I think a lot of people underestimate the impact that Monster Hunter so deeply carved into the action-RPG genre. Fighting larger than life opponents with game mechanics that focus on precision and impact over twitch reactions, and a progression system measured not via a leveling system but through craft and accomplishment: the whole system is loaded with appealing gravitas. It wasn’t enough to take down a dragon; you needed to forge armor from its scales and a sword from its sharpened jawbone. You weren’t just beating the game; you were taming it. Monster Hunter is the series that expertly encapsulates “mastery,” both in its game mechanics and its overall central theming. The stiff but finely calculated controls require mastery to achieve victory, and thematically speaking nothing exudes mastery more than literally draping yourself in the things you have conquered. And what a game for expression, with tons of unique weapon styles that play distinctly from one another. The sheer variety of ways in which you can slice, stab, pound, shoot, impale, and detonate predators in these games is truly staggering. This is the sort of depth I’d expect from a cultivated fighting game, not a cooperative action game, but then again this is Capcom. They have a history with that.
Ever since the series exploded like a barrel of gunpowder, countless games have tried to capture this untameable beast, with...varying degrees of success. I haven’t been hugely impressed with games like Vindictus or Lost Planet since they never quite satisfy in the same way. Dark Souls and Bloodborne carry a similar torch, but are more focused on survival than victory. The only game that feels close to Monster Hunter while still succeeding on its own merits is Phantasy Star Online 2, though it’s much more streamlined for excitement than hardened challenge. It’s possible the games I haven’t played get closer to the formula – games like Dragon’s Dogma, Horizon: Zero Dawn, or God Eater – but I can’t seem to find the same kind of charm in any of those titles (except maybe Horizon, which is limited to single player). At the end of the day, there really isn’t an adequate substitute for Monster Hunter except itself, and that brings us to Monster Hunter World, the best in the series.
Now to be fair, I haven’t been able to play most of the series: until now it was largely focused on portable devices. Sure, my family owned a PSP, but I didn’t have sole access to it. My first major encounter was Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, as well as the upgraded version on the WiiU. Afterwards, I watched the next three titles escape my console-focused reach. So understand that I can’t accurately compare World to the last few 3DS predecessors. But I don’t think I have to. World is a fantastic game, definitely, but it also feels like a fantastic game I’ve already played.
Monster Hunter World is not a tremendously different game from the last edition I played, which is now four iterations old. Since then, the only significantly new additions are two new weapons, a utility slingshot, cat buddies and a ton of new monsters...that fight similarly to monsters from older games. Oh, and the removal of underwater mechanics, which makes me a little sad. Yes, everything definitely looks different: the overall visual design strikes with an impressive explosion of bright colors and beautiful setpieces, and the monsters are excellently crafted with fairly believable anatomy (future concept artists, study this game!) but despite its design prowess the game here is much closer to “HD Monster Hunter” than “New Monster Hunter.”
That’s not an insult, merely an observation. The truth is, Monster Hunter isn’t a series that succeeds by being desperate for change. I classify it similarly to Pokemon: the base product is magnificent as is, so efforts are better spent on refinement than reinvention. I mean, there have only been two new weapons in the last five years – but that leaves us with 14 to choose from, each cultivated into a masterful arrangement of tight and wonderful mechanics that could easily be an entire game by themselves. The biggest advantage gained from modern platforms like the PS4 (other than sheer graphical advantage) is the removal of zone generation. Each map is now one massive area rather than split into sectors, which makes the areas feel more contiguous and explorable. But that really is the least of it. With map expansion, it’s now possible to create something in game that exhibits a living ecosystem rather than a bunch of seemingly linked locations, and that’s where World really shines. It’s the first time I’ve played a Monster Hunter where, instead of passively inhabiting the setting, I feel like I’m actively living in it. I can feel how every creature fits into their scenery, and the attention to little details really helps the world shine. See, that’s the major refinement: Monster Hunter Tri was braided beautifully in tight sinew and powerful muscle, but Monster Hunter World is where we start feeling the bones underneath. I’m 25 hours in, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.
If you’re a huge fan, this game is already in your collection or on your wishlist for the Fall PC release (maybe both), but if you’ve never played a Monster Hunter game then now may be the best time to start. Monster Hunter World isn’t necessarily reinventing the genre the way the original did, but refinement transforms it into a powerful titan of healthy bones and muscle, with such rich texture you can’t help but try to leave a scar.