If you've never heard of Monster Hunter, chances are pretty good this whole internet thing is new to you too. Monster Hunter, you see, is a bona fide phenomenon in Japan. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to claim that the series is almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the PSP in Japan - that it's coming exclusively to Wii is no small coup for Nintendo, either.
Freedom Unite (known as Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G in Japan) is the latest iteration of the franchise and Capcom are determined to bring about the same sort of success in the West that it has enjoyed back home. Based on what we've seen, we reckon they've got a pretty good shot as well... let's take a look.
The premise of the game, at the high level at least, is relatively straight forward. Monster Hunter is an action RPG - your goal is to take your character, kill monsters and use the rewards from the hunt to improve your character so that you can kill bigger, badder monsters. There are NPCs that give you quests to complete, loot that drops from kills and impressive multiplayer options that let you bring your friends along for the hunt.
There are a LOT of options in Monster Hunter. Ignoring the fact that there are 400+ quests to complete, there's also an in-depth crafting system, NPCs to hire to fight alongside you (in single player only), the ability to gather resources, farm items, learn how to cook and much more. There are, in fact, more options than some MMOs have to offer - all without the monthly fee. Like an MMO, however, it can all be pretty overwhelming at first. There's a lot going on and they don't waste any time telling you about it - you'll be inundated with instructions and options from the get go and they don't ever let up.
The game is MASSIVE. Absolutely gargantuan. There are so many areas, quests and monsters it can all be pretty intimidating. The user interface is decidedly average in implementation and takes quite some time to learn your way around. Capcom, if you're listening, Blizzard can teach you a thing or two here. A good interface would help draw new players into the game considerably over what is present here.
Combat is considerably more in depth than any other action RPG on the market. Your choice of weapon (and there are many on offer!) dramatically changes how combat works, affecting your ability to guard or how your stamina works, for example. Fortunately you get handed one of each weapon type at the start of the game so you can experiment and see what style works best for you - don't be afraid to try them all, you might be surprised by which ends up being your favourite.
Whichever weapon you choose, don't expect to simply select a bad guy and hit the attack button; how you move, charge and which attack type you select will make all the difference in determining who kills who. Skill matters here and not just in the selection and execution of your weapon; you'll need skill at manipulating the camera, too, which seems to be just about the worst execution of third-person camera imaginable. Eventually you'll come up with a compromise that leaves you less frustrated by it but it will always niggle a little bit.
Multiplayer is where Monster Hunter really shines. It's fun enough tackling a wyvern by yourself but when you've got four friends in a room all yelling excitedly and issuing instructions and warnings to each other, the experience launches into the stratosphere. While it is theoretically possible to complete the game without assistance, later encounters are seriously difficult to solo. It's through this difficulty that players with friends will find the true genius of the game, in which incredibly memorable gameplay experiences occur every other fight. Be in no doubt, this game is heavily biased towards multiplayer play.
The visuals in Monster Hunter are good enough and there's plenty of variety to keep things interesting as you progress through the game. Sure, no single area comes close to what you might have seen on the system's best looking games but there are plenty of worse looking games and none that come close to the sheer quantity on offer here. The sound is similarly satisfying, with an impressive array of character sound sets to choose from too. Weapons clash and slash with weight that draws you in to the combat.
Is it the game for you? Get the demo and find out - if it is, there's no better value game in existence on any platform, especially if you have PSP-owning friends that are similarly attracted to the game. If you're unfamiliar with the series, though, be prepared to be a little overwhelmed by the sheer variety of content on offer and somewhat underwhelmed by the interface. If you persevere through your first impressions, you'll discover a remarkably rich experience that just gets better as you go on.