How Dark Souls Ignited My Interest In Monster Hunter 4
Some of my favorite game series ever are Capcom joints. Mega Man, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and numerous old-school Disney games are among my all-time favorites. That said, some didn't grab me, particularly Lost Planet and Dragon's Dogma. Those aforementioned games have small but vocal cult followings, but nothing compared to the enthusiasm Monster Hunter fans tout for their beloved series. Despite my lifelong appreciation of Capcom games, Monster Hunter never clicked, but I feel that could change after spending hours with two important games: Dark Souls II and Mercenary Kings.
One of my first truly close looks into the Monster Hunter series happened on this episode of Test Chamber
Before I explain how From Software and Tribute Games helped me understand Monster Hunter, let's talk about where the Capcom series fits into my life. In my experience, folks tend to have one of two reactions when Monster Hunter comes up: "I don't get it" or "Oh my god, it's my religion and I've played it over 300 hours!" These types of polarizing reactions are intriguing, usually pointing towards controversial game design with a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps players hopelessly hooked. I remember two coworkers (featured in the video above) breathlessly explaining how satisfying it is to quest with friends, scrape together enough resources to craft a coveted weapon, and finally take down a huge, monstrous version of their white whale. That type of raw reverence for a series is intoxicating (that's to say nothing of the millions and millions of dedicated Japanese players), and I couldn't help but want to dive in.
I dedicated myself to diving into Monster Hunter Tri Ultimate when it hit 3DS and Wii U last year (read our review here). With all the fervor of gaming cultists, my two coworkers quickly took me under their wings. Within days I was completing quests and building gear during solo missions, then meeting up with friends for a little local co-op. They would try to explain the cryptic items and core gameplay loop to me as we went along, but all the while I was struggling to play what I felt was a subpar 3D action game. Animations took too long for my tastes. Just trying to take a swig of a health potion or wind up a sword swing was agonizingly drawn out. The clunky touchscreen-controlled camera system also did little to mitigate my frustrations with the combat. After about 15 hours the game didn't have its hooks in me and I had to put it down. I didn't walk away hating the series - I sincerely felt like I was somehow missing the point. The gooey, fun core of the game had to be in there somewhere.
Months after my failed attempt to get into Monster Hunter I tried my hand at yet another beloved game series that I didn't "get." My early Dark Souls II (read our review here) experience was about what you'd expect from a newcomer. I died a lot while I acclimated to the stiff, unforgiving controls and enemies. Winding up slow sword swings and clumsily dodge rolling out of the way immediately brought back memories of Monster Hunter, but I continued giving it the old college try. Our PC editor, Dan Tack, was also an instrumental mentor throughout the experience, offering combat tips and explanations for cryptic game systems along the way. Learning I could clear out troublesome areas while simultaneously grinding out experience was the perfect opportunity for me to grapple with the combat.
Part of me wanted to hate the rigid combat, but something clicked in Heide's Tower of Flame. The huge, armored guards scattered amidst the precipices taught me the core of the combat through a bloody trial. These enemies hit hard, nearly killing my low-level character, which forced me into mastering well-timed dodges and the flow of hit combos. After a lot of patience and perseverance Heide's tower was cleansed of the nasty bullies and I had a firm grasp on Dark Souls' combat. This learning experience helped carry me through brutal sections like No-Man's Wharf and Huntsman's Copse, and eventually to the end of the game. As the credits rolled I realized Dark Souls II had become a Game of the Year 2014 contender, and that maybe Monster Hunter's combat isn't clunky. Maybe the lengthy combat animations and limited mobility are there to make fighting huge beasts feel deliberate and satisfying.
Shortly after the release of Dark Souls II, Tribute Games launched Mercenary Kings on PS4 (read our review here). I loved the team's fantastic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World game, so I didn't hesitate to download it. I was immediately enamored with its striking art style, catchy soundtrack, and core combat. However, the "kill or collect X things" mission structure initially turned me off, as did the necessity to rummage around for rare materials to get decent gun upgrades. Oddly, I kept playing. I found myself enjoying the simplicity of mastering individual maps and tracking down big bosses across them. I had even more fun with a few friends, chatting and blasting apart enemy soldiers while coordinating our mission strategy. Mercenary Kings isn't my favorite side-scrolling shooter, but I got hooked on the gameplay loop.
I've been playing Darks Souls II and Mercenary Kings off and on since the beginning of the year. On the surface, these games couldn't be more different - a moody 3D action game and colorful side-scrolling shooter. Yet examined as a duo, it's obvious that they're both based on isolated elements of what makes folks rave so fanatically about Monster Hunter: weighty combat, weapon crafting, and hunting down bosses with friends. In order to understand the essence of Monster Hunter, I needed to experience its constituent parts individually, like a novice clockmaker dismantling a watch to see how the gears fit together.
Monster Hunter 4 has been out in Japan since last September, racking up over four million units sold in the meantime. Western sales of the series have paled in comparison (the portable series is great for long train rides), but obviously there is something to it that I missed the first time around. This upcoming entry in the series will be the real proving grounds for determining whether my excitement is warranted. Even better, Nintendo's new 3DS and its extra stick should massage away some of the camera issues I had with Monster Hunter Tri Ultimate. Dark Souls II and Mercenary Kings are fun games in their own right, but in hindsight they were even more worth my time based on what they've taught me about one of Capcom's biggest franchises.
For more on Monster Hunter 4, read here to learn about Samus from Metroid's role in the game.