Monster Hunter 4 gave us a brief scare with no localization announcement for a long while, but thankfully it didn't take long after the upcoming Monster Hunter 4G's reveal to find out that Western gamers would finally have a chance to get their hands on the game. With an import 3DS in hand, it seemed like a good idea to pick up a copy of the original version of Monster Hunter 4 to find out what gamers are in store for. The good news is despite sticking closely to a lot of elements from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, the new entry has a number of new elements to make the whole experience feel fresh.
Character creation and early quests teaching you the very basics of the controls and quest progression haven't changed much at all from entry to entry, but thankfully Monster Hunter 4 does spice things up a bit. Instead of throwing the player right into the village to get prepared for the early quests, the game starts on a sand ship hunting for a massive beast. The player thus gets to enjoy some easy but enjoyably cinematic action as a way of getting things going, though after that pleasant start the rest of the early quests focus on less interesting hunting and gathering duties. Still, this early section managed to feel a wee bit quicker than the previous Monster Hunter, and one of the first big hunts features a creature new to the series that makes good use of vertical terrain.
That leads us into the biggest change in Monster Hunter 4, the hunting grounds themselves. Though there was certainly nothing wrong with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate's selection of battlegrounds, the ones on display here already feel like a vast improvement. Each section of the areas sports distinct terrain features such as hills, treetops, or vertical rises to climb. One of these new hunting grounds even has the starting camp on a ridge and has the player leap from a large cliff into the caves below to give the whole place a real sense of depth. Of course this change isn't just window dressing. Multiple gameplay changes have been added and monster behavior adjusted to take advantage of the new verticality.
The most notable gameplay changes are the various improvements to character movement. Climbing is now quicker, and a simple attack can now be used while doing so. Small ledges are scaled very quickly, and don't require sheathing your weapon. Quicker scaling feeds into the new jumping attack that can be used when leaping off edges. These attacks deal more damage and are used to facilitate riding monsters. This new mini-game of sorts is similar to parts of Shadow of the Colossus where the player must alternate between attacking and clutching onto the monster to prevent falling off. Successfully completing the attacks seems to net additional rewards, and on one rock-based monster even open a minable spot on the beast's back where resources could be collected while it is incapacitated. These changes don't drastically alter Monster Hunter's core gameplay, but they do make the environment a more integral part of gameplay than it was previously.
A new generation of Monster Hunter wouldn't be complete without fresh weapon types, and 4 brings two fresh implements of destruction to the table. The first is a bit of a variation on the charge axe that was introduced in Monster Hunter Tri, called the charge blade. In its standard form, it functions much like the classic sword and shield type. Attacks in this mode build up charges that can then be used in the weapon's axe mode for extra damage and other added effects. The other new weapon is the insect glaive, which unlike the charge blade feels far more unique. The glaive has a number of quick fluid attacks somewhat similar to the long sword in past games, but similarities end after that. Thanks to the pole-like nature of the weapon, players can vault into the air and make jumping attacks at any time, without the need for elevated terrain. In addition, the weapon can enter a firing mode to shoot and mark different parts of monsters. Once this is done, players using this weapon can fire a “kinsect” to attack the marked part. These extra abilities take some getting used to however, and despite the added utility the weapon on the whole did feel less intuitive than other armament varieties.
Monster Hunter 4 brings with it online play on the 3DS, which unfortunately is a bit disappointing. It lacks the lobbies and other messaging features that were available on the Wii U in the previous entry. Instead, players can search for games based on certain criteria or join up with friends. Getting online itself was a bit confusing to configure out, largely due to the language barrier, but it was not as crystal clear as simply entering “online mode” and required accessing a menu on the touch screen. The only rooms I could find were password protected or looking for high level hunters, so I was unable to test out online myself. Hopefully the updated version of the game will bring with it improvements to the online capabilities to bring it more in line with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.
Ultimately, after ten hours of play it's hard to find a whole lot to complain about in Monster Hunter 4. It's not a huge change from the previous game, as anyone familiar with Capcom would expect, but the changes are noticeable and improve the gameplay a fair amount. The game will remain difficult for newcomers to get into, but with added story elements to spice things up, it's a much better starting point. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is due in the West in early 2015, and fans and newcomers alike should take notice.