand trap leaves a protruding head three times the size of our hunter. Capcom hit us with giant leeches, bulls and fish. Claws and poisoned stingers are scary, but simple bulk does it for us. Nothing puts the fear of God into you like having ten tons of meat sprinting in your direction.
Capcom’s smartest trick is an early tease of their biggest beast – underwater lightning dragon Lagiacrus. The game’s cover star, he’s the beast terrorising poor Moga Village. One early quest involves gutting Nessie-like Epioths. Dumb, they’re basically floating meat clumps. Doesn’t Lagiacrus know it. Arriving mid-harvest, he/she/it’s an incredible creation: 20 metres of snaking grace, tipped with an electricity-spewing maw. The music darkens – let’s call it ‘Oh No You’re Going to Be Eaten in E-Flat Major’ – and you swim for your life. Tantalisingly laying out the endgame, the hunt begins.
Fundamentally, Monster Hunter is about hunting and gathering. Which is more important is a subject of some debate. Do you hunt to secure the gristly ingredients needed to craft weapons or do you craft weapons to better the hunt? Eking out every last item massages the ‘gotta catch ’em all’ gland, but what good is a rare golem blade if you can’t thunk it through Ludroth skull? The cycle echoes Rune Factory. There’s more monsters and less wheat, sure, but the focus on bettering tools to improve time in the field and vice versa is the same. As in Rune Factory: Frontier, once Tri has you in its Escher-like staircase of upgrading, it’s hard to find the exit.
The same could be said of Tri’s PS2 and PSP predecessors. Capcom are cannier at easing Wii audiences in. Don’t get us wrong, this is every bit the monster experience that consumes hundreds of hours per player – it just understands that not every gamer lives in Japan, where PSP Monster Hunter is surgically inserted into the womb. Seasoned hunters may recognise the quests – collect X, kill X, catch X – but they won’t recognise new story trappings. Earthquakes have disrupted Moga Village, conveniently leaving citizens – the blacksmith, chef, farmer – with problems. Helping them introduces new ideas in a more organic fashion than any previous Monster Hunter title.
Moga Island itself is a radical departure for the series: a free-roaming area. Previously, the only way out of village hubs was in timed quests. Tri lets you gambol free, getting to grips with Capcom’s quirky mechanics. You’re free to gather herbs, mine, explore dark caves (with a gorgeous flickering flame in hand), fish, swim and bag your first Wyvern. Monsters slain in free time become resources for village upgrades. Farm development is particularly useful – growing herbs and mushrooms cuts down on scrabbling in the dirt. And listen to the villagers – they’re full of tactics and secrets.
The opening five or so hours put such a welcoming face on this traditionally terrifying franchise you’d swear Nintendo had a hand in making it. They didn’t (although Capcom worked with them on the Classic Controller Pro design) so it’s testament to Capcom that they’ve thrown the doors wide open. Tri has a very ‘Capcomy’ feel. Localisation is Phoenix Wright worthy, full of anachronistic meme-talk and goofiness. Elsewhere we get a pig to dress up and cuddle (creepy), a jaunty barbecuing game (tasty) and silly hero animations (funny). And it’s worth legging it from Wyverns just to witness the ‘panic flee’ animation.
If Tri’s details amuse, the general artistic sweep is grand and beautiful. We’re not so sure of the ‘living ecosystem’ promise – it doesn’t go beyond ‘this monster hates that monster’ or ‘that monster calls in those minions’ – but they certainly look alive. Moga Island’s clifftop vista is an amazing sight. The orchestra even swells to make sure you get the point. We call this tune ‘Oh Wow, Would You Look at Those Mountains in A Minor’. Hey, toot away orchestra, you deserve it. From mountainous heights to baked desert soil, Monster Hunter could be subtitled Ten Places to See Before You Get Eaten.
Special mention goes to the watery environs. While Capcom’s briny gloom is lovely, the magic is in the monster movement. The way beasts snake and tread water is spot-on. Sighting a coiled Lagiacrus watching a pack of frolicking Epioths sent shivers down our spine. This is a menacing place. Another special mention, then, for excellent swimming controls. Aiming the camera with the right analogue stick and moving forwards with the left really gives the maneuverability needed for intense underwater clashes. The Classic Controller Pro is essential for enjoying Tri.
In a group of four, awkward weapon and item quirks come hurtling into perspective. Play alone and trap laying is often interrupted by a shunt. Online, one player buries the trap while the others draw attention away. Healing bullets finally make sense, with crafty bowgunners sniping you better from afar (or, in our case, missing and healing the Barroth instead). If a player with concussive skills staggers the Wyvern, those with slower wind-up times can hop in and deliver the payload. Imagine all the beautiful solo tactics, four times over, helping and hindering one another. Our palms are sweating again.
Barrelling across the plains, three mates at our side – one yelling “Hunters unite!” – is how online gaming should be. It’s how online gaming is on 360 and PS3, and couldn’t have come sooner. And that it isn’t meaningless, that online actions feed into a grander overall quest for goodies and trinkets, is the icing on the cake.
Monster Hunter DNA is fundamentally awkward and a little bit scary, but with good reason – it cherishes ability above all things. But in Tri, this awkwardness is as friendly as awkward gets. It’s now or never time, people: if the west is ever going to ‘get’ Monster Hunter, it’ll be on Wii. A single console carrying the western fate of the franchise? Ignore the palms: no sweat.
Apr 15, 2010