The Monster Hunter series has become a veritable phenomenon for Capcom in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. It has a lot of those niche, granular elements of classic, quintessentially Japanese action RPGs that you just don’t see anymore, particularly because they sadly never caught on in the West. Back in 2010, Capcom gave it the old college try by releasing Monster Hunter Tri
on the Wii, making the experience slightly more approachable and achieving modest success on Nintendo’s previous console.
Now the creature-killing epic is back in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, an updated re-release for Wii U and 3DS. Ultimate fixes several of the issues that kept the Wii version from greatness, adds some content and, in general, is the definitive version of Monster Hunter Tri, bringing a challenging, incredibly deep experience to Nintendo’s content-starved new console. That said, the learning curve might still be a little too steep and long for the notoriously brief attention spans of American gamers, which is a shame because once you get past Ultimate’s tough, scaly exterior, there’s a lot of meat to feast on here.
The Monster Hunter series, and Ultimate in particular, always reminded me of the Dreamcast and a lot of its library: bright and optimistic, creative, but unapologetically challenging, vast and unmistakably Japanese. Capcom’s approach to this series has always had that go-for-broke, we-don’t-care-if-it’s-hard, keep-playing-eventually-you’ll-love-it, crazy-like-a-fox Sega insanity that made so many Dreamcast games unique and memorable. I’m hoping more games like ZombiU and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate take this audacious approach to the Wii U, delivering hard-hitting software that doesn’t care how difficult or deep it is, especially in the form of classic RPGs.
That said, calling this game a purely old-school RPG is something of a misnomer. It does have certain RPG elements and the JRPG flavor is definitely there, but a better comparison might be a scaled-down MMO, with a smaller, more personal multiplayer and a perfectly functional solo campaign as well. You don’t level up, but instead build progressively better armor and weapons as you kill bigger monsters and then farm resources from their corpses. There are smaller side quests (delivered weekly through free DLC), but there’s never busywork aside from killing and farming the same monsters over and over again. The game is really more like a succession of harder and harder--and sometimes repetitive--boss fights.
The game begins in a sleepy fishing village that has been suffering from earthquakes. Naturally the awakened monsters are to blame, so you’ve been commissioned by the local hunter guild to deal with the creatures. This village serves as your hub but it quickly becomes much more than a typical quest bulletin board and save spot. There’s a shop for buying supplies, a house for storing, swapping and equipping weapons and gear, and even a farm. You can enlist the game’s adorable sentient cats to work your farm and grow resources, and the local fishermen can bring back treasure for you. The nearby forest acts as a crash course of sorts, and after the tutorial you can freely explore it between quests to farm loot from the indigenous plants and respawing low-tier monsters.
The game starts you off with a full set of basic armor and one of each weapon type, with slightly higher overall stats than you started with in Tri. This makes the barrier to entry quite a bit lower, but don’t be fooled: after the tutorial and a few of the early hunts, you’ll need to craft some better gear to have any hope of surviving. If you’re new to the series, that’s pretty much the main thrust of the gameplay; kill monsters, use their resources to make better gear, kill more challenging monsters, repeat. In some ways it’s like an incredibly less morose and forbidding Shadow of the Colossus. Starting out, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the gameplay is entirely hack-and-slash combat. While the early fights are more or less basic button mashing, there is a great deal more to it once you get to the harder monsters. The newly added lock-on camera makes accurate attacks so much easier that I’ve been wondering why Capcom didn’t implement such a basic feature earlier in the series. It especially makes the new underwater combat a lot less frustrating. In any case, more accurate strikes make for much deeper combat.
The strategy involves attacking different parts of each monster. Fighting smart can not only make a battle easier and improve your odds against a formidable creature, but it gives you better loot drops at the end of a fight. For example, you can cut off a dragon’s tail if he keeps whipping you with it, or smash electric crystals on a water creature’s back to keep him from zapping you. What’s more, the visible location damage on each monster is a nice touch and looks cool and gnarly, giving the impression that you’re scarring these beasts up something fierce before you land the final blow.
In fact, the monsters don’t even have a visible health bar. The physical damage you inflict, along with the monster’s behavior, signs of fatigue, limping and other tip-offs are the only signs that you’re wearing it down or close to victory. This forces you to use your instincts as a gamer--being cautious during uncertain moments, or rallying and going in for the kill when you can see that the monster is on its last legs. It’s also important to choose the right tool for the job--some creatures require an up-close beating with a broadsword, while it’s smarter to take on others at range with a bowgun. Switching weapons can alter the feel of each fight significantly, and when you encounter the much tougher, color-swapped monster subspecies and their brand new attacks and behaviors, it never hurts to experiment with all your offensive options.
While it’s perfectly possible to complete the game solo, you’d be doing yourself a big disservice if you didn’t round up a few friends for multiplayer. Up to four people can play at a time, either online or locally using a 3DS as a controller. While online matchmaking and joining a server is still a bit shaky, as it was in Tri, once you’re in a game the connection is smooth and the game becomes something of a small-scale quasi-MMO. Taking on quests with friends online is Ultimate at its best. It’s difficult to describe the exhilaration of you and three buddies carving away at an enormous dragon or diving down to slaughter a water serpent, with each player using a different weapon and attacking a different part of the monster. The Wii U’s voice chat helps coordinate these battles in a way that just wasn’t possible on the online-hobbled Wii version; Nintendo’s barely supported WiiSpeak mic never had enough market penetration for that. However, that does bring me to one of the more conflicting aspects of Ultimate: the controls.
Now don’t get me wrong, the controls overall are great. Capcom has implemented some very cool features on the GamePad. You can completely customize your control scheme by dragging and dropping “panels” onto the touch screen, or set it so that every HUD aspect is presented on the GamePad, leaving your TV to display just the game world with no HUD elements. This feature is certainly welcome and cool, but personally I’ve never been a fan of touch screen HUDs or controls. I enjoyed the game most using the Wii U Pro Controller (or Nyko’s excellent third party option, the Pro Commander), but this meant that for voice chat I had to keep the GamePad close by, as for some obscure reason the Wii U Pro Controller doesn’t have a headset jack on it. Of course if you don’t want to use voice chat you can always type on the GamePad’s on-screen chat keyboard, or even plug in a USB keyboard and type away on that. Capcom has baked in a lot of control options so whatever your play style, eventually you’ll find a setup to your liking.
In terms of production values, Ultimate is something of a mixed bag. Tri was a truly beautiful Wii game and it’s wonderful to see it in the HD glory it deserves on Wii U, but that said, it still looks like a two-year-old game, and a Wii game at that, which pushes its graphical age back even farther. The polygon count on the characters is a bit sparse and there are no pixel shaders to speak of, but if you take a step back and take in the game’s world as a whole, it is something to behold. Once again I’m reminded of those classic Dreamcast games like Sonic Adventure, Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue; Ultimate focuses on lush natural beauty and occasionally the raw power of a volcanic cave or a vast ocean. The monsters themselves are still jaw-dropping as you’d be forgiven for thinking Capcom found an island where these things actually exist and managed to motion-capture them.
The audio side of things is solid when you’re out hunting and exploring, and there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a pissed off monster roaring at you in fury and going after your last shred of health. Sadly, there isn’t any voice acting for the villagers, which forces you to read smallish text boxes in the lower-left corner of the screen, which are tough to read even on a 42-inch HDTV. Like the graphics, however, Ultimate’s audio presentation is grand and sweeping, and is meant to be experienced as such. As long as you don’t scrutinize them up close, the music and sounds of the Monster Hunter world will draw you in.
It might not be fair to say Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is one of the best games on the Wii U only because the platform’s library is still so small. But regardless of the WIi U’s current software drought, Ultimate is a fantastic action RPG, on any console. It takes the already great experience in Tri and fixes practically everything that needed fixing, and adds some fresh new content to boot. It’s not a game for the impatient, easily distracted or superficial, but if you put the requisite start-up time in, Ultimate opens up like you wouldn’t believe and you’ll have a hard time counting the hours you pour into it. It’s the best entry the Monster Hunter series has yet to offer, and once you get into it, you really only have one major problem: convincing three friends to buy it too and hunt with you.