Let Me Tell You 'Bout Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter is my second favorite series in all of video games. It is also incredibly niche. Almost anyone who has ever played a video game in the last 15 years has heard of Monster Hunter, but very few people know what it is. In 2008, I stumbled upon a detailed description of what the series is about, and I was hooked before I even played it. With the upcoming PS4 beta for the newest, and most amazing-looking game, Monster Hunter World, the people want to know what the hell these games are. I got you covered.

At its core, Monster Hunter is indeed about hunting monsters. In most games, “hunting” is just another way of saying “killing a bunch of”, but in MH, the use of that word is very close to its real-life definition. It qualifies as an action game, but it’s not about mowing down hordes of enemies with flashy moves as you would in Devil May Cry. It is instead about the process of gearing up to take on one specific target, and all that that entails. In the way that a real-life hunter needs to do things like gather equipment, research habitats, and study the behavior of their prey, MH players are required to do lots of preparation before each hunt.

Each game is basically about fighting bosses. You’ll have a list of quests to choose from, most of which are designed to help you prepare for a hunting quest. You might have one quest to kill 10 of a weak monster, another to gather 10 herbs, and a third to pick up materials from a certain area. The key is that each of these tasks sends you to the same place. The repetition of revisiting the same location helps familiarize you with the layout, enemies, resources, etc. of a zone, and that’s incredibly important information to have when you’re sprinting away from a dragon in the same place later.

It's tougher than it looks. Not even joking.

The final quest of your list will usually be an actual hunt. This one will send you to the same area you visited for the other objectives, but this time, your only objective is to kill a single target within 50 minutes. Your first hunt mark will likely be something not terribly impressive-looking, but it’ll give you a challenge. My first was in Monster Hunter Freedom for PSP. I died to that Yian Kut-ku about six times before finally barely managing a victory. The process of getting off the ground and figuring out how to not get your ass kicked is where the game gets good.

Your gear in Monster Hunter is the primary source of your character’s ability. That means you won’t level up from farming and there aren’t really experience points. Unlike the systems in most games, gear doesn't show up from random drops. Equipment in MH comes from crafting, and materials to craft come from the environment. That earlier quest you did to kill 10 little monsters would have also rewarded you with a few crafting components based on those creatures. So, you’d take those hides/bones/eyeballs or whatever, and craft them into a new set of gear to increase your stats. From there, you would be back into your battle with that first hunt boss, and probably lose again, because you don’t have potions. Potions are typically made from mushrooms and other gathered materials you would have likely encountered on an earlier quest with the objective of gathering resources.

This is where the preparation aspect of Monster Hunter comes to the forefront. You start to learn that you can’t beat a monster with your current tools, and slowly figure out that the pieces to help get you there are in these areas you’ve already traveled. You learn each zone and what’s in it like the back of your hand, and you’ll grow to use that knowledge in everything you do in the game.

I’ve used words like “learn” and “knowledge” describing this game because those concept are very important to MH. Games like Dark Souls also emphasize making the player learn things, but those games tend to accomplish the task by killing the player and forcing them to replay areas. You’ll do some dying in Monster Hunter, but just like in the real world, you learn the most from simply experiencing the situations.

However, like G.I. Joe said, knowing is only half the battle. The fighting part is usually a big deal, too. Monster Hunter combat is about simple attacks and managing risks. There are multiple weapon types including ranged weapons, unwieldy two-handed weapons, small blades, and spears. Each one has an entirely unique set of attacks, so what ultimately ends up happening is a hunter will choose one or two weapon types and stick to those for most of their hunting career. It’s very similar to choosing a character in a fighting games so maybe that’s why I love the series so much. Changing weapon types makes it a completely different game to learn and master.

When you’re learning the ropes, you’ll try different attacks to figure out attack speeds and spacing… again, as you would in a fighting game. When it comes to the actual hunt, though, you’re matched up against something larger and tougher than you. Defensive options then become super important. You’ll either learn the dance of popping in and out of range and waiting for your target to leave an opening, or you’ll mash buttons and get eaten. Keep in mind, Monster Hunter doesn’t have complicated combos like a typical action game, so you can quickly learn your simple attack commands. It’s just a job of getting timing and spacing down.

Your reward once you’ve cleared that first hunt will be a chance to loot that dead boss for more crafting components. You’ll start with armor from those weaker creatures, and use that to beat your first big target. From there, armor made of components from that first hunt will help you beat the next, and so on. It’s a slow climb, but you pick up so much valuable information along the way, and hate dying to that same damn monster so much, that every first clear against a new hunt is uniquely rewarding in a different way.

For example, my first encounter with a Khezu in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite was about a dozen hours into my adventure. It’s a gross, rubber-skinned dragon found in a deep cave of a snowy mountain. The first challenge is surviving the weather. Your stamina (which you use to attack, sprint, and dodge) constantly drains in cold climates. Without that info, I wandered around that place for about 20 minutes looking for a Khezu, wasting all my food items to replenish my constantly-draining stamina. By the time I found the thing, I was basically running on empty, and could barely perform a dodge. Unfortunately, my lightning weapon didn’t work well on a wyvern with rubber skin, and I got wrecked.

I needed to adjust my game plan, even from the basics. I ditched the lightning weapon for a different element and I learned how to make hot drinks to take out there so my stamina didn’t drain as fast. On subsequent match ups with a Khezu, I learned other tactics. First, that I couldn’t stand in front of it because its long neck makes most of its bite attacks lunge forward. Second, that it turns slowly. That lead to me dodging to its side and hitting its legs frequently, which eventually knocked it down. So, my strategy became roll to the side, take out the legs, and chop up the face while its down. Sticking close to it with my short sword made me a victim of another ability Khezus can use: electrifying themselves. After dying to that a couple times, I learned the tells for when it was about to get its lightning on, and started diving away from it just in time.

Fighting a Khezu now is second nature. I can probably kill a Khezu in any Monster Hunter game with no gear equipped. As a hunter, you’ll get that level of information over time, and it gives you a satisfaction that doesn’t exist in most video games. Fighting game players refer to this as having matchup knowledge. This feeling can be much more potent in Monster Hunter, though, because you’re putting that information toward killing some huge, dangerous beast, rather than to win a round against a Ken player spamming Shoryuken. In one sentence, Monster Hunter games train you into not just the combat proficiency, but the lifestyle of being a hunter... of monsters. The difficulty is high, but you'll have epic stories of how you got through each one. 

There are little bits of storytelling, but it usually boils down to you taking on jobs to kill these monsters and keep your village safe. Your progress and growth as a hunter is reflected in the quality of your gear, but it’s also seen in your own development as a player. As the NPCs in town start trusting you with more and more daunting hunts, you’ll also get more comfortable with those new targets. The first time they ask you to kill a Rathalos, you’re going to fail and fail miserably. A while later, you’ll be a Rathalos-slaying machine, with a dope set of Rathalos scale armor to show for it.

If you can deal with the struggle, the difficulty, and, above all, the preparation, learning Monster Hunter will be one of the most rewarding video game experiences you’ll ever have. If you get a chance to play that beta this weekend, let us know how it goes for you on our Facebook and Twitter pages! It starts December 9th at noon EST and is exclusive to PlayStation Plus members. If nothing else, let this image, maybe my favorite picture I've ever seen, motivate you.

That's you on the left. (You'll want to open it in a new browser tab to zoom.)