Version tested: PSP
As job descriptions go, Monster Hunter is pretty hard to top. Not only is it concise and wonderfully self-explanatory, it's also the sort of thing that instantly impresses the opposite sex and marks you out as someone whose genetic material is worth adding to the family tree.
- "Have you met Ian? He's in computers"
- "Oh, that's interesting. I'm a MONSTER HUNTER"
No prizes for guessing who'll be getting the last slice of Vienetta at that dinner party, right? And as games are a veritable buffet of puerile wish fulfilment, it's really no surprise that such a rugged pastime has finally been given a "does what it says on the tin" virtual version. Part role-playing game, part Capcom slash-'em-up (complete with the now obligatory "violence and gore" warning) Monster Hunter Freedom casts you as a wannabe adventurer in a world populated by medieval peasants and asks you to exterminate the local fauna with extreme prejudice.
Put Your Face On
First up, you have to create your beast bashing avatar from the usual array of male/female face shapes, haircuts and skin tones. It's not the most nuanced character creation tool in existence, but for a portable title it's more than ample - you can easily create a unique and groovy looking surrogate to twat some sense into scaly foes on your behalf.
In true RPG style, you then awake in bed (thankfully not suffering from amnesia or in possession of a mysterious pendant) and are free to roam your tiny village. And by tiny, I mean really, really tiny. It's less of a town and more an item-generating savepoint, with a sprinkling of shops and places to choose new missions. A few NPCs are dotted about, but don't expect them to offer anything other than the same stock phrases.
There's also a farm run by cats [Do they have strange hats? Someone tell Tom! -Ed], but we'll get to that surreal sideline later.
After browsing the handful of shops (and wondering just what a Felvine is) you'll probably head on over to the Guild, because that's where the swinging scene always kicks off in games like this. Needless to say, the wenches within scoff at your novice ways. Lingering outside is the village elder, and he's the guy who sends you off on your first batch of quests - cunningly disguised as tutorial missions.
Initially you'll be tasked with performing embarrassingly simple tasks, such as picking mushrooms, or scrutinising the scenery for foliage that might give up some goodies if investigated. As almost all of the items on these early objective lists can be obtained from the village before embarking on the missions, most of them can be completed simply by entering the wilderness with everything already in your pockets. How educational.
You do learn some useful tricks along the way though - not least how to strip the carcasses of your kills for useful items, and how to turn the raw meat into a delicious steak dinner. Annoyingly, if a plant or corpse contains more than one item you have to keep hitting the circle button to get them, rather than simply being shown a list of what's been found and letting you choose what to take. As the "searching the ground" animation takes two seconds to play through, and some areas can contain four or five items, that's a long time to be prodding a button just to clog up your inventory with sodding berries.
Before long, things do start to get more exciting and your first encounter with an aggressive foe comes as you head north to prove your worth as a fisherman (which you do via the skill of pressing the square button at the right time). What the village elder doesn't tell you is that guarding the pool where your fishy quarry swims is a hulking great warthog thing, and it's through this initial brush with danger that some sadly persistent gameplay niggles become clear.
To start with, the hog charges at you as soon as you enter his territory. You probably won't have time to unsheath your weapon and block him, so the impact knocks you back into the previous section. Two loading screens later, and you re-enter the fray slightly better prepared.
Unfortunately, for a game that hinges on the concept of being a monster hunter, the hunting of monsters is actually the most frustrating element. Suffering from the PSPs solitary control stick, you're stuck with a limp camera that requires either constant correction with the d-pad, or constant centring with the left shoulder button. Not too bad when you're simply out for a stroll, but painfully annoying when in mortal combat with a savage enemy. When you consider that it's not unusual to be besieged by up to four or five nimble and bloodthirsty critters, the game is crying out for some sort of lock-on command to keep the monsters in your sights. It's not unique to this game, of course, and is a problem that blights most PSP third-person titles in some way.
However, compounding this problem is the speed with which your character reacts. There are four basic weapon types in the game - sword, hammer, lance and crossbow gun. You can only equip one of these weapons per mission, so there's no way of swapping blade for gun to suit the situation. The gun is well implemented, with lots of different ammo types available. Its main drawback is that powerful ammo is expensive, and the chances of taking down a boss beast without a ton of hefty projectiles are slim.
The melee weapons do the damage, but suffer from an altogether more annoying downside. Drawn from the same school of wild exaggeration as any other Japanese RPG you care to mention, these are the sorts of weapons that dwarf the combatant wielding them and they handle as subtly as they look. The moves vary from weapon to weapon, but it all boils down to two basic attacks - triangle or circle - and special attacks - triangle and circle together. But where you'd expect one to be faster, and the other to be more powerful, there's no real difference in strength or speed. Or rather, lack of speed.
You can almost hear the virtual tendons in your character's arms popping as these enormous weapons are slowly hefted into place and swung down or around. It feels real. It feels heavy. And when such a blow connects with a lumbering plant-eater, or an innocent deer, the effect is rather satisfying. When trying to land a blow on the aforementioned gangs of bloodthirsty critters, it becomes a matter of not only hoping you're pointed in the right direction, but that the creature will still be standing there when the blow lands. Grrr.
Chopper The Pops
And the frustrations don't end there. You can't block without drawing your weapon, and you can't move when blocking. And with your weapon drawn, you can no longer use support items from your inventory. If you want to heal in the middle of a battle, you have to put your weapon away, so you can run. Then you have to leg it to a quiet spot to imbibe the potion or herb required. Then you have to draw your weapon, get the camera pointed the right way again and carry on fighting. Except, predictably, no sooner have you boosted your health than the monsters catch up with you and clobber you as you unsheathe your unfeasibly large chopper once again.
With both camera and controls working against you, combat becomes a slightly irritating chore - and in a game called Monster Hunter that's no small problem. For all the geeky joy inherent in the idea of hitting dinosaurs with a ruddy big sword, your goodwill is sapped every time you end up trapped behind some opaque scenery, flailing blindly with your ridiculous weapon and hoping to hit enemies you can't see.
Looking on the bright side, graphically speaking we're nudging into the bracket marked "spectacular". The moment you emerge from your campsite at the start of your first mission you're faced with a vista of mountains, meadows and a rather convincing river. The sky is blue, birds are twittering and a herd of enormous herbivorous dinosaurs is grazing below. As the music swells into a suitably triumphant crescendo, it's a bona fide "wow" moment - all the more impressive for the dinky size of the format. The monsters themselves are suitably weighty and menacing, both in appearance and movement, while the landscape itself - though restricted by the handheld medium - boasts more subtle touches and details than most similar titles.
The animation for your warrior is charmingly lifelike as well, and some little movements look almost like they've been motion captured. The naturalistic way he (or she) flops backwards into bed, or shuffles back out again, arse first. The rolls, dives and climbs that navigate them around the scenery. All have that extra spit and polish that helps to draw you into the gameworld. There are even some wonderful humorous details, such as the panicked glances over their shoulder as you flee from a dragon, or the deadpan way they pull a stool out of nowhere and sit down to barbecue their meals.
Get Orf Moi Laahnd
As for the RPG trimmings, it's here that the game reclaims some brownie points and offers up serious long term appeal. Along with the expected plethora of items that can be found and combined, there's also some rather fun additions such as the cat farm where sentient felines get to work producing things for you while you do your slaying thing. Later on, you can also hire cats to work in your kitchen and make you meals. And I think that's a dream we've all [i.e. Tom] shared at some point.
Seeds found in the wild can be planted and nurtured into new plants. Rock faces can be mined for minerals and ore. Insects and fish can be caught and cooked, or turned into new weapons and armour. Each element of the farm can be upgraded by speaking to a rather out of place Rasta, who will convert points earned by shopping in the village into more gardening space, fishing spots and the like. It's like some miniature version of Harvest Moon and while it's only ever good for grinding yet more items, it makes for a cute diversion.
With dozens of missions on offer from the village elder, and even more available at the Hunter's Guild, if you can tolerate the niggling restrictions of the fighting system then you're unlikely to get bored any time soon.
There's even a surprisingly robust multiplayer mode, which allows up to four players to tackle the Guild missions together over the ad-hoc WiFi network. Enter the Guild in network mode and you'll see your friends (well, their characters at least) waiting for you. You can even sit down at the tables and have a chat before setting off to do some dino damage. Although not an online mode in the true sense of the word, as quests can take over an hour it's better that you're able to just play with nearby friends rather than rely on some jittery idiot miles away to watch your back. There's also a two-player treasure hunting subquest, so for those looking for a solid multiplayer PSP title should give it serious consideration.
Veering between charming whimsy and violent slaughter, not to mention gameplay nirvana and hair-pulling frustration, with giddy abandon Monster Hunter Freedom finally settles somewhere below essential purchase, but still well above average. Staking its claim in the under populated wilderness betwixt classic story-driven RPG and balls-to-the-wall splatter action, it's a worthy evolution of a still-fresh franchise and a rather impressive addition to the PSP line up in its own right. The wireless co-op mode is a lot of fun, if you can muster enough friends, but the clunky control system and lazy camera combine to make the experience less enjoyable than it deserves to be.
6 / 10