Addicted to Destiny? Give Monster Hunter a shot

Japan's biggest action game series returns to the US today

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Destiny may have been last year’s biggest game launch, but it was also by far the most divisive. For everyone that got sucked in by its compulsive blend of Halo-style shooting with RPG levelling — count me among them — there were others that found the experience a huge letdown. Review after review criticized Destiny for its threadbare story, repeating environments, overpowered “bullet-sponge” bosses, and, above all, the need to grind obsessively to level up your character.

“What’s with these reviewers?” I thought to myself. “It’s like they’re not into Monster Hunter.”

Well, that’s the thing — if you’re in the West, you probably aren’t into Monster Hunter. But Capcom’s action RPG series — informally known as "MonHun," just as Pocket Monsters became Pokémon — is a huge deal in Japan, drawing millions of fans both casual and hardcore. Today sees the North American release of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on the 3DS, representing the first truly new MonHun game to hit the US in five years. Just like Destiny, it’s not for everyone. But if Destiny is for you, Monster Hunter just might be, too.

I am contractually obliged to explain to you that Monster Hunter is, of course, about hunting monsters. But it’s not about hunting monsters in the way that Call of Duty is about answering the call of duty by shooting terrorists, saving the world, and watching Kevin Spacey seethe his way through cutscenes. It is really, truly, exclusively about hunting monsters. When you hunt a monster, you can carve it up for parts that you can later turn into armor. When you wear the monster’s armor, you become stronger, and maybe you can hunt a bigger monster the next time. And so on.

On the surface, Monster Hunter doesn’t have much in common with Destiny. Bungie’s game is a beautiful sci-fi first-person shooter at home on powerful consoles like the PS4, but Monster Hunter is a fantasy third-person action game where every entry in the series has initially been released on hardware roughly as powerful as the PS2. Although the art style is original and accomplished, particularly when it comes to the monsters, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate doesn’t look great even for a 3DS game.

And, while Destiny is instantly satisfying thanks to the clear presence of Halo DNA in its combat, Monster Hunter is initially pretty tough and inaccessible. Don’t expect it to have anything in common with fast-paced Capcom action games like Devil May Cry; Monster Hunter’s slow pace is closer to something like the infamously intimidating Dark Souls. You can wield a massive sword right from the start of the game, but learning to use it is another matter. Animations are often long, and can’t be canceled; each swing has to be well-timed when battling the more dangerous monsters, or you’ll leave yourself wide open. Other weapon classes exist, each with their own set of tradeoffs to master. Enemies will never simply drop new weapons or armor as they do in Destiny — only some of the ingredients necessary to craft them.

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But where the two games converge is in their structure and overall goals. There is almost zero story in Monster Hunter. It makes Destiny look like Anna Karenina. You’re largely free to hunt monsters in whatever order you like, though success in one set of missions will open up the next rank. Beyond the introductory stages, the freeform structure of the game means you can spend your time the way you want. Like Destiny, you’ll often find yourself visiting the same few areas hoping to find certain items to help you craft or upgrade that next piece of armor. Some call this "grinding," a term usually associated with brute-forcing dull RPG battles in order to level up your character. But when Destiny and Monster Hunter are so much fun on a minute-to-minute level, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re invested in your character’s progression.

Once it clicks, Monster Hunter is brilliant, raucous fun, especially with friends. The series really took off in Japan when Capcom pivoted the series to concentrate on the PSP; it was near-impossible to walk onto a train carriage in Japan between 2008 and 2012 without seeing men, women, and children transfixed by Sony’s little plastic handheld. Many went so far as to contort their fingers into a "claw" to manipulate the awkward camera controls (thankfully a non-issue on the New 3DS and New 3DS XL, with their extra analog nubs). And the combination of portability and local multiplayer was key to Monster Hunter’s success. The four-player co-operative hunts became a thing I’d do when hanging out normally; I literally used to go to bars to play Monster Hunter with friends and strangers. When you’re all sitting around a table trying to take down a gigantic monster, you end up developing complex strategies. You ask your friends how they got their crazy armor. You help each other level up so you can go on harder quests together. And, while you're doing all this, you talk about the things that friends talk about.

I maintain that local multiplayer is the canonical way to play Monster Hunter. But Capcom’s continuing focus on that feature at the expense of online support was, I believe, a big reason why the series never took off in the US — people just don’t play handheld consoles in public as much as they do in Japan. Fortunately, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the first portable Monster Hunter game to be released in the West with an online mode, so you can have the best of both worlds.

Monster Hunter doesn’t make it as easy to play with other people as Destiny, however. The online and offline modes are separate, so you have to make a decision as to what you want to do before heading in. Destiny, on the other hand, is constantly online and does a great job of making levels feel like a living world. I’ve never consciously attempted to play with my friends before, but it happens all the time when we both bump into each other online. And, although Bungie doesn’t do a great job of explaining how best to progress, Destiny’s interface is a huge improvement on Monster Hunter’s, which feels like a relic from the PS2 era.

Destiny has its issues, too — its story missions are beyond perfunctory, its endgame isn't fleshed out enough, and it’s understandable for players to wonder what happened to the expansive sci-fi universe promised years ago. But I’d be very surprised if Bungie didn't take inspiration from Monster Hunter, and if many of Destiny’s supposed flaws weren’t deliberate design decisions made to help create a sticky, replayable game that will keep the faithful hooked for years. To me, its lack of plot and exposition is a great thing — the Halo series shows what happens when Bungie tries to create an epic saga. Given the nonsensical slivers of story that are actually in Destiny, I only wish it were as minimalist as Monster Hunter.

In Japan, Monster Hunter’s loose structure is considered accessible and friendly; in the West, Destiny has been pilloried for making players revisit levels for different missions in the exact same fashion. I’m not saying either position is right or wrong, but I do think the wild hype poured upon Destiny ahead of release set expectations out of whack for what was always going to be an unconventional game. I ended up loving Destiny, and I love it for the exact same reasons I’ve loved Monster Hunter for years: the basic action is rewarding and deep, and the progression system is addictive in all the right ways. If you think you might feel the same, go hunt some monsters on your 3DS today.

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