So, six months on from my review I'm still playing Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. Granted, it's not the all-consuming, four-hours-each-and-every-day obsession that it was back in June, but the UMD is still a regular lodger in my PSP. Incredibly, or perhaps predictably, I still absolutely suck at it.
Having stumbled manfully into the realms of HR 3, I've found the new batch of towering horrors are a bit too much to deal with. My armour's all wrong to handle that bastard Kirin's thunder-based attacks, Gravios's rocky exterior means that my favourite Khezu Shockblade literally isn't cutting it any more and it turns out that you can't just hope Black Diablos to death. This means that there's a lot of work ahead of me, hunting and gathering materials to upgrade. Given that I've yet to find anyone in the office man enough to get involved in some multi-player action, this is proving quite annoying.
Being an ambassador for a game like Monster Hunter is difficult. For a start there's the fact that the familiarisation sequences at the start take longer to complete than some entire games. This is merely the tip of the difficulty iceberg. It took me dozens of hours to realise that a full appreciation of this game was going to mean tearing up my mental criteria for success, abandoning all of the lessons about risk and reward that a lifetime of gaming has taught me - swallowing my pride and sucking up defeat after defeat in order to scrape that one, breathtaking victory against all odds which is the ultimate aim of any real hunt.
Monster Hunter is a balancing act - the whole point is that those long hours of picking your target - figuring out its attack patterns, environmental preferences, weak spots, harvest-able parts and tells - make that glorious kill so god damn satisfying. Even playing solo, as I'm inevitably forced to by the lily-livered nature of my gaming contemporaries, there's a huge sense of being part of a project. A many-staged and consistently challenging project. A project which seeps poison from its feathers, lives in lava and eats diamonds for breakfast.
But yes, I know, this doesn't really sound much like someone piling glory on an incredible, must-have, game of the year. More like someone trying to explain away an embarrassing and debilitating obsession. Even when I'm given a free forum to discuss how much I love this brilliant, hugely rewarding game - I still end up moaning about how hard it is and the fact that I'm still not very good at it. This is probably more to do with having 'wrong' thumbs than anything attributable to the game itself.
Maybe I'm a sucker for punishment, maybe I love the fact that there's so much to learn, or that there's just enough silliness amid the crushing despair to keep things chipper and fresh. Maybe there's a deeply Freudian reason behind me wanting to pull out an enormous sword and kill dragons. I don't know.
But I do love Monster Hunter. Like some kind of third-rate Eastender, I'll just keep going back for more no matter how many times I'm given a thorough shoeing and shown the door. I think, in some odd way, that it makes me feel okay about all the times I've played games on anything less than the toughest difficulty, looked up a cheat code or party editor on the net, or, unforgivably, save-scummed playing ADOM.
There's also the sense of constant discovery. Even in the game's fairly restrictive play areas, usually fighting the same small monsters in preparation for the big battle, even during the inevitable grind of repetition as you struggle toward the last ingredients for that must-have armour or weapon, you never know what's going to happen. Maybe this mining point will surrender a ruststone, perhaps this Monoblos will drop his heart. Conceivably, this time, I might even dodge just before that hip-check smashes my hunter to oblivion rather than just afterwards.
But I'm doing it again, and I fear I might be putting some people off. Monster Hunter is hard, yes, but it's not insurmountably so. All it really takes is patience and perseverance, an adaptation of the slightly soft gaming habits which more forgiving titles might have instilled in you. Enjoyed with friends, either locally or - very excitingly - using adhocParty on PS3, Monster Hunter is truly one of the most fun and enjoyable games I've ever played. It's beautiful, rewarding and incredibly engaging. Get over that first hump, take advice from players online or one of the many wikis devoted to the series, and get involved.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite didn't really set the UK on fire. In fact, it didn't really have a great deal of sales impact anywhere outside Japan, as it's become unfashionable to point out. But it has begun to penetrate the Western consciousness. At the Eurogamer Expo this year Monster Hunter Tri was a huge draw, both to hardened enthusiasts and newcomers alike, suggesting that not only will the game get better sales than previous instalments, but that the series is breaking through. This is a good thing. Occasionally, things that are worth doing should be really, bastard hard.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.