Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the latest entry in the Monster Hunter series, and the last title of the fourth generation of Monster Hunter (presumably). It’s a series that’s struggled for some time to gain a substantial foothold outside of Japan, where it’s guaranteed to sell like hotcakes, especially on whatever handheld the newest game is on. Part of that is due to the reliance that the Japanese culture has on public transportation; you’re virtually assured to find people hunting on trains and buses as they commute to their jobs or back to their homes, making it easy to jump in for a quick hunt or two before reaching your destination. Aside from that, another hurdle the series has always had is a dearth of tutorials and hand-holding, which, when combined with it’s punishing-but-fair difficulty, has left many people turning away before giving the game enough time to grow on them. However, with similarly-difficult titles like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls gaining popularity in the West, perhaps the time is better than ever to see the Monster Hunter series come into its own. What better way to do so than with what is undeniably the best title in the series to date?
For those who haven’t heard of the series before, Monster Hunter is a game that revolves entirely around tracking, hunting, and slaying monsters. Battles are action-packed and necessitate knowledge of the weapon you’re using and even greater knowledge of the monster you’re fighting, as knowing when it’s safe to attack and when it’s better to get out of the way of an incoming blow is paramount. Monsters can often kill you in only a few hits, while it takes you dozens, if not hundreds, of attacks to slowly whittle its health down until it finally collapses. Damage done to certain areas can incapacitate it, or even break parts entirely, giving you advantages in battle along with extra rewards once it’s over. Many tails can be cut clean off with cutting attacks, while wings and crests can often be broken, or faces scarred and monsters dazed for a few precious seconds from enough blunt blows to the head. When the fight is over, you’ll carve scales, fangs, horns, claws, and all sorts of other items from the defeated foe, and can take them back home to forge them into brand new weapons and armor, which allows you to fight even bigger monsters as the cycle repeats all over. It’s that constant sense of progression that makes the games so satisfying and addictive.
Unlike most of the previous titles where the story was practically an afterthought, MH4U has a decently entertaining story to keep players rolling along, with a number of cutscenes that provide plenty of visual flair to the events unfolding around you. After a particularly thrilling start involving a massive sand whale-dragon, your customizable character ends up as part of a traveling caravan, roaming from area to area to deal with monster problems and try to find out more about a mysterious artifact that the leader of the caravan carries with him, though you’re often interrupted by a particularly dangerous dragon whose path you tend to cross for one reason or another. The story isn’t particularly incredible, but it’s certainly better than previous entries in the series, where the general jist was ‘Oh hey, hunter, there’s this monster terrorizing our village, go get stronger so you can kill it’. Some of the cutscenes are pretty cool, and the dialogue between your character and many of the NPCs you interact with are often quite humorous.
MH4U does a good job of easing new players into what they’ll be expected to do, while making it painless enough that veterans of the series won’t have to wait long before bashing skulls in. After the intro and a few tutorial quests that any seasoned hunter can pass in a few minutes, the game doesn’t hesitate before throwing some of the big monsters your way, and things don’t slow down much after that. For new players, though, there’s ample time to get the hang of things, and after those first few tutorial quests, training missions are unlocked that lets you test out any weapon of your choice against one of the easiest bosses. New monsters and areas to explore and destroy are introduced in rapid succession afterwards, and in a new twist on the formula, many quests don’t simply appear at the quest giver, but instead are given by NPCs in each main town, with certain quests locked off until the previous one in their ‘chain’ has been completed. It’s a change for the series, and gives you a little more insight into the stories each NPC has to tell, rather than it being a few sentences that no one ever reads before going off to kill the next big thing.
Graphically, the game is pretty damn impressive, especially considering the limitations of the 3DS hardware. Textures are a little muddy in places, but the monsters you fight all look great, with fluid animations that are distinct enough that you can tell what kind of attack a monster is preparing to launch if you’re paying attention. Not only that, but the game runs at a fairly steady 60 FPS, even when playing with four players, though I did notice a little slowdown on rare occasions. The sound is superb as well, with many monsters getting their own individual themes, and the roars and the sounds that monsters make are all very distinctive. Even many of the NPCs have their own distinct voices, even though none of them actually speak any real language.
As far as the gameplay goes, MH4U improves on its predecessors with leaps and bounds, quite literally. Instead of the limitations posed by the underwater areas and battles in MHTri and MH3U, movement has never been more dynamic in a Monster Hunter title before. Ledges, cliffs, and walls abound everywhere, providing a verticality that previous entries could never hope to match with their mostly flat plains. Most walls are climbable now as well, providing easier access to certain areas as well as letting players leap from them for devastating aerial strikes, leading into another new mechanic: mounting. Hitting a monster with a mid-air attack can cause it to plummet to the ground, and the offending player will automatically leap atop it to partake in a small QTE of sorts, mashing X to stab the monster while holding R when it tries to throw you off. Success will deal a hefty amount of damage and can even break certain parts of a monster, though monsters will build up a resistance to being mounted with each successive attempt. With 14 different weapon types (two of them brand new), it’s easy to find a favorite among them, whether you like the Greatsword’s slow-but-powerful slashes, the agility and in-your-face nature of the Dual Blades, the healing and buffing notes of the Hunting Horn, or the long-range assistance of a Bowgun.
Speaking of monsters, MH4U has the most monsters to hunt in the entire series, with 75 separate boss monsters to take on. Many are brand new, with others returning from MH3U or even MHFU. Returning monsters have revamped movesets and abilities to take advantage of the terrain, and most are just as mobile as the hunters can be. Even though I’ve fought many of the monsters many times before, they’ve still managed to catch me off guard with some of their new moves, though they’re bound by the new stamina rules introduced in the third generation as well, making them just as varied as their newest compatriots. Even after playing a good chunk of the game, I haven’t even seen a quarter of the available monsters yet. The game has tremendous replay value, as more and more monsters become available to fight as you get deeper into the game, with High Rank and G Rank monsters standing proud above the rest, waiting for worthy challengers. And while not every monster returns from the older games, many of them can still live on by trading certain monster parts for other parts, letting players make armor and weapons from foes that couldn’t be squeezed in.
Of course, as much as I love to gush about the game, and the series in general, I do have a few gripes. While the tutorials are very helpful for new players, I do feel that they could have taken it one step farther with certain aspects. There’s a wealth of information in the Hunter’s Notes section, but since it’s presented there in one huge chunk, it could be overwhelming for newcomers. Also, from what I’ve seen, there’s not an incredible selection of good early-game armor sets to choose from. While I appreciate things being tweaked from MH3U, where virtually every knowledgeable player started out making the exact same armor set, it feels a little more limiting to have a wide selection of relatively sub-par skills on most early sets, and while the online, in my experience, works almost flawlessly, communicating with your team can be a frustrating experience, with no in-game voice chat and a rather clunky keyboard interface. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t think the 3DS’s hardware wasn’t holding the game back a little from what it could potentially be, but that’s a can of worms I’d rather not open.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is an incredible game, one with hours upon hours of richly varied content for players to experience, and I couldn’t pack it all into this review without making it gigantic. If you want to see it all, you can expect to spend hundreds of hours mastering the combat mechanics, the intricacies of each boss and level, and the incredibly satisfying action-packed experience. I’ve put hundreds of hours into previous games in the series, and MH4U outclasses them all in terms of content, polish, and gameplay. If you’re a seasoned Monster Hunter, I can easily say this is the best in the series, and you should go buy it if you don’t already have it. If you’re unsure, download the free demo, and take some of the weapons for a spin, smack a few monsters around, and see if the game grabs you. I can’t recommend this game enough, and it’s sure to be a near-permanent fixture in my 3DS… at least until I can pick up a New 3DS sometime soon.