Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review: Kitty Cat Battle Royale

The Monster Hunter games are pretty polarizing. I performed an experiment while writing this review, and asked all of my gamer friends what they thought of the franchise. The results were this: everybody hates it (or is indifferent toward, or unaware of, its existence) except for the slim handful who are actually right and love it. No, really. Only the opinions of those select few are right.

Not one person falls in the middle in my circle of friends. No one says, “Yeah, I play it every once in a while;” it’s either all-out, ravenous fandom, or it isn’t on their radar at all. Those who do like it also tend to like Demon’s Souls and its ilk, so there’s an easy correlation. The Souls games are equally as polarizing and difficult to get into. However, I think that Monster Hunter 4 will be the iteration to break the cycle. That’s what we’re focusing on, today. Rather than looking at this game on its own, we’re gonna talk more about what sets it apart from previous entries, and why someone who didn’t like the older games might like this one.

Let’s jump right into it.

Monster Hunter is a game. You hunt monsters. That’s pretty much all there is to it. At least, that’s all there is to it when I have to bottom-line the game. The devil’s in the details, though, and Monster Hunter doesn’t fuck around as far as its details go. You play as a hunter-gatherer in a village whose greatest technological advancement is being able to roast two steaks over a campfire at the same time. Their biggest exports are grass and bugs, and their political system is based entirely around who has the largest animal skull in his or her hut. Impressive stuff, right? This setting provides the context. Sure, you could still set a game about hunting giant monsters in a technologically-advanced world, but you’d have to dig pretty deep in your bag of plot to give me a compelling reason to root around in piles of mushrooms all day.

If this sounds appealing to you, you’re probably correct. This game is all about the survival, and we’ve had a lot of opportunities recently to play games that have taught us just how fun survival can be. Forget to eat, and you won’t have any energy to run around. Forget to pick flowers, and you won’t have enough potions to carry you through the next quest. Every action you take is a small step toward surviving just one more monster. This feeling dissipates as the game progresses and you gain new and interesting ways to acquire materials, but the beginning of the game sets the tone for the rest, and that tone boils down to surviving.

Here is what should interest you if you aren’t compelled, already: Multiplayer, plot, and tutorials.

If you’ve played any Monster Hunter games, you know that multiplayer has always been the primary driving force for the game, and the other two concepts are weirdly missing. We’re gonna take a serious look at these three things to see if maybe you’ll finally try out a Monster Hunter game and pick up 4 Ultimate.

First, multiplayer. Suffice to say that if you have a friend who you regularly play games with and they want you to play it with them, you will probably enjoy it. My fiancée finally started playing with me, and she is clearly getting some kind of emotional high from it. She’ll correct me if I’m wrong once she reads this, but she always has a very strong reaction to seeing a new monster for the first time. That reaction is something like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT HOW DO WE KILL IT OH GOD WE’RE GONNA DIE.” The first few monsters are unnervingly large on their own, but by the time you defeat three or four, the rest are downright terrifying to behold. The Tetsucabra is the first truly large monster you have to face in MH4U, and it is easily five times the size of the next largest monster you’ve gone up against before facing it. The shock factor is very real and it never stops. I’ve gotten through most of the single-player story at this point, and one monster in particular, the Najarala, is so large that I am still afraid of it.

This fear, though, only lasts for so long in multiplayer play. Since the game is split between the single and multiplayer experiences, one player will almost always have more time spent on the game than the others, and it’s difficult to be too terribly afraid of the giant rattlesnake attacking you when your more confident friend is riding its back and stabbing it in the neck. This split in experiences is one of Monster Hunter’s big draws, from my point of view. No village upgrades are gained in multiplayer, which keeps you playing the solo campaign, and all of the biggest fights are missing from the campaign, which keeps you playing multiplayer quests. Each method of play rewards you in different ways. Great design, all around. The long and short of it is that the multiplayer hasn’t changed at all. If you’ve played these games before, you know that’s a good thing, and if you haven’t, take our word for it. Best of all, as has been the case in the past, if you’re really confident in your gear and skills, you can even tackle the multiplayer quests on your own, providing an extra layer of challenge to an already challenging game.

The challenge of the game leads us to my next point: tutorials. Those of you who have played prior Monster Hunter games without playing the new one are probably pretty confused, right now. “Reece,” you’d say, I’m sure, “tutorials have no place in a Monster Hunter game,” and you’d be right. In the past, you had to essentially run your own tutorials and learn how the game worked through trial and error. In Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, though, you can learn so fucking much about the weapons and the world you live in. The first tier of quests is entirely comprised of tutorial quests, from how to make potions, to how to grill steaks, to how each of the weapons work. This is good, because the already complicated combat became even more complicated this time around. I chose the Insect Glaive as my primary weapon, because I heard it allowed one to pole-vault and that sounded pretty awesome. I can now confirm that pole-vaulting is, in fact, extremely awesome, but I couldn’t sort out how to do it on my own right away, and had to resort to playing the Insect Glaive tutorial mission to figure it out. Not only did it teach me the skills needed to effectively use the weapon, it also let me put those skills to the test against a very weak monster, and it didn’t make me fight for a terribly long time once I’d figured it out. Within minutes, it was over, and I was quite grateful for the fast-track book-learnin’ I’d acquired.

So, the multiplayer, the most important part of the game, is intact, and tutorials abound where they did not, before. This is good news, but the biggest complaint I hear from detractors is that Monster Hunter doesn’t do it for them from a story standpoint. And, to be perfectly honest, I can agree with them. Lucky for everyone, then, that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has more story than any previous game in the series. Nearly every other improvement we’ll be talking about falls into this category, so brace yourself for just an absolute shitload of words. We have much to discuss.

Those of us who love this franchise have certain expectations about the dialogue. We expect that it will be well-written, but ultimately needless and forgettable. As with Fantasy Life, which I reviewed, previously, you wouldn’t be missing much if you mashed buttons to skip past the dialogue, but you’d enjoy it if you took the time to read it.

MH4U is still like this to some extent, but after the first several cutscenes, you will actually be interested in what’s happening and invested in your character. Your hunter still has no dialogue at all; spoken lines will be handled by the much more fleshed-out supporting characters in your caravan. However, almost all of the cutscenes are done in the game engine, so it is your hunter who will appear, along with your weapons and armor. This allows for something new, as far as your hunter is concerned: characterization. For the first time, I find myself wondering who my hunter is. Even though the hunter does not speak, you will still get something of a feel for his or her personality. This is primarily communicated non-verbally, obviously, with your hunter’s posture and actions communicating a very capable, yet cautious personality. These characterizing cutscenes primarily occur when encountering a new monster for the first time, and your hunter acts quite rationally. No fear is evident, but you also won’t see him or her blindly running at a monster, sword raised to the heavens. He or she is right in the middle. Your hunter values careful observation over improvisation and courage over heroics. Let’s face it, the Palicoes provide the heroics, here.

I’m gonna piss off a lot of people when I say this, but Palicoes were fucking worthless before this game. I know they were around, before, and they had most of the same function, but holy shit, they function so much better, now. Not only has their AI been improved, there are also so many of them, now, and they have so many fucking outfits. I spend at least 30 minutes playing dress-up with my cats every time I turn the game on, and I love every second of it.

Palicoes are just what they sound like: calico cats that are your pals. They can come along with you on hunts, providing extra damage, healing, support, or all three while you fight, as well as picking up extra loot for you. More importantly, though, they provide the majority of the compelling story. When you reach the third city (yeah, more than one city to live in; I know, it’s a lot to handle), a Palico will approach you and ask for your help in protecting the Palico village. You do so, and gain the ability to hire additional Palicoes who your main Palico can take under his wing and teach the ways of the cat. These kitties live on Sunsnug Isle when they aren’t palling around with you, and Sunsnug Isle is the single most important location in the game.

To illustrate this, I’m gonna take you through my thought process, which means we’re gonna have to look back at another game I’ve reviewed previously with a similar mechanic: Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag. Black Flag has this odd little system tacked on to it in which you build a fleet. You send these ships out to earn resources that can only be used on upgrading these theoretical, only-seen-on-paper ships, so they can be better at going out and earning Paper Ship Dollars, so you can upgrade more ships to go out and earn more Big Ship Bucks to upgrade your ships. I could go on for hours. And so could the armada minigame in Black Flag. And both would have just as much point.

Monster Hunter 4 has a minigame that initially feels similar, called goddamn (no lie) Meownster Hunters. This “minigame” (and I use the term very loosely) allows you to send up to five of your gotta-catch-‘em-all Palicoes on adorable little hunts acted out with adorable little puppets so they can get adorable little loot drops to make adorable little weapons and armor. Initially, this feels a bit like the armada bullshit from Black Flag, since this system is almost entirely self-contained, until you realize that these weapons and armor have stats and they don’t just look adorable (which, let me be clear, they definitely do), they also improve the combat prowess of your furry friends. This is particularly awesome because you can take up to two of the Palicoes with you on quests. If we take this comparison to its logical conclusion, that’s like Black Flag’s Edward taking two pirate ships along with him into the house where his next assassination target waits. The power boost from two well-equipped Palicoes isn’t quite that overwhelming, but it is noticeable. And, in case I haven’t been one hundred percent clear, the Palico weapons and armor are so adorable that you absolutely will baby-talk your 3DS. I’m talkin’ little wizard hats and monster costumes and tiny versions of armor your hunter can wear. Yes, that means you and your cat friends can match. Absoloutely incredible. Kitty-Cat Dress-Up Simulator is worth the forty bucks, alone.

The more cohesive story has also served to give the quests a better flow that draws you through the campaign more thoroughly than before. Each city has its own Big Bad for you to Take Care Of, which clears up the awkward situations we used to have, where we’d find ourselves fighting yet another monster that had supposedly somehow caused all of the village’s problems. In addition, most of the village upgrades have been relocated to side-quests, instead of the resource-burning Villager Requests of yesteryear. The Villager Requests are still around, but they are much fewer and further between and you won’t find them inconveniencing you like they did in the last game. Instead, most requests will be handled by fighting some new monster, and you’ll get to watch one of the stellar cutscenes while you do it, and you’ll feel much more rewarded than if you’d simply walked up and put all of your rarest rocks in a box.

The biggest draw for me is that there seem to be a lot more monsters to fight, this time around. And great strides were taken to ensure that at least the items that every monster drops are in the game. Sadly, many of them (particularly the aquatic monsters of Monster Hunter 3) do not appear in the game, partly because of the lack of underwater segments, but mostly (I assume) because there just isn’t enough damn space on the cartridge. I think everyone is impressed with the way they still managed to make the Plesioth appear, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling it, but if you really want to know, just google the same thing you googled to find this review and click any other link. I’m sure everyone else will tell you about how great the Plesioth is.

In case I glossed over that too much, there is no underwater combat in Monster Hunter 4. The third game was very focused on the underwater fighting, and I liked it a lot, but it has been replaced with real, honest-to-goodness vertical design and movement, and I like that a lot more. Climbing and jumping off things are more fun than they’ve ever been, and combat was smoothed out so that you can attack in midair and continue your combo once you hit the ground. This is the cornerstone of my favorite new mechanic: mounting. Much like Dragon’s Dogma or Shadow of the Colossus, you can climb on enemies and stab them in the back to bring them down. This is accomplished through leaping through the air, hitting the monster while airborne, then playing a very small minigame in which you must balance stabbing them until they fall with hanging on for dear life. If your friends hit you while you do this, they could knock you off the monster’s back, but many of these monsters are large enough that this is not an overly large risk. And the payout for success is staggering. Literally. It has always been possible to knock monsters over in previous games, and it can still be done in Monster Hunter 4 without mounting, but the length of time to beat the downed monster’s ass is significantly increased if you mount it to do so. A new weapon, called the Insect Glaive, was introduced to help facilitate this. If you are unsure which weapon to use when starting, pick this one. The Insect Glaive is a big-ass stick you hit things with and a big-ass bug that rests on your arm until you send him out to attack and buff your character. More importantly, though, the Insect Glaive allows you to pole-vault, which marks the first time that a Monster Hunter game has allowed us to jump at will. Why would you want to do this? To get on the monster’s back, dummy, and then beat them senseless. Even in multiplayer, when you have to announce to the group that you are mounting something so your friends don’t knock you the fuck off, everyone seems to recognize the power increase the glaive provides, and respectfully gives you the room you need to do it. The glaive isn’t entirely needed for this shenanigans, though it is very helpful. If you’re married to a certain type of weapon, you can always climb a wall and jump off to mount monsters, or your hammer-wielding buddy can launch you through the air with his base combo, or you can wait it out and hire a “Launching” Palico later on who will toss you around all you want.

So, that’s it. I could gush for a while about all of the changes I think have really improved the formula, but it wouldn’t serve to convince you, much. I hesitate to score this game, because some people will still have a difficult time figuring out the controls, and if you don’t have friends to play with, it simply won’t be the same. I’m gonna say it in caps, now, too, in case you skipped to the end to see the score, and why would you do that? Go back and read it. I probably said mean things about a game you like, and I’m one of those people who likes to see you squirm. Anyway, what I want to say is:

THIS GAME HAS A SERIOUS LEARNING CURVE. IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO SPEND AN HOUR OR TWO EDUCATING YOURSELF AND PRACTICING THE COMBAT, YOU WILL FAIL AND YOU SHOULD CONSIDER NOT BUYING THIS GAME.

If, however, you’re willing to put up with that, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a solid 9.5/10, in my book. We could still use a little more story, but it’s not an absolute must when the combat and crafting systems are exactly as robust as they’ve always been. This will definitely do, for now.

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