Monster Hunter: World review

Capcom puts its best paw forward, with some cat-veats.

Monster Hunter: World feels like a make-or-break moment. The 14-years-old series has never breached Western shores with the same critical popularity it enjoys in Japanwhere its largely portable releases fit into tighter geography and a better greater public transit. Its string of recent releasesand re-releasesfor 3DS and PSP engendered scattered shouts of support against a united roar of trepidation.

The friction only escalated Monster Hunter’s reputation for being impenetrably complex and filtered through unwieldy controls. And so World—with its dual analog control on home consoles and promised quality-of-life improvements—feels like the series’ last, best chance to break out of its funk for a long, long time. Even if it’s not quite that simple.

Monster Hunter: World isn’t as simple as it could be, either. This latest entry hasn’t abandoned what makes the games great; it escalates it. The titular monsters are more menacing (at least visually, covered as they are in spines, spikes, and poisonous fangs). They move with a kind of character that both expresses their intent, allowing the player to damage them during predictable openings, and expresses who the creatures are.

I faced dozens examples from each species in my (so far) 40-odd hours with World. I “carved” them for semi-random body parts that I crafted into gear to fight more of their kind more efficiently. It’s the overriding rhythm of the loot-driven series, which sports no “traditional” role-playing game levels. When you get better, it’s because you crafted better gear from your foes.

Yet I never thought of myself as fighting “a” venom-spewing Pukei-Pukei, or “an” enormous Anjanath. I fought Rathalos. I fought Odogaron and Legiana. Period. I know their quirks, dislikes, and strengths like I know where my cat likes to be scratched. They’re not characters exactly, but there’s personality in the way they distend their rubbery body bodies across the screen.

In that way, developer Capcom shows it understands that scale can be just as impressive in the inverse of what we usually mean when we talk about games. Feeling impotent in the face of a roaring, feathered T-Rex is impressive. But what I remember about the beast is the way its strange brain-fin extends before it charges. The tilt of a lizard-dog’s head still tells my hands to send my hunter dodging before my brain knows I’m about to be hit with a spinning tail whip. These minuscule details speak a language my post-industrial brain has forgotten: the instinct to be afraid of things that are stronger than I am.

I felt none of that intensity in my attempts to love Monster Hunter before World. Maybe it was the soupy handheld textures. Maybe the screens were just too small to wrap the danger around me. Instead I was obsessed with YouTube videos that broke down Monster Hunter’s wildly unique weaponstheir fighting game-style combos and cancels, ammunition types, and various statswhich the games themselves couldn’t bother to explain for newcomers.

I was more concerned about myself than the, ahem, World around me. But Monster Hunter: World sets up its dino-dragon ecosystem with as many intricacies as the beasts themselves. They eat one another, get into fights while ignoring you as a lesser threat, and bulldoze the four major environments in ways that completely redraw your battle lines. Juking an armored Barroth is all fun and games, until its noisy stomping encourages a much mightier Dialbos to bore up through the earth, sucking you into a hidden chasm and down into a ménage à trois of sand, swords, and bony protrusions.

Aiding you in battle are those aforementioned weapons. There are 14 of them in World—if you don’t include the hundreds of elemental, ailment inducing, and just plain upgraded variations within those classesand not one of them feels the same.

My personal favorite is the Insect Glaive. It works a bit like a blender turned inside out, if blenders could fly and remote control vampiric beetles. The Glaive is a high-flying weapon, designed to polevault my character into the air with ease in order to tackle monsters from above. My runner-up is the Gunlance, which is like if a lance was also a gun. You use it to hold up an almost impenetrable shield. Occasionally, you test enemies’ defenses with careful jabs. Even more occasionally, you go hog wild with ground-pounding slams that end with driving an explosive spike into a monster’s anus.

I love both these weapons dearly. They are my vicious children that, like the monsters they were built from and meant to kill, express their personalities through motion. I know just how long a diving spin attack from the Insect Glaive with full nectar will last and where I need to be for it to juggle me back into the air for a second, third, and fourth consecutive jump. This knowledge doesn’t just feel good; it feels like the product of a long-term relationship in ways that few games can.

I only wish World made that information more obvious. The game is chock full of tutorials and tool-tips. It layers on its mechanics over an honest-to-goodness campaign, with cutscenes and voice acting and everything, which is something Monster Hunter has sorely lacked for some time. There are glossaries and research notes and guides to reference from half a dozen menus. And it still isn’t enough to cleanly address everything Monster Hunter throws at its unsuspecting players.

What’s a weapon’s “affinity” rating mean? What’s the difference between blunt and sever damage? Just how effective is hitting a monster’s elemental weakness if it means using a weapon with lower physical damage? How in the ever-loving hell does the Hunting Horn work? I learned these tidbits and more by, once again, watching YouTube videos. Maybe the specifics are squirreled away in the game’s indices, but these are oddly decentralized into tips, tutorials, and “field guide” sectionsall located in different menus.

For every frustratingly opaque bit of minutiae, however, there are at least three vast improvements over past games. First, a radial menu makes using items mid-battle scads easier than ever. Second, whetstones are no longer a limited resource. Lastly, monster weaknesses are recorded in a digital book for easy access. These are tremendous additions that generally turn World into the “make-or-break” entry point for the series we in the press have helped prop it up as. But damn it all if I don’t wince every time I forget my favorite unlisted combo and need to google it again…

Monster Hunter: World is messy, to be sure. It puts the rigid personalities of its weapons and enemies into one of the most interesting, most satisfying combat rhythms I’ve ever played. That rhythm is more accessible than ever, too. But rigidity isn’t usually compatible with perfection. In keeping so much of what made Monster Hunter great for 14 years, while also opening it up to human beings with reasonable amounts of free time, Capcom missed a few hiccups that should have been washed down by now.

That said, I still don’t think I’ll stop the hunt any time soon.

Verdict: Yes