Dauntless is a generous new free-to-play riff on Monster Hunter which has already eaten the best part of a week for me. For a while, though, it looked like the most charismatic monster I would be hunting was the little silhouette guy who turns up whenever the game is loading. I fell in love a bit: the feet are big and plodding, the head is bowed in something that looks like defeat or too much self-knowledge. The tail almost drags on the ground. I didn't want to hunt this monster. I wanted to make sure it had its favourite scarf to hand and a good book to read. It was certainly a bit more likable than the game's early level beasts, which appeared to be seemingly interchangeable lizards and dragons.
Then I met Shrike. And everything was new again.
How can I describe Shrike? Imagine you are a terrible person and you fed an owl steroids for several years, and you made it watch violent 1980s action movies all night and you maybe made it sleep in a tank filled with plutonium so it got all weird and radioactive. If you're picturing a giant muscular owl with a wingspan the length of a Routemaster and eyes that sometimes glow: that's Shrike.
Shrike is a lot of fun to hack away at with a few friends or strangers. So what? All of Dauntless' big baddies are. What marks Shrike out is Shrike looks like someone really cared about making them fantastic. The whole owl thing is enormously unsettling. Sure, from behind Shrike can occasionally look like a giant pigeon, but when Shrike does his swoop attack and comes for you and the wings unfold and you suddenly see just how big this creature is? It's genuinely unnerving.
Shrike likes to pound the ground and fling arcs of plasma at you. Shrike likes to conjure a tornado and loft themselves backwards. Shrike is always laying down damage while making themselves hard to hit. And they're so glossy and deadly. Talons and beaks. Nasty jabbing little feet. God, Shrike is amazing.
When Shrike gets enraged, it turns red and its eyes glow, in a way that reminds me of the secret banger, The Mothman Prophecies, in which Richard Gere gets very spooked by some weird backwoods thing that's kind of like a bird and kind of like an angel, but, like, an angel of death, you know? And this quality in Shrike has made me look at some of Dauntless' other creatures are realise they aren't halfway as bland as I initially feared. Shrike's an owl, but then there's a sort of beaver character with a deadly flappy tail. There's a porcupine-type thing with horrible quills and spines and barbs.
This is a Monster Hunter that's been bred from the Appalachian Trail and the Dark Divide of the Pacific North-West in other words. No wonder you fight Shrike amongst pine trees and firs.
Testify! And after a battle, when I dip into the menu to see how many Shrikes I have done in, I can't help but notice there are a bunch of monsters I have yet to encounter out there. Who knows what dark pleasures await?