Monster Hunter is a game about beating up monsters, making weapons and armour out of monster hide, and then using them to beat up bigger monsters. The series began in 2004, and though critics were unimpressed with its unwelcoming gameplay, it established a staunch cult following that has stuck with the series despite the creators trying their fans' patience with large gaps between western releases.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is noticeably easier to get into than the other games in the series, thanks to a collection of tutorials and a sprawling amount of help text. However, the game does still require a fairly big time investment in order to learn which supplies to bring, what's effective against what, and so forth.
The game does its best to ease you into things by presenting you with a large lineup of weapon types, each catering to a different style of play. 4 Ultimate sports a pair of new additions to the collection – the Charge Blade (a sword and shield that can combine to form a battleaxe) and the Insect Glaive (a bō staff that comes with an attack bug). They're both fun to use, if a little tricky.
The biggest new feature is vertical gameplay: Monster Hunter Tri's dreary swimming has been done away with in favor of climbing, jumping, and running. It's remarkably smooth – simply holding down the run button will allow you to automatically hop over any obstacles in the way, and climbing on walls has been overhauled to allow for more freedom of movement.
Another addition is online play. Though a standard feature for the console installments, it's a first for the portable Monster Hunter games. It's relatively stable, with only a few minor hitches when joining lobbies. Up to four players can collaborate on a hunt, and a full match is excellent fun. You've got to be mindful of your fellow hunters, though – while there's no friendly fire, attacks from your weapons can trip up other players, potentially leaving them open to be attacked by monsters.
Series veterans will be intrigued to hear that the story is much more present this time around compared to the previous installment, in which you were assigned to guard a village, and then nothing really happened. At the beginning of the game, you're introduced to The Caravaneer, and after a short tutorial mission involving a giant sand whale, he invites you to join him and his titular caravan on a big adventure to find out about a strange crystal he's dubbed The Article. Along the way, you'll meet a cast of equally banally named characters such as The Street Cook and The Man, visit a few different villages, tour some locales, and, of course, hunt some monsters.
Though it lacks development and can be a little directionless at points, the story presented is a nice change of pace compared to the previous games. However, the quests can be a little jarring. There comes a point around the middle of the game where you fight the final boss from the original Monster Hunter 4, but then the game keeps going as you transition into the new quests that were added in 4 Ultimate. The transition isn't handled very well, and the result is a noticeable difficulty spike that can be very frustrating and confusing.
The inconsistent difficulty has to be the game's largest fault. Some monsters are pushovers, while others would make a Shin Megami Tensei boss blush. There's a lot of returning monsters from the very early games, and some of them simply aren't fun to fight, thanks to a combination of questionable hitboxes, spammy attacks, and excessive amounts of damage. It’s a disappointing experience, especially compared to some of the new monsters, who are actually a lot of fun to fight thanks to their excellent animation work and creative designs.
Another issue is the controls. The 3DS simply isn't comfortable to grip when playing a game such as this, and I was assailed by all manner of cramps during my time playing. A Circle Pad Pro is highly recommended as it makes the console a lot more bearable, and the camera is almost impossible to wrangle without a second stick.
While the New 3DS's C-Stick is serviceable, it's not great, and the only grip accessory for it currently isn't being sold outside of Japan. The New 3DS does boast slightly higher texture resolution than the normal 3DS, but it's still noticeably muddy at points.
Despite a few texture woes, the new environments are gorgeous, and manage to spell out an interesting world. The new zones have been carefully designed with verticality in mind, so as to accommodate the updated gameplay.
The most intriguing new locale is the Everwood, a vast forest that's home to a new game mode called Expeditions. Expeditions are a new free-form quest type that drops you down in a randomly generated stretch of forest, and tasks you with finding rare items and monsters. Since the expeditions aren't official hunting guild contracts, there's no traditional rewards on offer; but there are all sorts of relics and treasure to be found out in the woods, as well as a cast of classic monsters from previous games in the series.
Underneath all of the new features and content, the game is still intact, for better or for worse. If you didn't like it then, you probably won't like it now, but it's not a bad place to get started if you're new to the series, assuming you're willing to grant the game some patience.