The Monster Hunter franchise is popular. This Capcom franchise is one of the top selling titles in Japan, outselling even the likes of Mario and Dragon Quest. While this series has yet to gain the same traction in the United States (or Europe, for that matter), it's clear that Monster Hunter has its legions of fans. I found this out the hard way, when I got on the bad side of dozens of Monster Hunter fans who took offense at my largely negative preview. Now I have the finished game in my hands and I have vowed to give this game a fair shake.
Contrary to what some might think, I don't have it out for the Monster Hunter franchise. While I have never been especially impressed by the PSP and PlayStation 2 titles, I could certainly see their appeal. I'm a huge fan of this style of open-world fantasy adventure game. I was deeply addicted to Phantasy Star, still play Sacred 2 and would likely get hooked on World of Warcraft if I accidentally installed it on my computer. I feel like I'm predisposed to liking this style of game. But there's something about Monster Hunter that just doesn't connect with me. I was hoping that Monster Hunter Tri would change my mind once and for all.
Much like the previous games, Monster Hunter Tri does not feature a long-winded, incoherent story. The game introduces you to a crazy sea monster who has been wreaking havoc on the local coastal communities. You play a customizable character (either male or female) who goes off on many unconnected missions, earning items, money and special memories. It's a set up that works perfectly for multiplayer co-operative questing. And guess what? That's exactly where the game excels.
The game's structure is specifically set-up for multiple people to team up and complete quests together. While I had some success running into early battles with reckless abandon, it became obvious that eventually I was going to hit a wall and need to team up with another monster hunter. If you're the type of gamer who is buying Tri specifically for the robust online mode, then just ignore my single-player woes. I found playing the game solo to be a very frustrating and annoying experience, one where I died repeatedly because I didn't have enough warning.
Thankfully the online mode is a more inviting place. As soon as I logged online I realized what the big deal is. The game is so big and deep that in order to make any kind of dent in this quest log you'll need at least a second person helping you out. The good news is that the game allows you to meet up with a bunch of friends and go questing together. You can even use the Wii Speak control, a speaker phone-style Nintendo product that allows for voice communication. Even with the ability to speak, most gamers I bumped into were taking advantage of the Wii's USB keyboard support. Either way, the game kept all of us in constant communication, which really made me feel like part of a team.
I even managed to appreciate things online I otherwise loathed when I was playing solo. I used to hate the time limits when I was playing by myself, but all that started to make sense online. There's a bigger sense of urgency when it's you and a group of real people taking down one of the game's massive dinosaurs. When it was just me these things felt impossible. With a group the game felt like a larger, more fleshed out version of Phantasy Star Online (only without the fast gameplay or science fiction setting). Logging online makes all the difference when playing Monster Hunter Tri.Although the game's graphics have been significantly improved over the recent PSP outings, the developers have retained the original art style. The environments look very similar to those in past Monster Hunter games, only now using high-res models and better textures. While it may not match the best of the best on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, visually I found the game incredibly pleasing on the eyes. The deeper you get into the world the more exciting it becomes. Perhaps the most exciting moments come when you first realize that you can dive underwater and explore parts of the world that have up until now been completely undiscovered. These underwater areas come with their own unique monsters to hunt and effects to see. It all adds up to a very impressive package on a technical level.
But just as the water hit my face, all of the things that annoyed me about the gameplay came flooding back. I was reminded that in order to hit an enemy, you need to have to be facing the exact right direction. Or how a single press of the attack button may result in a five second long animation that leaves you vulnerable. Or how the world doesn't feel as open and alive because it's always split into smaller arenas. These are just a few of the questionable gameplay decisions that marred my experience with the game.
Perhaps my biggest complain comes from the control set-up itself. The button configuration feels like it was assembled at random. While there are plenty of buttons they could have mapped commands to, the developers have decided to make things as complicated as humanly possible. Buttons will do multiple things depending on how you're standing, you will use the face buttons (instead of a D-pad or analog stick) to cycle through your available items and at times the game actually forces you to switch between the control and the Wii remote. It's as if the game was developed to be as unintuitive as it could possibly be.
While there's no doubt that hardcore fans of the game will get used to the awkward controls, it makes me question why some of these gameplay decisions were made. A big problem you will hear leveled against this game (and rightfully so) is the lack of a targeting button, something that locks you in line with your prey. This is the kind of thing that adventure games have been doing for a decade, so it feels a little strange to not even have the option to turn it off or on. Everything about the gameplay has been streamlined in newer games, yet this game gives off the impression that it's not interested in what everybody else is doing. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but in this case I found myself fighting with the control more than the monsters themselves.
While we're on the subject of controls, it's worth noting that the game's default set-up (which involves the Wii remote and nunchuk), is virtually unusable. The only way to play this game is with one of the two Nintendo Classic Controllers. And wouldn't you know it; Capcom has decided to launch the Classic Controller Pro as a pack-in with certain versions of Monster Hunter Tri. Using the analog sticks and the face buttons is a dream when compared to the clunky Wii remote set-up. Without the Classic Controller simple things like moving the camera or using potions are turned into frustrating challenges. If you're going to pick up Monster Hunter Tri, make sure you have the right control for the hunt.
This is a game that will no doubt benefit from a complete lack of competition. There aren't a lot of online multiplayer adventure games on the Wii, certainly none that have this level of depth. Wii owners are used to getting mini-game collections and watered down ports of Xbox 360 games. But Monster Hunter Tri is different; it's a big game that was designed from the ground-up for the Wii. It's hard not to be excited about such a big game hitting the console. Even if that means we have to put up with annoying friend codes and Nintendo's woefully inadequate online infrastructure.
Despite what some of the outspoken fans might thing, Monster Hunter Tri is far from perfect. The gameplay is a mess, the game is far too daunting for a solo player and there's no story to speak of. However, the game's strong online component helps make up for some of its shortcomings. I can't imagine anybody having a bad time with this adventure game, but it's important to know what you're getting yourself into before you make that leap.