Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, Capcom’s MMO-style third-person hack and trap-em-up, is soul destroying. It’s monstrously difficult, the combat is clunky and it’s as slow as a turtle that’s carrying 20 turtles on its back. And yet it’s phenomenally popular and adored by critics. This is the great conundrum. How can a game so frustrating be so addictive?
Let’s start at the beginning. I’m new to Monster Hunter. My hands-on at Capcom’s Captivate 09 event in Monaco earlier this year was the first time I’d touched a Monster Hunter game. Normally, we try and pair games with reviewers who either have an expertise in the genre or at least a familiarity. But Capcom’s pushed Monster Hunter Freedom Unite as the Monster Hunter game to lead the PSP’s resurgence in the west and tempt newcomers in, so surely that wouldn’t be a problem. That was the theory at least. What follows is a report of my personal experience with the game.
You begin by creating a character – male or female – in traditional video game character creation fashion. Then you’re thrust into the world, exploring a mysterious snow-capped mountain. A wyvern (dragon-like creatures) knocks you unconscious. You wake in Pokke Village, a heart-warming hub full of generous locals and surrounded by snowy mountains and icy caves. It acts as your base as you begin your life as a monster hunter. You’re given basic armour and the choice from a number of weapons, a choice that determines your class – in Monster Hunter there’s no levelling up through experience points. Instead, self improvement comes from upgrading your weapons and equipment and acquiring new skills. The sword, for example, is a combo-focused, agile weapon that allows the use of items while blocking. The Monster Hunter philosophy is thus: slay a monster, skin its corpse for coveted materials then craft some badass kit from it.
There are pages of eye-watering text to digest almost immediately. Pages of instructions on how the game and its various nuances work – material gathering, material delivery, item combining, mining, skinning monsters, exploration, quests, guild cards, bonkers mini-games, cooking, fishing – and that’s not even half of it. Normally in games I’d skip faster than a boxer in training, but in Monster Hunter you’re forced to soldier through everything because if you don’t the game won’t make any sense whatsoever.
As a Monster Hunter newbie, I thought I’d give the Training School a shot to get a handle on the game. Five hours later I wasn’t halfway through it. In the end I gave up this nightmarish tutorial and decided to get something productive done. The village chief has five quests, combining gathering and slaying, designed to get you going. The first three were okay, but the fourth, called Sinking Feeling, wasn’t. In fact it proved so mind-numbingly impossible that I almost smashed my PSP into my own forehead. I’d say “Sinking Feeling” is the most aptly-named quest in a video game ever, but it’s a horrendous understatement. Here’s what you’re supposed to do:
It sounds simple enough: deliver three Popo Tongues to your red chest. The only problem is the monsters that you carve the Popo Tongues from are surrounded by the very wyvern that knocked you off the cliff at the beginning of the game. This giant git kills you in two hits – its charge and knock-down attack is pretty much an automatic game over. I spent a total of four hours dying over and over again on this mission while travelling on a train from Edinburgh to London. This was no normal video game brick wall, this was a galaxy-sized brick wall designed to keep the aliens from invading earth. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite provided me with a roller coaster ride of emotions: first anger, then hate, then pure, uninhibited depression. Sigh.
The game wouldn’t be so frustrating if it wasn’t for the excruciatingly clunky combat. There’s no target lock-on feature, which causes most of your attacks to whiff into fresh air as quick-moving monsters laugh at your pathetic efforts. Because of this the camera is relied upon to provide a solid view of the action. Unfortunately Monster Hunter’s camera is one of the worst ever seen in a PSP game (and there are some awful cameras in PSP games). You’re able to centre it behind your character with a tap of the L button, but it frequently gets stuck under the ground, inside giant monsters and behind walls, and it's incredibly difficult to keep you target in your sights. Gah.