The most anticipated Japanese 3DS release of 2013 and the latest in the series, Monster Hunter 4 is now out and stalking it's prey and taking a break from the usual avoidance of the number 4 in Japanese (being a homonym for "death"). The essential Monster Hunter formula had changed little since the original game debuted on the PlayStation 2 back in 2004.
The player assumes the role of the quintessential hunter-gatherer and must use what they carve from their fallen foes to create new armour and weapons, then strengthen what they have to take on ever stronger monsters. What Capcom has done with the latest instalment is to explore the 3rd dimension in their level design, then adapt the hunter controls and techniques to these changes.
So what has changed since the 3DS version of TriG/3U? One of the biggest changes is the re-introduction of online via a similar system to 3U on the Wii U. One player makes a room, others join, although host migration is back again to avoid the player kicking that seemed to happen all too frequently in 3U. Until now the field of play in the Monster Hunter games has been mostly flat, with the obvious exception of the water-based areas in Tri/TriG/3U. Monster Hunter 4 takes a remarkably different direction, with sections of areas being at different heights, and slopes going from a gentle undulation to extremely sheer sections. The ability to scale walls, make jumps to stalactites, and more importantly: jump off ledges and onto monsters! As odd as it may sound, the addition of jump-attacking does add that little extra to make this iteration distinct. How does it work? From the teaser trailers that Capcom initially released it seemed to be something tricky to pull off, but the reality is different. While running off a ledge, press X to attack and if the attack connects, there's a chance the monster will take a tumble and the player will climb onto its back. A tolerance bar then appears and the player can attack the monster with either X or A while the little indicator is green, but needs to hold R to ensure they're not thrown off when the indicator turns red and the monster rages. Successfully completing the attack often causes damage to parts of the monster and can complete assigned subquests. Yes, subquests are back, and can come in handy when facing quite challenging quests like the initial ones against Goa Magara as the player can choose to finish the quest via the subquest alone, exactly like they could in Tri.
The full roster of weapons featured in the series so far is back once again, plus an extra two unique to Monster Hunter 4 - the Staff/Hunting Insect, and the Charge Axe. The two main reasons to use the Staff/Hunting Insect are the ability to jump onto monsters without needing a ledge or cliff, and the hunting insect to drain energy from monsters which can be converted into status buffs for the player. The Charge Axe has become this reviewer's instant favourite weapon of late, being an excellent balance between attack in axe mode, and defense in sword and shield mode. In S'nS mode, attacking monsters causes a charge to build up, in the same way that one builds on long swords, then charging the blade (hold R and press A) means that when changing to axe mode, the special attack (A button) unleashes a charge when it connects with an enemy. The action of the charge varies with the blade, including boosting elemental effects, or giving the possibility of stunning the enemy to name but two. It does retain the annoyance of the upswing that sends any other players it connects with flying into the air that both the Switch Axe and the Hammer have.
New monsters are certainly not lacking, although many from Tri/3U sadly are. Additions cover the invertebrate world well, with a fly, a spider, and an almost-scorpion, as well as a snake and the virus-ridden Goa Magara, which is similar to an amalgam of the Tiggrex and Alatreon. There is also a not-so-welcome return for the Triggrex, which also makes its Nintendo debut. Right from the start of the game, and also as a mini-tutorial for the basic controls, the player is introduced to the Daren Mohran, a relative of everyone's favourite sand-swimming whale monster, the Jhen Mohran.
Changing the scene from being set in merely the one village, Monster Hunter 4's single player mode has the hunter becoming part of a caravan, travelling together with a cook, a blacksmith, a tradesman and their leader. Together they travel to four distinct villages and take on quests from the inhabitants to collect various items or dispatch particular monsters. As per the formula, regular quests come in three flavours - kill, capture, or collect. The variety in quests is somewhat limited, but the challenge or enjoyment is not. The main hook in the Monster Hunter games is the compulsive drive for weapon/armour upgrades and new kit. Those who obsess easily and have no issues with farming the same monster repeatedly will lose hundreds of hours of their life to this game. At least if they can get past the language barrier, which is not bad for seasoned veterans of the series but can be a little daunting for others just starting out.
A few minor changes which are noticeable for some include the following. The swap-in/out option for the Circle Pad Pro, which can be added or removed from the options menu at any time, rather than only from the pre-character loading menu in 3U. Slightly different attack patterns for some of the veteran monsters like the Rathian. Readable fonts for the text, although this was only an issue in the English language release of 3U. Item sets, which are identical to equipment sets, but for items.
In addition to the offline village quests and the offline/online quests from the Hunters Guild, there are also Guild Quests and treasure quests. The Guild Quests received after defeating certain monsters, are only about fighting that specific monster in a set environment, and can be exchanged via Streetpass. Also each time the quest is completed, it increases in difficulty level by one step, and the potential rewards also increase in rarity. Pieces of armour and weapons can be mined from the rocks randomly, and the equipment stats differ from that the player can make at the armoury. These quests can also be undertaken online with other hunters, but the quests need to be set from the player menu in order to appear at the Guild. The treasure quests are entirely offline and the layouts are randomly generated each time - another first for the series. These quests can introduce new monsters, and subsequently add them to the quests available at the guild. The treasure quests are somewhat akin to the free hunting in Moga Woods on Tri/3U as the player gains resource points from their kills and from mining or harvesting certain items. Before beginning the quest, the player can see what monsters are in the area, whether or not there is a treasure area open, and if there is a chance of meeting Poogie and getting a new outfit for him. As always, extra quests are quite welcome, especially having them stirred up randomly to make each play different.
The variety of levels and areas, the monsters, the armour and weapons, all are carved into a visual treat in pixel form. Given the limitations of the console in terms of screen size and resolution, there was little that could be done to improve on the already excellent looking TriG/3U. The new fields cover all the standard bases (snow, ice, forest, etc), with the added feel that they are real landscapes due to the range of gentle to dramatic sloping added. Until Monster Hunter 4, the player really doesn't appreciate how flat the other fields in previous games tended to be. One particular level to pay attention to would be the islands in the clouds, where the land is literally floating in the mountains and crumbling in front of the player. Dramatic and exciting, especially when mixed with some epic fights against Rathalos and the like, and coupled with a new orchestral score.
A game considered alone, Monster Hunter 4 is well executed and a great gaming experience for those who enjoy similar games. As a sequel, radical changes have been made to the hunting formula which only enhance the experience. The player can choose whether or not you wish to use the new abilities and tactics available, but they really should! An expanded single-player story mode and full online questing make this the best Monster Hunter game so far, and Capcom deserve some respect for making some major changes to a series that has spanned the last nine years. Overall, an excellent improvement and another gem well worth spending all available free time on.
+ Potentially thousands of hours of gaming
+ New weapons and areas
- Language barrier
- Doesn't click with everyone