By Neil Merrett
What do we want out of a video game sequel? Should the experience be a larger, shinier opportunity for the player to live out past gaming glories and painful experiences? Alternatively, do we want something new – a bold attempt at gameplay innovation?
Should a game discard the comfortable – or perhaps not so comfortable – and seek to introduce different mechanics to push the player into uncharted territory, introducing them to different types of ways to play games?
This is one of the key creative tensions facing developers when looking to create sequels.
It is also an important question with regards to the endearing popularity of the Monster Hunter series. The latest title, Monster Hunter Rise, has been released this week exclusively – at least for a few months – on the Nintendo Switch.
Developer Capcom has had huge success slowly iterating the series, which was first launched on the Playstation 2 back in 2004, experimenting with bringing the game to handhelds, home consoles and PC versions.
This evolution of the series culminated in Monster Hunter World being released to commercial success and critical acclaim on Playstation 4 and Xbox One in 2018 with a view to creating a definitive, long-form multiplayer saga of dragon hunting and foraging.
Having initially been a single player dragon slaying series, the game can now be played on modern hardware with your closest friends and random strangers from around the world. Within minutes, it is possible for a player to form a multinational squad to help try and fell a gigantic beast in order to steal a tooth or some giant toe nails from the beast to turn into a powerful pair of wellington boots for your next battle.
It is the type of game, at its best, where real-life friendships can be forged and part of the challenge is to understand the value of going out to forage and create a consistent supply of mushrooms and ivy to build traps. These traps and minerals can then be used to help capture a giant new enemy that could potentially be harvested to build some incredible long-sought after weapon.
It is a kind of perfect videogame mash up of fantasy combat adventure and procedural agriculture sim – with chef kitties and over the top weapons thrown in for a bit of visual flair.
Capcom has reportedly sold over 16 million copies of Monster Hunter World since it launched on multiple platforms, making it the company’s biggest selling game of all time. It had also joined the ranks of the exalted and not so exalted games to have their own spin-off live action movie.
This brings us neatly back to the latest title in the series, Monster Hunter Rise – a title that is seemingly offering some bold new approaches to the series’ established gameplay. This means trying to build on the success and innovation of a title sauch as ‘World’, while on less powerful hardware compared to the PlayStation 4 and the average gaming PC.
The result, based on initial reviews, is a game that introduces a number of new mechanics to try and speed up and create a more action focused combat game that is still built around the concept of foraging, hunting and avoiding becoming the lunch of a giant, lightning-fast electrified squirrel beast.
Dom Peppiatt, in a largely positive review for The Guardian newspaper, said the game stuck true to the mechanics of the original 17 year-old game and the satisfaction of finally turning some giant that has humiliated the player on multiple playthroughs into a hat after a drawn out and bloody battle.
He also noted that the decision to scale down the setting of Monster Hunter World into a stylised Japanese village environment that is under siege from a range of beasts reflected an overall design approach to streamlining gameplay. Theoretically, it is no longer such a slog, but what about players that have learned to love this slog as part of the series’ appeal.
Mr Peppiatt said, “Most of the time, you don’t feel like a part of the food chain in Rise. Not like you did in Monster Hunter World, at any rate. This game is a little less empowering: monsters are softer and more forthcoming with their rewards, and they don’t rage and thrash against their inevitable defeat with quite the terrifying vigour that they have in past games.”
“Monster Hunter has long been the poster child for connectivity and collaboration for Capcom, so it’s no surprise things speed up when you’re playing with other people. The game’s netcode runs seamlessly – even despite the Switch’s historically shonky online play. Drop-in, drop-out play – whether you’re docked or in handheld – happens effortlessly, echoing some of that early magic that made the series so ubiquitous in Japan in the 00s. If you’re playing with friends, you’ll be wearing your dream armour and sharpening your favourite weapons within hours, not days.”
Mr Peppiatt said there was a focus on also streamlining the way weapons can be forged and painstakingly upgraded over days and months of gameplay as was seen with Monster Hunter Rise.
The gameplay was likewise focused on being a more arcade combat experience that could be more easily picked-up and understood by a larger number of players.
He said, “It all compresses into a fun, easy-going action game that delights in letting you soften a monster up for 15 minutes before putting it out of its misery with a stylish flourish. It’s perfect for more time-pressed followers of the series, but might leave veterans under-occupied.”
“But given that you can mount a dog, ride it into battle, then hop on to monsters and turn them against the other yetis, fox-dragons, T-Rexes or whatever else happens to be within biting range, before zipping off back to your village with the help of a magic bug, it doesn’t seem like Rise should be taken all that seriously.”
Sam Byford, writing for The Verge, described the latest game as being a more free flowing experience than the hugely successful Monster Hunter World. In his opinion, ‘Rise’ is a better game for it.
Mr Byford praised the use of the Switch hardware to create a game that retained many of the innovations made on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2018, while building something new that can be played comfortably at home or on the move.
He said, “The biggest concessions are the environments. The stages feel more like old-school Monster Hunter games than they did in World, with less elaborate designs and fewer graphical flourishes like dense foliage. Unlike the older games, though, the subsections aren’t broken up by loading screens, which helps Rise play similarly to World’s more free-flowing style.”
“In fact, Rise goes even further in that regard. Traversing around the environments is faster than ever thanks to two new elements: a pet dog called a Palamute that joins you in battle and lets you ride on its back, and a tool called the Wirebug that can be used to zip up walls and hop onto monsters, occasionally even controlling them in large-scale confrontations with other beasts. “
Mr Byford said that the main gameplay innovations, such as ridable battle dogs and more free flowing combat, has served to perhaps lower the overall difficulty of the series. This is a series of games that, even in the case of Monster Hunter World, had previously relied on the player to understand and learn its more obtuse mechanics through successive trial and error and learning from others.
He said, “Monster Hunter Rise just isn’t very difficult compared to other games in the series, even World. I found the ‘village’ quests that progress the story and get you to the endgame unusually easy — it’s like they’re the actual tutorial. I’m experienced with the series, but by no means an incredible player, yet I dispatched most new monsters much faster than usual on my first try. The village quests are never the true meat of any Monster Hunter game, so I think it’s fine for them to serve as a fun campaign that anyone can blast through.”
“There’s also a series of more challenging ‘hub’ quests available from the start, and those should dispel the notion that Rise isn’t focusing on existing fans. But it’s hard to review any Monster Hunter game ahead of its launch because I’ve had very little time to test it online, let alone see how the player base takes to its most challenging content. Rise’s longevity will largely be down to its endgame design and how Capcom handles future updates, neither of which can be known at this point.”
Jason Guisao of GameInformer rated Monster Hunter Rise 7.75 out of ten in his review.
Mr Guisao said there were mostly positive similarities with Monster Hunter World in terms of building a game about battling “huge and impressive beasts”. However, he argued that the latest title doesn’t venture far beyond Monster Hunter’s well-trodden mechanics.
He said, “You spend most of your playthrough experiencing the classic loop: Battle gigantic adversaries like the feral Arzuros and Lagombi, collect mundane items, and deliver heavy objects to camp. Be sure to explore the nooks and crannies of every map as floating, colorful birds called ‘Spiribirds’ can be absorbed to increase your health, stamina, attack, or defense. These buffs make completing the above-mentioned missions much easier. Don’t want to do all of that on foot? Ride your palamute to expedite navigation or whip out your wirebug to scale cliffsides and mountain ranges in seconds.”
“Wirebug attacks, called Silkbinds, add a new layer of intensity to the action. When used repeatedly, Silkbinds force monsters into a mountable state. These short combat sequences are all about using a monster’s power against them by ramming into nearby structures for stagger damage or sprinting towards other unsuspecting adversaries to dish out the pain. Wyvern-riding is my favourite mechanic because it adds an exciting burst of strategy to the franchise’s age-old combat system.”
Mr Guisao said that game offered an often vivid-looking world to play through with a strong level of replay appeal as a result of making the player want to get on their next hunt and grind out more powerful armour and weapons.
He concluded, “Beyond mounting monsters and using the wirebug to wall-run in spectacular fashion, not much else distinguishes Monster Hunter Rise from the instalments that came before.”
“It has enough endgame content to keep you occupied long after the credits roll (if you don’t mind copious amounts of grinding) and multiplayer is still the optimal way to play, but the excitement of my early hunts waned before long. Monster Hunter Rise is far from being the next definitive chapter in the series. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a polished-but-conventional adventure with a few small-scale nuances, then you’ll be right at home in Kamura Village.”
The riddle of the sequel
Each of the reviews touch on that tension between trying to give players something new, yet also familiar from a sequel.
Part of Monster Hunter’s appeal in the past is arguably that sense of being frustrated by the game’s demands for the player to forage and painstakingly stockpile vital ingredients to make your traps, and salves and ammunition ahead of the next giant monster showdown. The mysteries of the game’s world, that initially obtuse challenge to understand the minerals and flora around you to be a better, stronger character, might for many be the main reason for loving such a game.
Once you or your squad finally slaughter or cage that gigantic beast – a player can feel they have really worked for this glory.
Perhaps that is what is best in life and videogames.
Conversely, is it really so bad to streamline the process and offer a game seemingly focused on throwing yourself and friends more directly into battle – speeding around on your multi-coloured battle pup and leaping through the air in hectic combat?
There is no universally right answer to this question. So perhaps it is just embrace the gradual, iterative changes to a series that over time can lead to exciting new experiences that were perhaps unthinkable when Monster Hunter started in 2004. The slow road to progress is still surely progress.
Plus, you know….. there are ridable doggos.