Monster Hunter producer Ryozo Tsujimoto spent the free hours of his youth in Japan’s arcades, watching over the shoulders of his peers in order to avoid wasting his limited pocket money. This way, he could learn playstyles and attack patterns as well as memorise enemy locations to make his handful of credits go that much further. Other players would insert their coins and make their mistakes while behind them Tsujimoto continued to watch and learn.
This attitude lies at the heart of the Monster Hunter series’ design. Beginners learn the ropes not by reading instruction manuals or following step-by-step tutorials, but by watching and then doing. There’s no quicker or better route to mastery than to team up with a trio of veterans and simply observe them at work while you operate on the periphery of a hunt. However much or little you contribute to the final result, every play session is important, because in Monster Hunter you never really stop learning. Whether it’s an enemy variant or a fresh weapon type, there’s always something to discover. And with more of just about everything packed in, Ultimate certainly earns its title as the most comprehensive game in the series to date.
It’s not an entirely new game, of course. There’s plenty of additional content here, but much of it is down a road more or less travelled in Monster Hunter Tri. Those who conquered that game may balk at having to repeat some 30 hours, even with a few changes along the way. An expanded arsenal is a welcome adjustment, though, with four weapon types absent from the Wii game making their return.
The hunting horn is a curious beast, its blows hitting with hammer-like force while sounding notes that can be strung together for buffs. It makes for a fine support class, but requires close attention to attacks; when a monster rears up, ready to pounce, it’s disconcerting to see a blunt instrument being played like a musical one. The versatile and descriptively named gunlance will likely become a firm favourite, even if you’ll need a pouch full of whetstones to sharpen a blade regularly dulled by its projectiles. The bow is as you’d expect, while dual blades sacrifice defence for much greater attack speed and manoeuvrability, with the unfortunate side effect that switching back to a greatsword, say, makes the latter feel more sluggish than ever. Each weapon has its own control scheme and combo strings to master, but you’re not told how they work, nor are you presented with a stream of new enemies to test them out on. Hunters must learn their weaponry’s quirks on the job.
Ultimate, like its predecessors, is an idiosyncratic game. It’s a tough sell precisely because it’s so difficult to pigeonhole. It’s ostensibly an action game, but much more slowly paced than that term would suggest. It’s not quite an RPG either, although there’s levelling and grinding involved. And while its world isn’t open – each area is segmented into numbered zones – it’s a sandbox game in every other respect. Guild quests offer a skeletal structure, but there’s no pressure to stick to it.
You can spend hours foraging for bugs and herbs, striking rocks for ore, killing low-level herbivores for resources, or forging a complete armour set with matching weapons. There’s no wrong way to play and any failure is a valuable learning experience. Though it’s a long game and occasionally a laborious one – you usually need to carve up several large beasts of the same type before getting the item you need for a new lance, such is the random nature of loot drops – time spent is rarely time wasted. It’s a game of a thousand tiny victories. While it might not feel that way when you limp home from a mining expedition after being interrupted by an unexpected attack, it just means it’s all the more satisfying when you slay a leviathan with equipment you made from material you spent hours harvesting. Each victory feels personal, even when you’re fighting within a four-strong hunting party.
Whether through stubbornness or habit, a few unwelcome design foibles do remain. You can only empty your pouch at the village hub, for example, which means it’s all too easy to rush out into the wild with no room for spoils and then be forced to choose between returning prematurely to free up some inventory space or discarding an item forever. Item management in the field is still overly cumbersome, and in a game this challenging, a single wasted potion or trap can mean the difference between success and failure. The camera can only be adjusted in increments on the Y axis, and swinging it around in the heat of battle means you might find yourself staring at an enemy’s feet. All these problems should theoretically be rectified by Wii U’s GamePad, but the second screen’s customisable panels (including, bizarrely, a virtual D-pad for camera controls) force you to look away from the main screen, which, as seasoned hunters will attest, is rarely an option. Ultimate’s hardly a technical showcase for Wii U, either, with some ugly textures and an inconsistent framerate betraying the game’s Wii origins.
Such issues are soon forgotten in the rush when you fell your first large beast (even if the raptor-like Great Jaggi goes from feared opponent to bowgun fodder within hours), or witness the arrival of a monstrous ally summoned by the mimicry of the winged Qurupeco. Or, best of all, when you’re lucky enough to get a front-row seat to a Brachydios-slaying masterclass, as one player pecks away at Ultimate’s headline beast from distance with poison arrows, another plays songs that heal and harm, and a third pierces that tough hide with sharp, precise thrusts of a lance, nimbly dodging the globs of plasma fired in defence. And all the while, like Tsujimoto, you continue to watch and learn.