Monster Hunter: Freedom 2 PSP Review

Part of Monster Hunter’s charm is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Whatever the premise and preposterously huge weaponry may suggest, this is a game devoid of pretensions. It’s a game in which macho heroism walks hand-in-hand with slapstick absurdity, in which your avatar gives a camp little wave as you load up a save file, flexes his biceps like Mr Universe when he downs a potion, and is occasionally mugged by cats with mallets. And yet, paradoxically, Monster Hunter is also a game you have to take very, very seriously to enjoy.

Let’s assume this quintessentially Japanese videogaming phenomenon has passed you by. Let’s assume you’ve come to this title fresh off the back of a button-mashing bonanza like Dynasty Warriors or the recent Heavenly Sword. After a superficial character creation process you are treated to a cut scene of your wonderfully detailed and animated hunter being knocked off a cliff by some Jurassic Park reject. Fortunately a local Samaritan is on hand to save yo’ n00b ass, and on regaining consciousness you find yourself, conveniently enough, in the village you were trudging towards when you were attacked.

The aforementioned Samaritan has left you with some entry-level armour and a few crude weapons to play with, and after flicking through numerous text boxes you manage to equip yourself with the biggest sword you can lay hands on, ten-by-four of razor-sharp bone. You stroll down to the quest hall. Apparently somebody needs the smackdown laying on a few Giaprey. You set off without further ado.

Whether it’s the delicate ivory silhouette of a distant peak or the flower you tread underfoot as you scale the mountainside, the beauty of your surroundings is an endless source of wonder. Snow lashes your forehead as you tackle the higher reaches, but your fur-lined hood, coat and boots keep out the chill. Eventually you gain the sanctuary of a vast cave haunted with silver shadows and hung with spears of ice. And that’s when you see them. A pack of the beasties, each around the height of a man, metallic blue with a blood-red crest. As you draw your sword they become aware of your presence, and advance on you in leaps and bounds, giving off birdlike cackles and fearsome, rasping shrieks. You move in, aiming for the leader-

And at this point Monster Hunter’s peculiar sense of realism kicks in as it belatedly occurs to you that- by golly! it might just take a little time to swing a weapon the size of a Ford Escort and- heaven’s above! that Giaprey isn’t just going to sit there while you do so. Your gear, proof against the cold, offers rather less protection against teeth and claws, and after a moment’s fruitless flailing you are carted, bruised, bloodied and unconscious, back to camp.

Patience, young grasshopper. Lick your wounds and meditate awhile. Take the time to delve into the training missions, and learn the many nuances of each of the ten weapon types. That Great Sword you carry may have tremendous stopping power, but to wield it against such adversaries is like trying to slay gnats with a bulldozer. A simple Sword and Shield may offer a better balance of speed and endurance, or you might prefer to step back from the fray and rain down chargeable vengeance with a Bow, or opt for the immense defensive strength and explosive counterattacks of the Gunlance.

You begin to master the arts of evasion and timing, when to wind up your uber-moves and when to roll out of reach, when to give chase and when to take flight. You get to grips with the unresponsive camera system. You familiarise yourself with the fundamentals of a hunter’s inventory: potions and herbs to maintain your health, rations and steaks to boost your stamina, whetstones to keep an edge on your blade. A cannier opponent, you set out once more to the snowy mountainside and inflict all kinds of merry hell on the hapless Giaprey, returning laden with pelts, fangs and meat, odd berries and mushrooms, nuggets of iron ore and discarded bones. Your success makes you complacent, and you decide to try one of the higher ranked quests.

Somebody is willing to pay astronomical prices for a Rathlos egg. The nest is accessible enough, a heap of mouldering branches in a secluded crevasse, reached by way of a tunnel past tangles of ferns. You pause to catch your breath. The silence is oppressive, ominous.

You heft one enormous egg and clasp it to your chest. It gleams silkily in a shaft of stray sunlight. You settle it a little more comfortably between your arms, glance around and turn- straight into the gaping maw of a fifty-foot-long alligator.

The ensuing battle is nasty, brutish and short. One massive claw dashes the egg from your grasp and shatters it against the rock. You draw your Long Sword and get a few piddling blows in before the beast butts you full in the chest, sending you hurtling into the opposite wall.

Don’t give up, grasshopper. Persevere, persevere. Back at the village, you throw open your hoard and fish out spider webs and strands of ivy, which you weave into a sturdy net. You buy a trap tool at the local depot, and a few minutes’ work yields a pitfall trap. Further experimentation leads to poisoned arrows, throwing knives tipped with anaesthetic, and a variety of devastating bombs.

Then you gather together what raw materials you’ve amassed and head down to the blacksmith, there to spend the first of many hours tinkering with your armour and weapons, plumbing the game’s muddled ocean of skills and statistics, calculating whether the durability of this Hammer offsets the ice affinity of that, or whether you want to use up those precious resources on sturdier mail or a nifty set of gauntlets, a sniper scope for your Bowgun or a gemstone for your helm…

You get the picture, anyway.

There’s a thin line between challenging and frustrating, and Monster Hunter is never far from the brink. I’ve hopefully given some sense of the complexities of even basic combat, which can at least be picked up by rote; the game is less generous when it comes to the innumerable details required for effective equipment customisation, which are communicated to the player by way of cryptic phrases like ‘Faint Prob Halved’ or ‘Cold Inc [Lo]’. To really open out the guts of the thing you’ll need to download a FAQ, or be prepared for some considerable trial and error. Monster Hunter is not a game you’ll be playing in snatches on your way to work.

But stick with it, and an odd synchronicity occurs between the lumbering movements of your hunter and the more unforgiving design elements, which begin to feel less like flaws than plausible parts of the Monster Hunting experience, the cumbersome armour you bear in-game mirrored by a carapace of awkward mechanics. You’ll come to despise those weaker gamers, with their incessant wittering for intuitive, accessible gameplay. Save-anywhere feature? Unlimited inventories? Pfffff. The Great Edwige Von Arse-Smiter trucks not with such triflings.

Not all of the flaws, however, can be put down to your simply being l33t3r than your fellow man. There’s the odd instance of gimped AI, like a boar which charges repeatedly into a cliff as you squat above it, and while the inhabitants of the breath-taking environments are among the most lifelike virtual organisms I’ve ever seen, it seems a shame there isn’t some sort of ecosystem to round out the illusion. You’ll never come across a Velociprey pouncing on one of the deer-like Kelbi, or glimpse a wyvern flying off with a Bullfango in its talons.

Then there’s the inevitable question of originality. For all its additional weapons, new areas and creatures, MHF2 is largely the same game Console Obsession reviewed back in 2006 (which was, in turn, largely the same game as its PS2 precursors), and many of Simon’s initial caveats still apply. The titanic loading times are present and correct, and while you can enable a speedier background loading feature this takes a Pleisoth-sized chomp out of the battery life, hardly a boon on the PSP of all platforms.

Perhaps most irritatingly though, Capcom still haven’t managed to do the decent thing and shoehorn in some kind of infrastructure multiplayer, which means we’re again stuck with Ad Hoc or the tricksy Xlink Kai. According to my nefarious sources, this decision is to be attributed to the company’s prioritising the needs of Japanese consumers, amongst whom Ad Hoc parties are comparatively commonplace. While Capcom can hardly be blamed for pandering to the core market- Monster Hunter is among the few Playstation franchises capable of whacking chunks out of the Nintendo colossus in Japan- their strategy is no less irksome given that the game is so patently built for multiplayer. There are a whole suite of hunts and abilities designed with two or more hunters in mind, and the girl at the Quest counter never fails to bring this to your attention. “You’re heading out alone?” Of course I am, silly wench, just as I have done since time immemorial. Get on the blower to your bosses and tell them to patch in some proper co-op pronto, capiche?

Ultimately your affection for MHF2 will depend on whether you want to invest sufficient blood, toil, tears and sweat to unlock its true creative scope. At heart this is a fine game, pure, unapologetic role-playing wrapped in some of the slickest graphics and most arresting production values to be found on the system. But, to rehearse that time-honoured reviewer’s adage, it certainly isn’t for everyone. If your idea of hardcore is Spyro the Dragon, dock a few marks from the score, but if you regularly play Ninja Gaiden with a blindfold- well, you probably own this game already.