By Neil Merrett
The latest game in the long-running Monster Hunter series arrived for the first time on current generation consoles in January 2018 to strong reviews. However, this praise was couched with a warning over the need to invest time in understanding its array of menus, crafting systems, cat scavenger squads and matchmaking quirks.
We are perhaps too used to games that are designed to try and simplify interaction so that a player can feel as invested in the world as soon as possible. Not everyone has 50 to 100 hours to waste into a single title after all.
Monster Hunter, like any form of structured art and entertainment, is an acquired taste then.
But is this initial complexity and esoteric nature a deliberate part of the game’s challenge, or a frustrating selection of design choices? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
So in the shiniest iteration of the game yet, developer Capcom chose the name Monster Hunter World to convey a new scope in its levels and souped up online play to build interest in a series that has been building a cult following in recent years on portable devices.
Perhaps a more fitting title for the game may be Monster Hunter Village. For the latest game at its best feels a strangely more intimate experience based around a cycle of hunt and capture missions required to build a solid safety net of finance, armour, food and tools. All this is done while seeking assistance from a trusted community around you when things get tough and lending a helping hand in return. What could be more human than that?
As the series’ title suggests, the simple aim of the game is to set out to different areas on an island and hunt down a selection of gigantic impressive creatures – think Pokemon, but with explosive ammunition, gas traps and a lot more clubbing on the head. You then get to make things out of the creatures you capture or kill.
The title works on the very human impulse of hunting and gathering, albeit it with livestock replaced with dinosaurs and other gigantic creatures.
It is these creatures that create the central challenge and conflict in the title, with battles potentially feeling like epic sagas, or harrowing ordeals, depending on how well a player has prepared, or the number of fellow hunters joining in.
After initial encounters with a large beast that previously humbled the player, part of the game’s appeal is in capturing or maiming said creature in a matter of minutes in order to fashion nifty hats, swords, poles or an array of other items from its hide.
Yet for what is an ostensibly simple premise, the Monster Hunter series can become somewhat convoluted – the inclusion of online gaming seems to make it doubly so.
Although the in-game text tutorials spell out and explain many of the various functions and mechanics to keep you alive while hitting electric unicorns on the head, the game can initially feel like it is a kind of foreign language that can only be learned and mastered through osmosis and playing with others. This can mean that key gameplay mechanics can come off as esoteric or nonsensical for the uninitiated.
Whether included out of design choice, cultural differences in western and Japanese approaches to programming, or a lack of development time, overcoming the esoteric nature of Monster Hunter seems to be a key appeal of the franchise.
Once an individual starts to learn how they prefer to play the game, whether as a long distance shooter, a lumbering axe person, or a kind of bagpipe player that can offer musical support and status improvements, you have to begin collecting and foraging weapons, traps and food that will support your strategy.
This can involve growing, trading, or simply heading out to find vital ingredients across several areas, or hunting some elusive behemoth to acquire very specific parts such as a somewhat delicate horn. These are often required in number to fashion some ludicrous new weapon or pair of fancy fireproof trousers.
Each weapon in itself plays like a different kind of game depending on player choice, with it being possible to become a master of a certain type of transforming axe, or a jack of all trades that can also play some mean music to support other hunters.
The game fits strangely in between more traditional dungeon crawling RPGs, and the somewhat niche farming simulators springing up on computers, consoles and mobile devices.
Monster Hunter World somehow manages to balance the myth-like quality of dragon slaying that has long been part of collective human culture, with the appeal of working hard for a really good sandwich – a more modern sense of gratification.
There is also perhaps something more interesting for the series to explore going forward in our relationship with the environment, and the need to balance safety, really good food and medicine, with limited resources and stocks of creatures and plant-life.
This could well be possible with the broader audience that has embraced the game, with a reported 7.5m copies sold within two months of its release – an apparent sales record for developer Capcom.
Gamers may probably be just as happy hitting bigger and more spectacular monsters on the head of course.
The inclusion of the word ‘World’ in the title of the latest Monster hunter may well be apt considering the series’ new found global appeal. Yet it arguably fails to capture the closer knit, cooperative nature of playing the game with strangers, and the value in watching and learning from others how to overcome the sometimes clunky menus and explanations of how to grow stocks of rare in-game herbs and bugs.
As the player progresses, they can then begin to send out armies of cats to search the game world for loot, hire a chef to indulge in slow cooking or foster a relationship with a pet pig in pyjamas
In the real-world, people could probably make significant steps towards learning an actual language or an understanding of some unknown culture in the same-time as getting to grips with these systems and what their purpose is.
But as a unique little mystery, the real challenge Monster Hunter World poses is learning its ropes and seeing if you have a role to play in its ever expanding, intimate digital village.
Now that is a challenge.