Three Hundred Hours and Still Going Strong
HIGH A skin-of-my-teeth victory after a knock-down, drag-out, forty-five minute battle.
LOW Struggling to survive the nasty dual Tigrex mission... Twice.
WTF Watching my Felyne companion get the game-winning hit in on the last boss.
No, this is not a review of the latest Monster Hunter.
That game, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, is selling like gangbusters in Japan and keeping Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) going strong in Asia. Though Monster Hunter numbers have never been big in America, it's likely that it'll see a release on the upcoming iteration of the PSP.
I can't wait. However, like I said, I'm not reviewing that game.
Instead, this is a review (and a bit of a confessional) for 2009's Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. It's a tall order to tackle and took me a year to finish, but for players of a certain sort, it's fantastic stuff. Sorry I'm a bit late, but I'd be willing to bet that I've put more time into this piece than any other reviewer on the ‘net...
So to set the stage, my first in-depth, play-to-completion experience was with Monster Hunter was Tri on the Wii. That review pegs it as an approachable (yet uneven) experience with addictive qualities, and that still holds true. After spending 75 hours with a game like that, I'd usually call it good and walk away, but after rolling credits, I felt unsatisfied. Somehow, I got the sense that there had to be more to it, but what?
I knew there were PSP entries to explore, but I'd stayed away since word was that the camera (mapped to the D-Pad) was a big issue—and it's absolutely true. In fact, I even quit the game for a while due to camera frustration. If I had to pick just one thing wrong with Freedom Unite's monster-slaying, gear-crafting, mega-addicting action, it's that the lack of a second nub on the PSP hampers optimal camera control. However, I forced myself to cope, and after a hundred hours I didn't even notice it anymore (and I think that's the first time I've ever said that about any game). That said, anyone thinking about jumping in to Freedom Unite should be ready to re-train their left hand in a big way.
At this point I would imagine that most readers are asking themselves what could have possibly compelled me to not only return to a title with a significant technical problem like this one, but to put over 300 hours in. The answer is that Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is easily one of the best games on the PSP, as well as being one of the deepest, most deceptively complex titles I've ever lost myself in.
While the basic premise of hunting huge monsters, harvesting their parts and crafting incredibly stylish weapons and armor from them is simple enough to grasp, there is an entire world of detail and nuance that only reveals itself after time. The most perfect illustration I can think of is that after getting deep into Freedom Unite, I came to realize that despite actually finishing Monster Hunter Tri, I learned very little about it and understood even less about its finer points. Oh, I could definitely handle myself and slaughtered a pile of beasts along the way, but it was humbling to finally know how much I didn't know.
For example, learning how to avoid the devastating tail-sting of a descending Rathalos and then turning that dodge into a counterattack changed an impossible battle into one that I could complete with ease. Being able to intelligently weigh the differences between a Hammer and one of the game's signature Great Swords completely altered the flow of some fights, and learning how to snipe with a Bowgun added an entirely different level of strategy. It may seem odd to say, but looking back on my Tri experience, I now see myself as incredibly naïve, even after 80 hours.
Freedom Unite's armor and itemcraft systems are every bit as nuanced as its arsenal of weaponry... in fact, probably even more so. Every piece of protective clothing and consumable has its own unique properties, and learning how to take advantage of things like Sharpness, resistances, Stamina boosters and Perception can open paths to victory where there had only previously been brick walls of failure.
At the game's start, it's impossible to fully grasp how changing only one gem on a chestplate can be like the difference between night and day, but experimentation and constantly revisiting strategies is an ever-present meta-game that takes a significant amount of time to comprehend. Even after sinking over 300 hours into Freedom Unite, I still learn new things nearly every time I play. In fact, the game is so deep that the only other criticism I have of it (apart from the camera) is that the developers do not provide the player with enough detailed information.
I'm sure it would have been quite an undertaking to incorporate comprehensive player-friendly data tables given how much is in the game; after all, a cursory search online reveals a massive repository of spreadsheets, FAQs and tactical theories available thanks to Monster Hunter's dedicated fanbase. However, the fact is that there's just far too much left unsaid. I would imagine that part of this info-void is to simulate the feeling of actually being a hunter and encouraging players to deduce secrets firsthand, but I have to say that it doesn't always work.
For the kind of player who will dig deep into Freedom Unite's systems and thrive, their highest priority will be the ability to figure out exactly how much damage will be dealt by which blade, which element a monster is weak to, or in which specific area a vital material can be found. Personally, I was almost driven mad in the hunt for a Nargacuga's brain stem. If not for GameFAQs, I never would have known that the only way to acquire one is to chop the tail off the Narga, and only during a brief window when the beast is enraged.
Tasks like going after that elusive stem present constant and varied levels of challenge in each mission and keep things feeling fresh, but if there's no real way of finding out these bits exist except on accident (or by checking an FAQ) then the game does both itself and the player a disservice by keeping too much under wraps. I freely admit to consulting players wiser and more experienced, and it was through this information sharing that my eyes were opened. I would imagine that without having easy access to the Internet, the quests would be several orders of magnitude more frustrating due to the lack of transparency. I hate to say it, but having online resources handy is almost a requirement.
Internet connections aside, while I've alluded to and made vague mention of it over the course of this review, I would be remiss in ending this writeup without addressing what is probably the most appealing aspect of Freedom Unite—the combat itself.
Unlike many other MMO-ish loot games that hinge on getting players hooked on "the grind," there are no attacks to select via a menu, and rotating through special ability cooldowns couldn't be further from the experience of walking into a battle, weapon in hand, and taking down a massive beast.
I can honestly say that if the game was turn-based or had combat that wasn't real-time, I doubt it would have hooked me the way it did. There's an undeniably visceral, exhilarating quality to the epic clashes between blade and fang, and I appreciate that in Monster Hunter, reflexes and dexterity are every bit as important as crunching stats or farming items—maybe even more so. A skilled player can take down even the toughest monster with mediocre gear, while someone who grinds for days can be devoured in a heartbeat if their skills don't match their kit. Victory—when it comes—is both hard-earned and deliciously sweet.
I could go on about Monster Hunter Freedom Unite for another two thousand words or more—after all, I haven't mentioned the excellent four-player cooperative quest mode (local only, though internet play is available via a PlayStation 3 hookup), the incredible art direction or level of technical production that puts most other PSP games to shame, and I haven't even brought up the fact that portable Freedom Unite is a much, much, much larger game than its console sibling Monster Hunter Tri.
There's plenty to digest on all of those topics and more, but I think all that needs to be said at this point is that Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is an incredibly rich, rewarding experience for players determined enough to get past the problematic camera and general lack transparency. I suppose the game could be best described as a tough nut to crack—while I'm not a reviewer who advocates putting in large chunks of time before expecting a payoff, Capcom's man-versus-nature opus is one of the few times that I've honestly appreciated a title more and more with each additional hour invested.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PSP. Approximately 274 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 35 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence and use of alcohol. Although there is no sexual content or salty language, I would say that the level of violence in the game is not appropriate for younger children. Putting aside the fact that the game can be brutally difficult, some of the larger monsters are actually quite frightening and imposing—easily the stuff of nightmares. Taking huge swords, axes and hammers to these beasts is a brutal affair. I would definitely recommend younger kids be steered away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing:You should be aware that there are several types of audio cues which are not represented visually. For example, upon entering an area with a major monster, there's often a roar or shriek. Without being able to hear that cue, the player could easily be surprised by a deadly foe. Also, several monsters give audio signals before executing certain attacks. Hearing-impaired players will be at a bit of a disadvantage without hearing these signals. On the plus side, all dialogue is delivered through text, so players won't miss any information given by NPCs.