I remember several years ago, while visiting a local GameStop and chatting with my buddy who worked there, discussing different games that were available for the PSP (PlayStation Portable, my handheld gaming system at the time). He mentioned Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, the second-generation entry in the franchise that was available in the United States. I had read reviews about MHFU and seen all the various comments that made it sound intriguing: hundreds of hours of challenging quests, very deep game mechanics, and a hardcore fanbase that sung the game’s praises to the highest heavens. My buddy earnestly recommended the game to me.

I paused, and said to him, “Yeah, but don’t you have to cook meat in the game and stuff like that? Who has time to do that?”

Flash forward to the next decade. Hundreds of hours later invested between MHFU, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (the latter game being the very reason I bought and subsequently switched over to a Nintendo 3DS), I got it. I was hooked. Monster Hunter became my favorite game franchise.

So naturally I was anxiously waiting for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate to drop in the States, a little envious that Japan gets every entry in the series (like the original Monster Hunter 4) or the spin-offs (Monster Hunter Frontier – the online MMO version of the game – I’m looking right at you with big ol’ salty tears) much earlier than we do. But here it is, and here’s a spoiler alert: it’s the best Monster Hunter game yet.

The reason I wrote about Freedom Unite earlier was that, in a lot of ways, MH4U reminds me of it. The game features the return of several monsters from that game (Kut-Ku, Garuga, Tigrex). Felynes (now referred to as Palicoes) are once again your faithful, if infamously unreliable, companions. You can now, after upgrading your kitchen, use the 10-steak BBQ pit. This game has so much content it surpasses the previous champion, the aforementioned MHFU.

But what elevates MH4U above is a number of smart additions that, while not revolutionary,  make this game the most accessible entry in the series.

New players are eased into the game mechanics much easier than with previous games. Help options are littered about, and players are repeatedly pointed to them. Every weapon has it’s own tutorial mission in the first set of quests, and as these quests are repeatable, it makes for a great opportunity for new players to try and get good with a weapon they like before jumping into the often-unforgiving world of Monster Hunter.

Even seemingly minor additions such as mounting and vertical movement greatly enhance the experience. In prior games, climbing a wall was a nuisance, a “different” way the developer put in to reach certain parts of the map. But now, they can be used to gain a distinct tactical advantage. This was never more apparent during a quest to hunt a Khezu, and it had been wounded enough to limp away and sleep. When I arrived at its resting spot, it was hanging upside down from the ceiling, out of reach (and I didn’t have any sonic bombs). At first I was annoyed and not sure what to do but wait, but then I remembered the new climbing mechanic. My character scaled the wall, then I figured out that I could leap onto one of the stalactite. Changing the camera angle a little, I was able to leap onto where the Khezu was hanging from, simultaneously unleashing a sword attack with a Charge Blade and sending it slamming down onto the ground with my character on top.  It was an epic cinematic moment in the game and immensely satisfying.

The progression of missions in the game – from Low Rank (LR) to High Rank (HR) to G-Rank (GR) missions – remains, but the difficulty curve is smoother. MH Vets will breeze through the LR and HR, but will have GR (and the Guild Quests, special missions that can be leveled up to max level 140 for insane challenges) available. Thankfully, the newly included Multiplayer option allows you to play quests with up to 3 other people online. A lot of what can make Monster Hunter unqiue experience is playing with others, and since the game does not have the mass appeal as in Japan (where the game is so popular that finding people to play with at local cafes is not a problem), online multiplayer was implemented. And it is very straightforward to find a room or create your own and playing with others. In my experience (on the New 3DS XL), I have not had any issues with connectivity.

While focusing on story has never been a strong point for the series, MH4U features the best attempt yet in the series. It wisely switches things up by turning the notion of “Village Quests” (the standard collection of starter quests) on its head, instead having you hook up with a roving caravan that will visit several towns. In the process not only do you perform regular quests, but there actual quests chains that can unlock further quests down the road. This gives players great incentive to complete everything and not just the “key” quests to advance the story.

Two weapons have been added to the already vast Monster Hunter arsenal. Insect Glaive is a polearm weapon with accompanying insect that focuses on drawing buffs from monsters and can be very powerful in skilled hands. Charge Blade is the child of Switch Axe and Sword & Shield. In standard mode it plays like a beefed-up Sword & Shield, with emphasis on using attacks to build up phials that can be used to enhance defense or attacks, particularly in the axe mode where you move slower but perform powerful attacks. I’ve been using Charge Blade during this playthrough and love it.

There are a few criticisms against MH4U, although minor. The Guild Quest system could have used a little more in-depth explanation, as it is a source of confusion for a number of players. The delivery quests (such as egg delivery), while a Monster Hunter stable, are just tedious and outdated (though well worth your while, but that doesn’t make it any better).

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a game where you could put in 100 hours and just begin to dig into the meat of the content. For $40 you are getting a lot more to do than most AAA quality games. While the crafting and hunting systems may seem daunting, you will find an incredibly addictive and fun game if you give it a chance. Long-time fans should run and grab this entry (though let’s be honest, you probably already have it). Curious gamers should pick this up. It will turn into one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of the year.

Rating: A+

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