Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 05/24/13

Down by the village green...

Moga Village has seen better days. It’s a pathetic shadow of its former self; the once-bustling fishing town has been reduced to little more than a couple of rickety docks and straw huts. The rest was ravaged by a recent series of earthquakes. The few remaining survivors blame the Lagiacrus, a huge sea monster seen lurking in the depths offshore. Killing the beast seems like an obvious solution, but actually doing it is something else entirely. There’s no one left in town brave or capable enough to tackle the creature head-on. Instead, the Hunter’s Guild sent a new, untested (and apparently gullible) warrior into the fray. Armed with nothing but your instincts and a bunch of mediocre weaponry, you’ve got to find a way to slay the monster and survive long enough to become a professional hunter.

It’s easier said than done. Unlike most game protagonists, you don’t stand a chance on your own. Aside from the weapons and armor, all you’ve got is the ability to run and perform rolling dodge – both of which are limited to a gradually-decreasing stamina gauge – and assistance of a couple of unlockable sidekicks. The key to surviving isn’t necessarily how strong you are, but how well you’re prepared. There are hundreds of minor items and objects to collect, each with their own specific purpose in your crusade. The game demonstrates it in early missions, which focus on wandering through the woods and gathering a bunch of seemingly useless mushrooms, iron ore, and raw meat. It’s a bland, tedious, and repetitive experience that appears completely unnecessary…at first. The payoff for all those hours of menial tasks is an understanding of the importance of items and other gameplay basics. Nearly every object you acquire can be combined into something better. Certain plants can create potions and health boosters, meat can be cooked, bugs and metals are forged into new weapons and armor, etc. While you can only carry a set number of items at a time, there’s more than enough storage space at your base camp. A considerable portion of your quest will be spent acquiring items and stocking up a varied inventory.

It seems almost counterintuitive at first. The game is called Monster Hunter, yet it focuses on item collecting. It can be frustrating for players that just want to dive into the combat and slay everything in sight. Actually, you’re free to do just that; you can leave the village and get lost in Moga Woods at a whim. It won’t take long to realize what a stupid mistake that is, though. One of the early missions actually forces you to encounter the Lagiacrus – the plot-designated final boss – before you have the opportunity to gain better weapons or even the layout of the over-world. You could try to kill it…and survive a few seconds if you’re lucky. Instead, you’ll likely run away as fast as possible (frequently stumbling due to stamina loss), cower in your tent, and suffer a twinge of paranoia every time you leave. Even minor enemies can be deadly if you’re not careful. The missions in the first half of the game provide you with a map and other essential items, and it’s possible to get through most your quest without doing hours of extra farming. But considering how ridiculously difficult and frustrating that can be, you’ll eventually have to give in and deal with the horrendously slow pacing. The game tries to alleviate the boredom by letting you rebuild Moga Village’s item trading business and grow your own crops, but those only become useful after several hours have sunken in.

The tedium is balanced out by the fun and challenge of hunting monsters. The majority of the quests focus on killing a single large beast, or a series of them on higher difficulty levels. You’ll be whisked away into the wilderness (alternate locales include a rainforest, desert, mountains, tundra, and volcano) armed with only whatever you had the foresight to bring. Since you don’t know where your target is, you’ll have to explore each sectioned area of the map. You’ll know the monsters when you see them: House-sized behemoths glaring down at you with eyes the size of dinner plates. Scaly abominations with rows of razor-sharp teeth and flesh harder than steel. Dragons large enough to accidentally step on you. There’s no time to stare. You’ve got a couple of seconds to throw a paintball to mark the monster’s location on the onscreen map – you remembered to bring some, right? -– before the thing charges. If this is your first time facing a particular beast, you’ll probably get mauled. You’re given three lives per quest, so you have to make them count. If you blindly rush into battle, you won’t last five minutes. Each monster not only has certain kinds of attacks, but also clues as to which ones it’ll use. You have to pay attention to how your target moves; if you see it gearing up to rush forward, you’ll have to know how fast and the direction in which you need to dodge. If your timing just a little off, you’ll get hit and lose a good chunk of your health. But if you’re skilled enough, you can get through even the toughest battles unscathed. You’ll have plenty of practice. What begins as a simple quest to save a village will eventually span across hundreds of hours and countless, ever-increasingly difficult missions. Eventually, the Lagiacrus will be the least of your worries.

Your success also depends on individual play style and the equipment used. While you can wield only a single weapon at a time, each one has its own combos and abilities. You’ll start off with a standard sword and shield, but you can switch to the far larger (but much slower) great swords, or sacrifice attack range and blocking ability for the quick-paced dual blades. That’s aside from the variety of long swords, lances, and hammers. If you prefer keeping instant death at a distance, there’s an assortment of bows and guns as well. There are more exotic weapons, like sword/axe hybrids, and the combined piercing and pyrotechnics of the gunlances. If you obtain the right parts – usually from the corpses of whatever monsters you’ve conquered – you can upgrade for more attack power, elemental-based damage, and overall sharpness. Considering how weapons dull with each use, understanding their effectiveness is important. That also goes for the armor sets; each piece offers its own stat boost and can even unlock additional combat abilities. If you pay attention to what you’re wearing, you can find ways to negate status effects, consume food faster, reduce stamina depletion, etc. Excessive item usage yields similar results, but it’s nowhere near as efficient. Regardless of the method, the sheer depth and variety of features ensures there’s an approach suited for you.

That doesn’t mean the mechanics are perfect, though. Some of the enemies’ hit boxes aren’t placed perfectly to scale, which can lead to cheap hits. If you’re accustomed to fast-paced and responsive gameplay, you’ll despise how slow your character reacts. Even if an oncoming attack is telegraphed, they can be difficult – if not outright impossible – to avoid if you’re in the middle of your own attack animations. Your most dangerous foe isn’t a monster; it’s the camera. You can rotate the view around your character with the analog stick and adjust the angle with the directional pad, but it’s awkward when you’re trying to do both with a single thumb. There’s a way to map the angle controls to the touch screen, but it’s even more clunky and unreliable. Instead, you’ll end up using the monster lock-on feature to keep your bearings. Just a quick tap of the shoulder button gets your target front and center…which is disorienting when the camera swings behind some foliage or rocky outcroppings. Fighting underwater is ridiculously difficult because you swim in whatever direction the camera is facing; you have to constantly fight with and reorient the camera. Locking onto a target is utterly useless because aquatic monsters can swim directly above or below you, often too fast for the camera to keep up. It’s slightly more manageable after some practice (and the addition of the Circle Pad Pro attachment), but it never stops being needlessly aggravating.

The most glaring flaw, however, lies with the multiplayer. If you’ve got a Wii U and its version of Monster Hunter, it’s possible to transfer your game saves to the console and take your fights online. But if you only have a 3DS, your multiplayer experience will be limited to local co-op quests. The lack of dedicated online features is a huge oversight; they give handheld games the longevity they so desperately need. There’s a reason why titles like Pokemon and Mario Kart are so popular; they allow players to interact and keep the gameplay fresh and exciting. This missing element is especially jarring when you consider Monster Hunter’s design; the huge maps, variety of monsters, and ridiculous amounts of customization are all key facets of the MMORPG genre. It’s as if Capcom created a MMORPG without understanding what made such games fun. The only solace Wii U-less gamers get is a steady stream of downloadable missions and extra items. Combined with the mountain of content already available, it’ll take several hundred hours to complete every last quest. Had the online functionality been implemented better, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate could have been one of the greatest handheld games of its generation.

But it’s not. It’s got a lot of great things going for it, but there are a few nasty flaws that bring it down. The basic gameplay is excellent; there’s nothing more thrilling than facing down a fire-breathing dragon with only a sword and your wits. All those near-misses, the challenge of learning the attack patterns, and the satisfaction of finally slaying a seemingly unstoppable monster…it’s surprisingly addictive. The sheer amount of weapons, armor, and abilities add tons of variety to the adventure. However, the unreliable control scheme – especially the atrocious underwater mechanics – make for an inconsistent and frustrating experience. You should be fighting monsters, not the camera. If you prefer something with a faster pace and more accessibility, the numerous hours of item farming and the steep learning curve won’t be appealing. Even if you do approach the game with the right mindset, the lack of an online multiplayer is a disappointment. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is a fine game, but not as good as its name implies.

Rating: 7

Product Release: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (US, 03/19/13)

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