Version tested: PSP
This month marks the seventh anniversary of the first Monster Hunter title. Released six months before World of Warcraft, it's a game which shares the MMO's focus on co-operative gameplay.
But when it comes to popularity, World of Warcraft has taken off in the west like a Pez dispensing yo-yo with a built in Tamagotchi - while Monster Hunter has failed to set the world outside of Japan alight.
Both series also share a similar lineage, but while WOW has fought off countless would-be rivals, Monster Hunter had a only few challengers to contend with - such as Phantasy Star Portable and Lord of Arcana.
Until now, that is. Because now, Namco Bandai has teamed up with Shift, the developer behind Devil Dice, to bring us a genuine alternative.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a thought which the Monster Hunter team may want to comfort itself with on seeing God Eater (as it is known in Japan).
But while this game borrows liberally from Capcom's template – once again you build better equipment from the component parts of your dead enemies – God Eater offers an experience that is less daunting and more accessible. It even comes complete with a sci-fi story which plays out like a run-of-the-mill anime.
"Compared to Monster Hunter, the missions in God Eater are more condensed."
The God Eater world has become infected with a microscopic organism which can assimilate all known matter. If enough of these cells pool together, they form constructs known as "Aragami" which are hell-bent on destroying humanity.
As such, civilisation has been brought to its knees by an army of nightmare creatures. In a last ditch attempt to avoid extinction, an organisation called Fenrir is set up to fight the Aragami menace.
This is just an elaborate ruse for trendy teenagers to carry lamppost sized weaponry while battling armoured scorpions and demonic denizens. But as a change of pace from the talking cats and tribal towns, God Eater offers an urban landscape set in a dystopian future.
And while the story is told via the medium of woeful voice acting – which makes the ropey plot even more forgettable – it at least offers a cool down period between bouts of grinding.
First time players will need to sculpt their own God Eater in the single-player mode before considering the ad-hoc multiplayer, once they have a few hours under their belt.
Character creation is basic, with less than 20 hairstyles available for either gender, but if you've always wanted to play as a guy who wears a bandana over one eye or a girl who never takes off her headphones – not even during an important briefing – then God Eater caters for your role-playing needs.
Once this formality is out of the way you'll then be inducted at a central hub which provides all the God Eater amenities. It's in this small area that you'll upgrade your weapons, craft new items and speak to the cast of NPCs – who usually offer a bit of colour and advice – before talking to the mission clerk to see what jobs are available. The 100-plus missions are then split between ten Ranks, with difficulty increasing as you progress through the story.
Compared to Monster Hunter, the missions in God Eater are more condensed. The maps are considerably smaller, there are no loading times between sections and your objective is always to kill.
You still gather resources, but rather than using breakable tools to harvest from a believable ecosystem you simply revisit the same locations, then press circle for your character to crouch down and pocket a random item. It's entirely hassle-free but lacks the subtle splendour which makes Monster Hunter so compelling.
This streamlining also branches into a combat system that's similar to Monster Hunter but with less choice and a much faster tempo.
Each player wields a weapon called a God Arc which can morph between three functions mid-battle – Gun, Sword and Shield. These function exactly as you'd expect. Each type has three subcategories which, in the case of Gun, include Sniper, Assault and Blast.
In effect, this means each player has ranged, melee and defensive options at their disposal. Although the subcategories determine whether you're a speedy Short Sword or a lumbering Buster Sword, they only provide limited variety when compared to Gunlances, Switch Axes and Hunting Horns. Because no matter how you look at it, the game-plan of an Assault, Long and Buckler user will not be all that different from a Blast, Buster and Tower player.
That's not a negative criticism of God Eater per se, more an observation of its intent. This isn't a game which forces you to make tough decisions. Instead it offers subtle customisation options which let you find a setup to suit your style of play.
While the controls are tricky to tame on the ill equipped PSP, with practise, they'll let you switch between God Arc forms on the fly with a speed that's more akin to Phantasy Star.
You can jump, run, dash, block and lock-on to opponents while mixing up light and heavy attacks for some simple combos. Gun mode requires you to build up metre with melee strikes, which can then be used as ammunition.
"God Eater is a game designed for people who like the idea of Monster Hunter ... but find the game too demanding."
Bullet customisation is a massive part of what makes God Eater stand out, with everything from elemental properties to trajectory being entirely tuneable. You can even make a flamethrower designed to heal your teammates.
The other element which makes God Eater unique is the Devour ability. This takes the form of a charge attack which forms a massive set of jaws around the God Arc. Once it's fully charged, you can take a bite out of the enemy.
If the Aragami is still alive, this will temporarily put your character into a Burst state, increasing their speed and damage output. As an extra bonus, a successful Devour will net you some Aragami Bullets which will expire once the mission is over. If the Aragami is dead, however, Devour will function as a carving tool which lets you munch on its corpse for three randomly determined parts. These are used to craft weapons in the usual fashion.
The game also has its far share of statistical fluff. Weapons are graded on their Sunder, Crush and Pierce attributes, as well as 130 Skills which range from beneficial perks like God of Rare Drops to de-uffs like Out of Shape. Unfortunately, the Aragami aren't quite so numerous.
God Eater offers little over ten enemy types that come in variations like Fallen, Fire, Thunder and Ice. There isn't a great deal of variety, but the few Aragami who feature are beautifully animated.
Highlights include the Chi You mech-bird and the Sariel human-butterfly. While they're not a patch on a Rathalos or a Lagiacrus, they're at least varied enough to offer an alternative to Monster Hunter's draconic stable.
In the end, God Eater is a game designed for people who like the idea of Monster Hunter, but for whatever reason – whether it's sharpening your weapon, eating steaks for stamina, laying traps for captures, being stampeded by an enraged Barroth or failing to bag a Deviljho Gem for the tenth consecutive time – find the game too demanding.
In God Eater, the time limit is set to 30 minutes. More often than not, you'll have ample time to spare.
The game is already a year old in Japan and has largely been overshadowed by the release of Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, which has shifted over 4 million copies. This engaging alternative manages to sidestep allegations of being Monster Hunter Lite - but only just.
7 / 10