Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate

3DS

Description:
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate's most notable improvements are its quality of life iterations. Tutorials help new players grasp the basics, better resources for farming crafting materials and customizable armor and inventory layouts help cut down on the busy work.
Review:

Monster Hunter's body language is the best in the business.

Few games model the stages between an enemy being alive (and shooting) or dead (and in chunks), so saying that feels like half a compliment. But, amid the common complaints about how this series requires you memorize wiki pages on weapon combos and armor skills, you rarely hear about how good it is at conveying the basics of play through the play itself.

This is more accessible than the series has ever been, meaning they've finally included in-game tutorials. At this point, it's the least they could do, given how dense and nuanced the weapons list has become, with the newest ones as some of the seemingly most complicated. The Charge Blade transforms between an enormous sword and shield and an even bigger axe. The Insect Glaive is a fast-attacking spear with a built-in jump attack. Though many weapon types share similarities--giant hammer and hunting horn, light bowgun and heavy bowgun--there is no generic attack template, every weapon's movelist is different. The tutorials aren't as comprehensive as they could be, but at the end of them at least you'll know the Charge Blade's sword swipes supercharge its axe chops and the Insect Glaive's flying bug buddy is there to drain mobility and attack powerups from its targets.

Outside these teaching quests, Monster Hunter instructs you as it always has: by throwing you into a meat grinder with a bunch of ornery lizards. The quarry has no health bar, no super meter, you have to deduce this information from body movement and context. If a monster is drooling, it's running out of stamina. If it's hooting, enemy reinforcements are on their way. If its mouth comes ablaze with scorching flame, the game trusts you'll know to get out of the way without a QTE prompt. You'll still need YouTube videos to understand high level play, but, with this one, Monster Hunter finally does an okay job of hashing out the basics.

'Basic' is another way to describe Monster Hunter. This is a meat and potatoes experience with few frills and fewer back-of-the-box bullet points. Even though there's now five whole towns to visit, there's still essentially no story. And there still aren't many maps, only about half a dozen, the usual steppes, volcanoes, tundras, and such. New to Monster Hunter 4 are tiered areas--spiderwebs, cliffs, and vine canopies you can scale, climb atop, and run around on. In part, this is so the colossal monkeys and spiders you fight have places to swing, scuttle, and throw poo from.

These tiered areas also allow you to jump attack from above, giving some verticality to the combat without going whole hog into the finicky movement and camera control of Monster Hunter 3's underwater battles. Landing a succession of pounces commences a button-mashing minigame where your character rodeos a thrashing beast dozens of times their size. Even here, mashing a button to fill up a progress bar, visual tells are key. Figure out how it wriggles its body and rears its head before it unleashes a roar so you can stop shanking and grab on tight. It's difficult to manage the timing in multiplayer, where mounting forces other players to back off so they don't knock you off, but a successful mount leaves the monster sprawled at your feet, ripe for the picking.

Monster Hunter is about patience, positioning, and mobility. Staring at your empty health bar and holding off on healing until the enemy flubs its attack; your gut feel about how weak a monster is, so you don't accidentally kill it when you're trying to capture it alive; knowing when you've got a second to run over and kick the ice, sleep goo, or monster spit off a party member. Rigid parameters define what's a safe action and what's a risky action, which monster strikes have long recoil and which are just feints. In Monster Hunter you never attack, you only ever riposte.

For all the flak the series gets over its ponderous attack and dodge animations, few of its critics seem to accept how they are what makes Monster Hunter unique. Even in the face of something like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter is slow, sure. But no one knows that better than the game itself. Its most annoying animation delays are also its most preposterous, always lightly teasing your hunter's vulnerability and vainglory. The comic belly flop away from a stampeding dinosaur, the hammy strongman pose after drinking a potion, they're clowning on you when you're most imperiled. The game takes itself seriously, but not that seriously. Neither do its players, who found ways to subvert the rules and invented, for the humdrum and simple-seeming Sword and Shield, "Stylish Bombing," a combination of evasion and trap-laying skills resulting in a farcical technique of plopping barrels of gunpowder down in front of a monster's screaming face and dolphin diving away from the resulting explosion.

And so, it can be frustrating to hear people talk about Monster Hunter as if its slow animations and lack of lock-on targeting are mistakes the developers have been somehow making for ten years and three console generations. This air of "wouldn't it be better if they just did it the way I like?" suggests that the precise attack loops and complex dodge and counter attack opportunities are just oopsies that keep slipping into the code the night before the discs are pressed.

They've whittled down the day-to-day farming and resource scavenging. You might spend an hour grabbing up blue mushrooms to craft into potions, but soon you'll have trading carts to take care of that for you. Villagers will come to you with personal quests to improve the food in your kitchen and the trade goods from your merchant caravan. You can bring one or two cat companions, Palicoes, along on your hunts. They have improvement quests too, which add more space to your cat village and more cats to put there, support cats, attack cats, stealing cats, and healing cats, cats who can level up and teach your main cat new skills, like teaming up in a cat tank and shelling the area with cat mortars.

Between fishing, sending your cats on foraging adventures of their own, combining your obsolete skill-boosting amulets into random new ones, and managing your farm carts to make sure you always have full larders of thunderbugs, there's always some flag or timer going off. You feel like you have to do it all, otherwise your Palicoes might not have the best possible gear or you might run out of honey (and thus, mega potions) somewhere down the line. But the point of the honey farm is to save you time scrabbling on your hands and knees in the dirt to dig it up when what you actually want to do is fight an ice-armored balloon shark. These new systems can drastically reduce the busy work, but you need to be careful not to replace one grind with another.

Monster Hunter is about cooperation. If you have friends willing to put in the time and effort, you won't find a more rewarding co-op series than this. Coming into a fight with a group gives you four sets of eyes and ears to assess the situation, and four mouths to scream out what area a monster's in, when it's charging up its super move, when it's retreating to eat and restore its stamina. Though there are no discrete character classes, group hunts play out like MMO boss battles, with roles and positioning. Longswords use their superior reach to cut off tails, Bowguns dump paralysis ammunition from afar, Sword and Shield can get in close and aim for the legs, causing the monster to trip and fall. The Hunting Horn is a musical bludgeon whose attacks combo into songs that heal and buff the group. This is something different than being a healer in an MMO, playing whack-a-mole with party lifebars, there's no role labeled "support." Instead, the hits of your mallet-like bagpipes down on a dinosaur's head segue into a thumping, crashing pirouette, where your hunter uses the whole weight of their body to throw their vuvuzela made of alien monster skin high above their head, to emit a screeching tune that splashes "Health Recovery (L)" across everyone's screen. This is a rare series where cooperation requires something more than aiming your assault rifle at the same bad guy.

Any action game requires you learn timing to avoid damage, but even the most revered of their kind, say, Bayonetta, adopt a fairly one-size-fits-all approach: the enemy rears up to strike, you hit the dodge button to get out of the way. Monster Hunter has this too, of course, but amid the chomps and stomps of any monster are an array of hints and telegraphs. Each tell you learn grants an iota of mastery that goes beyond button combinations and armor stats. You stay away from the hermit crab's front when its mouth froths with bubbles. You figure out how a snake wriggles before it charges and how it wriggles slightly differently when it's going to constrict you. Sometimes you can't learn these things until they lay you out a time or two. A mid-game monster called a Zinogre, a spiky, blue-and-yellow panther-thing, charges itself up by eating fireflies in the area. Before you even know what's happening, its fur is alive with voltage, its speed has tripled, and you are face down in the dirt.

An enemy's body is a series of parts you systematically deconstruct. You do this for the loot--break the wings, scavenge the webbing, build a better armor from it--but broken parts have their own in-fight benefits that turn each hunt into its own micro story. Monsters start out inconceivably strong, fast, and durable and grow weaker as you destroy them piecemeal. Clip their tail so they can't swipe you with it, smash the crystal on their beak so they can't use it to blind you, bash their head so they'll become stunned, lilting unsteadily on two legs, head haloed with cartoon stars.

It's a bizarre dominance, expressed at the denouement of the fight, when you've battered a Zinogre into a drooling husk of a thing. This Zinorge who, minutes ago, pursued you ceaselessly around the area, flexing its forelegs and shoulders forward before each strike, the slams of its claws never more than a hair's breadth behind the length of your dodge. Now, beaten and bruised, it takes a pause and a shuddering breath between every attack. You almost feel sorry for the poor Rathian--a fire-breathing, poison-tailed wyvern--when its tattered wings send it tumbling to earth more often than not; its charges, once magnificent, now end in comic slips and belly slides as it struggles to maintain its balance.

Any monster, given enough punishment, will decide to peace out of a fight and lumber away, to sleep and regain whatever meager health that will allow. There's a strange moment each time you conquer a new monster, where the crescendo fades, and the adrenaline ebbs, and you realize the fight is over, but it's not over, over; you have to finish it. The heart and soul of the series is somewhere in that, I think. Each time you pursue your foe into a new area, they greet you with a fearsome roar and a burst of newfound stamina, even when they're on their last legs. In Monster Hunter, it's not done til it's done.

In another way, Monster Hunter is done whenever you want it to be. You can play it for twenty hours or so, not worry too much about upgrading your weapon, end on a big cutscene where you kill a dragon and save a village, and call it a day. But, once the triumphant music ends, you find yourself right back where you started, in the village, with a new tier of quests unlocked, quests featuring not just harder versions of the monsters you've already fought, and not just variations on them with different elemental abilities, but entirely new beasts you've never seen before.

Monster Hunter is more malleable than it seems. I speak from experience, having come to the series in the last couple games and only ever progressing to an intermediate level in each one. Here, I played midway into the High Rank quests, a little past where exacting builds and careful weapon upgrades become essential. Though it's too idiosyncratic, difficult, AAA feature-free, and story-light to expand out of its niche, Monster Hunter caters to taste more than you'd expect. It's only a thousand hour, spreadsheet-laden grindfest if you want it to be. You can devote twenty hours or two hundred to this game and still come out of the other end feeling like you did something complete. Either way, this game's greatest achievement is it never feels like it's giving you a pass. Nothing is handed to you; everything you have, you took.

Monster Hunter 4 introduces a pan-species virus that throws its victim into a frenzy. When the infection hits you as a status effect, you cleanse yourself by beating the hell out of the critter that gave it to you. Monster Hunter has trained you to be deliberate, but it also requires you be decisive. This is the series' core conceit, it's a game of pressure. You can't mash buttons, but you can't pussyfoot around either. When a target retreats to another area to restore its stamina, you can heal and regroup or you can chase it down and knock it off its perch before it gets a chance to feed. When it stumbles, you can use that time to sharpen your dulled weapon or you can stay on the offensive and give your teammates space to regroup. Windows of opportunity, when they come, are minute, seized immediately or already gone. These decisions, a handful of them in every hunt, are made on the fly, around a screaming room of co-op partners who pack up their weapons simultaneously when a monster retreats, hold the sprint button, and just go.

This is every facet of Monster Hunter. Careful planning will get you most of the way, but eventually something will force you to push your luck. Infected by a virus, or out of healing potions or antidotes or shock traps, or whatever other tragedies can befall a hunt, there's nothing to do but to do it. Monster Hunter only ever demands you go all in.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A

+ Substantial quality of life improvements over previous games (better tutorials, better font), full online play
Camera's tolerable without second analog stick, but a Circle Pad Pro helps.

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