As regular readers may have sussed out by now, I’m almost exclusively a PC game-player. But for the past weeks, I’ve been glued to the relatively tiny screens on my Nintendo 3DS. I’ve had one for more than a year now (during which time I learned that Pokémon is really not my thing), but it’s taken Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate to have me drumming my fingers watching as the battery recharges so I can play more.
The Monster Hunter franchise has been gigantic in its native Japan for years now. It’s beloved of the whole range of possible demographics, from schoolchildren to college kids to working moms. It’s never easy to pinpoint the exact reason something becomes a phenomenon (which Monster Hunter looks poised to do in the U.S. since MH4U came out in February), but it probably has something to do with the game’s reward loop.
To set up a bit, here’s how Monster Hunter works. You are – surprise! – a monster hunter, and you take on quests to go into the wilderness (a network of several interconnected areas) and search for various legendary creatures. After defeating them, you carve off bits of their carcasses to bring back to town, where you can fashion them into improved weapons and armor. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Interestingly, Monster Hunter does away with the popular roleplaying “leveling” system for your character – while you can create improved gear, your character’s skill is your skill, and each type of weapon demands a different style. Getting better at using them is entirely dependent on your own proficiency. Combat is much less a button-mashing endeavor than it is in other “hack and slash” games and is a surprisingly slow and deliberate affair. Learning the timing of your chosen weapon, and how to position yourself relative to an enemy, is crucial and can only be achieved with practice.
What baffles me, though, is that I really am enjoying Monster Hunter despite the presence of mechanics that usually turn me off. Grinding, most notably. You need specific monster bits in order to create flashy, powerful new equipment, and never do you gain everything you need after killing a big baddie once. You’ll have to go on specific hunts numerous times to get the stuff you need, and what you get from a monster is largely determined by chance. Even the most elegant kill might not net you the second Tetsucabra tusk you need for a Lupine Katana, and in that case, well, you’ll just have to go out and try again. And possibly again.
The good news is that you always get something useful. There are plants, insects, and minerals to collect on your way through the wilderness, and after a few trips around an area, you’ll learn the best spots to find each item. And even if the monster you ultimately kill doesn’t drop the thing you need, it’ll drop other useful pieces that can be hoarded or sold or traded in town. Again, this collecting mechanic normally annoys the piss out of me – constantly needing to root through bushes for elfroot plants in Dragon Age: Inquisition really spoiled that game for me – but because Monster Hunter puts a time limit on most quests, I never feel as though I’m working in a coal mine while resource-gathering.
So I think this is where Monster Hunter parts ways with Destiny, a game that on paper has a lot of the same fundamentals. Destiny also has players grinding out missions again and again in order to gain the rare materials needed to craft new and improved weapons and armor. The story is forgettable and ultimately unimportant. Loot drops happen by random chance, and multiplayer, particularly with friends, is encouraged. Both games also skip a lot of explanation, leaving the player to research lore or mechanics that are obscured.
Now, I’ve never actually played Destiny, but I do know it’s come under fire from players and critics for being a bit blithe about players’ time and effort: Play a specific instance repeatedly, and you’ll only get the drop you need if the random number generator (“RNGesus,” as the kids call it) favors you. But for all the criticism and complaints, Desiny has been massively popular – about 3.2 million players were logging in per day back in October, and by December almost 13 million had purchased the game. Not that sales numbers really tell the story – but I’ll leave that to Chris Franklin:
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate tunes the Destiny formula in a couple of ways that really hit a sweet spot, though. A hard cap of 50 minutes on each mission means I’m not worried about investing an indeterminate amount of time each time I venture forth. The loot drops, while still random, are a bit more reliable than Destiny’s. That seemingly-minor tweak is enough to make the game’s reward loop a lot tighter, and I feel excited about each quest I take, even if it’s one I’ve done several times already. I’ll be able to take some bit of monster chitin back to town and hammer it into a swanky new chestpiece or sword.
There’s also an inherent charm to the game that keeps it appealing. Your companions, when you’re playing solo, are a troupe of talkative cats called “Palicoes,” who never get tired of making cat-related puns. All the characters are quirky and full of personality, which has been carried over into the western version of the game by some top-notch localization work.
And the fact that it’s on a handheld system is really refreshing, and for me, fairly novel. It gives me the opportunity to play somewhere other than at my desk (such as near my desk, in bed).