Monster Hunter is a series I’d never sunk my teeth into until the last year or so. It’s definitely not the most welcoming series out there, but after hearing nonstop rants and raves from hardcore fans over the years, I finally picked up Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate after finding it in a bargain bin. But then I only put about 20 hours into it. To the uninitiated, 20 hours may seem like an eternity – many games are over and done with in less than half that time — but in Monster Hunter terms, that’s barely enough time to forge a first complete set of armor. But those 20 hours, even at their grindiest, got me hooked and looking forward to this year’s release, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. 

This latest entry comes exclusively to Nintendo 3DS, and is easily the most complete and polished package in the series to date. It’s also the first Monster Hunter game on the system to include online multiplayer (though voice chat is still sadly missing). It’s also the most newcomer friendly by far, so if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the Monster Hunter series and whether it can truly keep you engaged for 100+ hours of hunting, gathering, and forging, This might just be your best bet. 

If you’ve never heard of the beast called Monster Hunter, let me quickly brief you on your duties. One: hunt monsters. Two: kill monsters. Three: use their body parts to make sweet weapons and armor. That’s it. Now, truth be told, there’s a lot more to it than that; killing is not just a simple hack-and-slash fest that will have you blindly mashing buttons over and over again. Killing a monster requires skill, knowledge, and a lot of patience. Each beast has a unique pattern and intelligence that can only be discovered with experience. Unlike most RPGs, your character never actually gains experience or levels up at all; instead, your experience grows the more you play, learn, and discover what makes each individual creature tick… and what it takes to bring it down. Monsters in this series have never had health bars, so figuring out how much life one has left comes down to keen observation: a creature that flees, drags its leg, or begins to slump over is surely close to being finished, so keep at it and you’ll seen be ready to claim your victory trophy.

Such an awesome arsenal

Such an awesome arsenal of ammunition

Now, to be fair, this is all par for the course for the series — you don’t have to run out and buy the latest entry if you’re happy with an earlier version. But Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate adds some welcome changes to the mix. Most importantly: the ability to finally play with other friends online. No longer is the journey tied to local multiplayer, which is honestly the main reason I gave up on MH3U so soon. Taking a beast down is no easy feat — especially if you don’t have anyone to tackle that responsibility with — so finally being able to play with all my buddies across the continent and slay ginormous beasts together is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. Another welcome change is the ability to jump, adding a sense of verticality to the world that previous entries were sorely lacking ins No longer are you stuck to the ground, forced to awkwardly run around tiny ledges and rocks. Now, granted, jumping is an automated process unless you’re using one specific weapon type — the Insect Glaive — but still, an action RPG without jumping is like eggs and toast without bacon: I’d still eat it, but I’d be a lot happier if there was some darn bacon. 

When you’re not slaying giant beats, you’ll spend a good deal of time scouring the landscape for supplies and secrets between missions. This can get incredibly boring — especially when you spend so much time in the same limited areas until you’re strong enough and confident enough to move onto the next. Thankfully, the overworld is far more varied this time than in previous entries, with multiple types of landscape included in each area. It seems pretty obvious, but a little visual diversity goes a long way toward alleviating the sometimes mind-numbing repetition of it all.

Locations within the game are GORGEOUS, even on a tiny 3DS screen.

Locations within the game are GORGEOUS, even on a tiny 3DS screen.

Just like with the previous entry, I’ve put about 20 hours or so into the game so far. But this time, I’m nowhere near ready to give up. For the first time, there’s a pretty decent story to keep players pushing forward, though truth be told, this series has never been about that. Monster Hunter is about the story you build for yourself as you and your friends spend five hours beating the crap out of Great Jaggis just to make some new boots. And though the experience still suffers from repetition fatigue, it still gets better the more you play. The more monsters you kill, the better items and weapons you find and create, the cooler you look, and the more you want to show your character off to your friends. 

The Monster Hunter series features a rare learning curve that truly rewards patience and self-exploration. Some see the grind and patience required in the Monster Hunter series as a relic of outdated design standards, but I find it refreshing compared to the linearity and hand-holding offered by so many modern games. And online multiplayer lowers the barrier for entry to cooperative play, which is critical to fully enjoying what it has to offer. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is an incredibly deep game that requires a level of player dedication like few other 3DS games, but I finally understand the series. It won’t be leaving my cartridge slot any time soon.