When you're evaluating something like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, writing a one-size-fits-all chunk of criticism stands as a nearly impossible task. Shockingly enough, some games aren't intended for everyone, and Capcom's long-running action-RPG series definitely appeals to a very specific type of person. Lucky for me, I am that type of person.
That said, if you're in the market for breezy, short-term, escapist fun, odds are, Monster Hunter might not click with you. It's one of those rare series that carries the same philosophy as Dark Souls—an admittedly tired but nonetheless meaningful comparison—with its focus on challenge, nearly endless customization options, and player discovery. For many Monster Hunter fans, it's not uncommon to sink 200 or more hours into each installment, which may seem like a preposterous amount of time to those who've yet to be bitten by the MonHun bug. Anyone willing to make such a weighty investment, though, will inevitably be treated to some of the most rewarding moments a video game has to offer.
Monster Hunter acts a bit like the Pokemon series in that each successive sequel offers the same essential experience, embellished with a host of improvements and additions, along with tons of content carried over from previous installments. Fortunately, as with Nintendo's own monster hunting RPG, the foundation Capcom established so many years ago is strong enough to carry a seemingly endless stream of games—eleven as of this most recent release. There's a bit more narrative this time around, but the essential flow of Monster Hunter hasn't changed: As expected, 4 Ultimate tasks the player with felling a succession of massive beasts while gradually building an impressive (and fashionable!) collection of weapons and armor out of their many parts. At first glance, it sounds somewhat straightforward—until you realize just how deep Capcom's RPG rabbit hole goes.
It's easy to see why new players have such a problem coming to terms with the intimidating amount of responsibility Monster Hunter drops into their laps. While 4 Ultimate does a fairly good job of explaining its most basic elements, only through study and experience will players fully understand whether or not the decisions they're making are the right ones. Tangling with 4 Ultimate's many monsters requires making a series of important choices, and though they're not much different than what you'd find in your average RPG, here, they carry a lot more weight. Take the 14 weapon types, for instance: Each one controls in a completely different way, with their own unique animations, strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks—essentially, learning how to use a new weapon type doesn't differ much from mastering a fighting game character. And, since you can make gear (and items) from each of the game's nearly 100 monsters—with each piece and set offering their own special skills and affinities—there's essentially no limit to how specialized your character can be. With Monster Hunter, it's not unheard of to have a specifically tailored loadout for the sake of fighting a single monster.
Squaring off against Monster Hunter's various oversized creatures feels a bit like Shadow of the Colossus' massive boss battles, but instead of taking the form of puzzle platforming, Capcom's action-RPG goes for more of a test of endurance. 4 Ultimate drops its hunters into fairly large, though segmented worlds, and tasks them with not only slaying the monster, but finding and tracking them as well. And though the developers have come up with quite a few terrifying creations at this point, 4 Ultimate's cast of monsters carry a lot of personality, and come equipped with enough AI routines and unique behaviors to make you feel like you're actually fighting a living thing—don't be surprised if you feel a slight tinge of guilt as one of them limps away in fear of your human superiority. It may sound slightly limiting that Monster Hunter essentially gives you one enemy to fight at a time, but these battles can stretch on for 30 minutes or longer—and tactics don't boil down to mindlessly bashing away with your weapon of choice. Each monster is broken down into a series of parts, and focusing on one in particular can mean the difference between success and failure—not to mention whether or not said monster drops the item you need upon death or capture.
Of course, if you've already sunk hundreds of hours into 2013's Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate—as I have—you may be wondering if this newest sequel makes enough substantial improvements to justify a purchase. From my perspective, the answer is "yes"—especially because many of Monster Hunter 4's refinements have been due for a long time. In a supremely merciful move, 3 Ultimate's cumbersome underwater battles have been replaced with environments that emphasize verticality and feel much more natural than the previous game's largely flat, open arenas. Players can now scramble up cliffs and short barriers with ease, and landing on monsters with jump attacks in just the right spot lets you ride it like a mechanical bull as you stab away at its most tender spot.
4 Ultimate also does an excellent job of eliminating the busywork that's been a needless burden until now: The farm, used to reproduce essential items and once located a loading screen away, now functions as single vendor that's always centrally located in every town. This newest sequel also allows players to create prescribed item loadouts, rather then sort through hundreds of goods in search of what best fits the situation at hand—something I desperately wished for as I played through 3 Ultimate. Really, I could go on about the many, many minor tweaks employed by 4 Ultimate, but, for the sake of brevity, I'll say that they add up to the most playable Monster Hunter to date. (Even if Capcom still needs to make a few more changes.)
Multiplayer has always been the focus of Monster Hunter, and 4 Ultimate is no different. While you can have lots of fun with the single-player campaign, this mode really feels like a game-length tutorial for multi-hunter sessions, which honestly work best when you're in a room with other people. Finally, we have a portable Monster Hunter with a true online mode, but, as expected from a game developed for a culture with a dense population, online play feels a few steps behind a modern experience—the simple text chat does its job, but your hunts will go much better if you independently set up a Skype call for the sake of voice communication. Still, it's an experience that works best in person—even if everyone is staring at their individual, tiny screens. With a group of friends each playing their unique, hand-tailored role, few co-op experiences feel as dependent on pure teamwork as Monster Hunter. As of this writing, I've been limited to the pool of people with pre-release copies of the game, and I frankly can't wait for the user base to expand so I can get all of my friends in on the action. (And if they can help me get my hands on some rare drops, all the better.)
Still, it's important to remember that a complex game like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate—one with countless moving parts—requires a mentor, or at least lots of Wiki research to fully understand. And while I respect Monster Hunter for not compromising its mission statement, I'm fully aware that many people simply don't have the time to make the commitment. To be fair, the game itself contains plenty of helpful information—definitely more than 3 Ultimate—though it's mostly provided out-of-context in the form of copious amounts of text that may be hard to digest in one sitting. If you're willing to stick with it, though, don't be surprised if those first 100 hours fly by as you search for the perfect armor set to blind your opponent with sheer luxury. Simply put, if you're willing to let Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate consume your life, you're in for one of the most delightful addictions portable gaming has to offer.
[Note: This review was written based on my experience with playing Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on the New 3DSXL. The analog nub and additional L and R buttons didn't strike me as being all that necessary, so I didn't account for differences between 3DS models when evaluating the game.]
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate stands as one of the best-looking games on the 3DS, and the frame rate doesn't skip a beat, even with four players teaming up to take on one of its many terrifying beasts.
Though it could easily blend into the background, 4 Ultimate's music is oddly catchy, and definitely emphasizes those all-important moments of triumph.
Menus, menus, menus. Thankfully, you can customize the UI as you see fit.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is one of those "forever" games. If you want to play it indefinitely, you'll likely never run out of content. (At least, until the next sequel comes along.)
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is simply the most approachable and playable version of Capcom's action-RPG to date—but be warned, it still requires a hefty investment. If you're willing to take the leap, though, you'll soon understand why Monster Hunter has become such a phenomenon.