Monster Hunter Freedom Unite PSP review

Aaron grits his teeth, counts to ten, and gets ready for another challenging safari…

Where do I start with Monster Hunter? Hmmmm. Is it with the massive collection of quests, the huge assortments of weapons, throngs of varied enemies to hunt, complex and deep item creation and inventory management? Erm, no… no, it’s not. Instead I’ll begin with what is perhaps the most unexpected and effective enemy any hunter could ever face – animation.

Yes, in the world of Monster Hunter – a world, I might add, that seems to delight, almost sadistically, in making players, regardless of experience, feel like rank amateurs when it comes to gaming, it may not be razor-sharp teeth or venomous spit that represents your worst fears, but is instead the unskippable, inescapable and downright unnecessarily long character animations your hunter goes through to do each and every action available to him. Whether it’s sharpening his blade, throwing a bomb or even drinking a health potion, your hero will stand there and go through the motions, even when in the midst of combat. And, should you get attacked while said animation is playing, boom! Whatever it is you were doing is forfeit. Quite how frustrating this is when you’re desperately trying to drink a potion to stay alive in the midst of battle will depend on your Zen Buddist skills, but I’ll bet there’s a fair few PSPs that will meet hard objects at speed.

Not a good start, granted, but despite this major issue, Monster Hunter is a game I so want to like. It’s got all the ingredients for a classic. As I already mentioned, it’s practically never-ending, with masses of quests and activities to take on, and the scope for your equipment creation and use is great. The ability to play the game either solo with an AI partner (a small cat-like creature called a Felyne) or team up with friends in a co-op hunting party adds a Wyvern-sized dose of appeal to the proceedings.

As a new hunter it’s your job to accept missions and requests from the Hunter’s Guild, proceed to the mission area and fulfil your task. This may be as simple as finding and killing a certain number of creatures, or could involve harvesting some rare herbs, fishing to snag rare species of fish and, when you’re strong enough, tackling the larger, more powerful beasts, some of which are as big as a house. By completing quests you’ll earn money, materials and more, which can be used to buy better weapons and armour, as well as create totally new equipment. Quests also have time limits, so you’ll need to plan your missions carefully.

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By collecting such things as bones and flesh from creatures you slay, and other items, you can visit the weapon smith and fashion your loot into powerful armour for higher defence and more powerful durable weapons (weapons become blunt with prolonged use and require sharpening). This is one of the most important aspects to the game, and you’ll spend a good deal of time hunting for rare objects to create the best gear.

Collecting resources isn’t just about fashioning more powerful weapons, though, and it’s just as important to utilise any materials for your survival. Kill a creature and carve some meat from it and you can cook the meat in the field so you can eat it and recover health. Find herbs and mushrooms, and you can combine them into a health potion. The scope of items and their uses in the game is impressive to say the least. There are items to heal you, restore stamina, fight off the cold (which can sap your strength), trap larger creatures and more. You can use flash bombs to stun enemies, hit them with paintballs to track their movements so you don’t lose them and even set up large explosives to take a chunk out of more powerful and dangerous enemies. It’s all very flexible and tactical stuff, and makes the game deep and involving.

I’m certain PSP owners reading this are thinking that Monster Hunter sounds great, and I’d strongly agree. It sounds fantastic, and, to some degree, it is, at least on paper. The deep game play and longevity are promising, and should make a flawless adventure, but sadly some of the execution stinks, big time.

Aforementioned animation problems aside, Monster Hunter has many other issues that will instantly put many players off. These are problems that have also been present in previous games in the Monster Hunter series on other platforms like the PS2, with combat being a huge, sore thumb of a problem.

It’s shocking in this day and age that such clumsy and downright hair-rippingly annoying combat systems exists. Monster Hunter‘s combat has no aiming system at all. No lock-on. Nothing. Instead, you simply have to point in the direction of a foe and attack. This may not sound all that bad, but when you couple this with one of the worst cameras I’ve seen on the PSP and a hunter seemingly wearing a lead suit, you’ve got the makings of a broken system.

You’ll spend most of your early time with the game swinging at thin air as foes run past your maddeningly slow thrusts, and will suffer blind side attacks from creatures making the most of the poor camera. Even when using relatively quick weapons like dual swords your character is hardly agile, and newcomers shouldn’t even think about picking up a great sword, unless they want to spend half their day pulling their blade out of the ground as beasties chomp on their livers.

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To be fair, though, as hard and hostile as the combat system is to newcomers, if you put time into the game, you will start to get to grips with it, and once you get better equipment, things do become much more enjoyable. When you get to this stage, the game really does become truly addictive and rewarding. You begin to experiment with inventory load outs and different weapon types (there are 11, including swords, maces, bows and guns) and venturing into dangerous territories for rare herbs to collect and creatures to slay is a real thrill.

The problem is that many players, at least in the West (Monster Hunter is quite the phenomenon in the Japanese market) simply won’t care enough to reach this point. The game starts out so damn difficult, mostly due to the poor controls, camera and animation, that all but the most hardcore gamers won’t be bothered. Games should be challenging, granted, but not at the expense of control and fairness. Crap control systems are not a viable difficulty option!

Technical and design flaws aside, even low level monsters are tough at first, with fast, long range attacks that’ll knock you flying time and again, and the false sense of security you get coming from the deceptively easy tutorial missions to real quests hits right away. The same monsters you were killing with relative ease in training are far tougher in the real world and your equipment is far less effective.

Even more experienced gamers will think of better, more enjoyable things to do rather then die another hundred deaths attempting to find and carry back a monster egg, and as the game is essentially one big collect-and-kill-a-thon, many will quickly tire, even if they do struggle through the initial chores.

As a gamer of well over 20 years, I even struggled to retain the willingness to proceed, and there are few games that I’ll quit on (hell, I even completed Turning Point: Fall of Liberty!). Luckily, I did plod on, and eventually the game began to reward me for my enormous patience. Quests become more approachable and challenging in a good way, and I could actually fight foes confidently. As I earned more powerful weapons and armour, I could see why our Far Eastern cousins love the game so much, and the addictiveness of the game is clear to see, especially when playing with friends. Reaching higher hunter levels and completing higher rated missions gives you a great sense of achievement, not to mention bragging rights to your mates.

So, Monster Hunter‘s main issue, as you may gather by now, is that it makes progress so hard for people who want to enjoy it but are new to the experience. Add to this the many and long loading times, masses of convoluted text-based waffling (especially in the tutorials) and the rather bizarre omission of Internet-enabled play (multiplayer is ad-hoc connection only) and this is a game that really should be an instant hit, but is held back by a, frankly cruel, difficulty curve and some poorly designed game play elements.

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If the next Monster Hunter incorporates a smoother, more refined combat system (with a lock-on system, please, for the love of the almighty!), Internet play, and eases players into the world a little more gracefully, then I can see it becoming a bigger hit on our shores. Until then, this is one for the true hardcore gamer or Monster Hunter veteran only, and the easily frustrated should steer well clear.

It’s unfair to rate Monster Hunter with an overall score due to its high challenge. So instead, pick the statement that applies to you for the corresponding star rating.

“I struggled to complete Sonic The Hedgehog.” 1 out of 5

“I complete most games, on easy, mind you.” 2 out of 5

“I can hold my own in COD4.” 3 out of 5

“Bring it on… I like a challenge, and I meditate.” 4 out of 5

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“I can complete Ninja Gaiden… blindfolded… while eating soup.” 5 out of 5