I always thought of the Monster Hunter series as grindy MMO Skinner box stuff without the massively multiplayer part. You kill monsters, use their parts to build weapons, and use them to kill stronger monsters, getting better parts for better weapons, a cycle which continues perhaps not infinitely, but from Low Rank to High Rank to Elder Dragons to Tempered Monsters to Tempered Elder Dragons and still from there into Arch-Tempered monsters and all the other post-release nonsense content, which may take hundreds of hours, especially if you play the field of weapon options. After playing Monster Hunter World, I don’t think I was wrong: it’s a Skinner box. The story sure isn’t motivating anyone from Point A to Point B.
That being the case, I like it. Why? For one thing, unlike farming in some MMO, it’s a highly complex, skill-based game. The difficulty curve can be mean, but it’s well-structured: the damage dealt by monsters goes up faster than the numbers on your armor, and even in postgame you might just be getting to the point where you have to really learn not to get hit at all. These are the pieces which hold the game together: the sophistication of combat, and the Dark Souls-like monster bosses, which roam around their maps and get into emergent encounters with each other in a very cool ecosystem.
It also may be unfair to use the word “grind”. Is it grinding if you’re using your brain the whole time? Or trying out entirely new classes of weapons which may be hard to learn, and harder to master, requiring a completely different play style? Then again, to use a variety of weapon classes, one has to farm for rare gems and monster bones that much longer. In other words, I don’t know. But it’s variably rewarding and worthwhile, depending on your state of mind and willingness to try new things. If nothing else, it’s honest about what it is. If you’re going to play a game about endlessly killing the same monsters for shiny objects, you should play one that’s been structured from beginning to end in anticipation of that grind. For example, missions never have cutscenes in the middle, after whatever initial preamble, so you’re never forced to watch them with other players, and never have to mash to skip them for the hundredth time for that Xeno’jiva gem you need. But I definitely got pulled into a cycle of repetition and reinforcement. When you get to the point where you’re learning how to deco snipe, you have a problem.
I rarely if ever show an interest in the Soul Caliburs or Bayonettas — fighting and hack-and-slash games with a lot of long arbitrary move combos, where every button on your controller means “hurt people” in some inscrutable, arbitrarily different way from every other button. When a move is executed with “Y+B > Y > Y (Hold Y) > RT+B > Forward+B”, what does Y really mean? Does it mean anything? Monster Hunter is a cross between those and a Dark Souls control scheme, with that Souls-like approach to item management. Dark Souls doesn’t do those combos — it can get a little convoluted in some cases, but for the most part you have your fast and strong attacks, with a couple other buttons which further modify your moveset, such as by two-handing a weapon. I think Monster Hunter is somewhere in the middle, and given how long the series has been running, and its enduring popularity in Japan, it probably influenced Dark Souls, rather than the other way around, such as with how status afflictions are set. It’s still difficult to remember or correctly execute anything until it becomes muscle memory, but there’s some logic I can grasp, at least up to an extent.
Take the Gunlance. It’s easy enough to figure out that B is usually used for shelling, Y for swinging the lance, and RT for blocking. Using the block and swing buttons together pokes from behind the shield, and using the block and shelling buttons instead reloads the gun. I don’t consider either of these to be random or arbitrary assignment of buttons. But Y+B is just a different type of swing, with nothing to do with shelling, and in the middle of a combo, Y might become the button used to explode all the loaded shells. No doubt these are because the usual buttons are being put to more natural purposes, but it comes down to a lot of memorization. You just have to get used to it.
I thought it was worth learning at least a handful of the weapon classes. They’re fun and shockingly diverse, considering how many there are. Even the ranged classes can’t just set up and point and shoot: light bowgunners for example often have to get up close to lay down mines in useful positions, shotgun-blast an enemy with spread ammo before rolling away from an attack, or even just maneuvering into the “goldilocks zone” where they deal the most damage — not too close, not too far away. Although the bow isn’t as overpowered as it is in Dragon’s Dogma, it reminds me of that, in terms of feeling like I’m actually making an impact, and moving all the while. And even within one weapon type, there are dozens of weapons, not just differing by damage per second or elemental type, but often really shaking up the way the weapon is used. They all use the same moveset, but going back to the Gunlance for example, some have a lot of “ammo”, which means more damage when all loaded shells are detonated, whereas others are of the “wide” type and will get better results by specializing in different combos. This level of complexity wouldn’t be possible if they hadn’t been constantly iterating upon ideas present since the first Monster Hunter in 2004.
Accessibility and annoyances
By all accounts, this is the most “accessible” Monster Hunter ever, with many quality of life improvements over the earlier games. Or so I’ve been told. In practice, as a new player, you’re not going to figure out how anything works without a veteran player mentoring you, because the game sure as hell doesn’t explain anything.
There is some unhealthy randomization in places. Like the Xeno’jiva set skill “Spare Shot”, which randomly doesn’t expend ammo upon firing. This averages out to a healthy bonus in a machine gun, but in a one-round cluster bomb, I think getting this extra shot leaves far too much up to chance. And of course there’s the aforementioned “deco-sniping”. A simplified explanation is that this is where players save-scum until the bullshit gambling machine comes out in their favor, but even when doing this, it may take thousands of hours to get enough of the Rank-8 decorations to max out their respective skills. I’d say this is the last hurdle where you go from “endgame” into “If you’re still interested in playing now that you’re here, welcome to the rest of your life,” and I don’t like it: there are better ways to keep players from checking out simply because they’ve “done everything”. Tell them to do 100 hunts with each weapon type, or have them craft all the weapons, or something. Decorations should just be craftable.
The canteen system is one of my least favorite mechanics. Not only is it extremely bad at conveying information, but food skills have a low chance to be activated, which can only be raised with fresh ingredients. This has little to do with the ingredients you find and bring in, though. You either have to hope for good fresh ingredients by chance — and there’s a hell of a difference between getting the skill which prevents you from dying once when you run out of health, and getting some random combo of faster sharpening and a boost to some sticky ammo you’re not using — or, use a Voucher, which can’t simply be bought and are a pain to get in any sizeable quantities. Daily Skills are completely random, too.
I don’t hate the netplay — it’s mostly stable, and you don’t get dropped to a failure screen if the original hunter’s connection drops, or anything truly horrible like that — though it has some design problems. When you are disconnected from an instance, you have to solo it from then on, which is strange, as there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to fire an SOS flare and split the instance into a new multiplayer session. When people leave, they never seem to get replaced, either. This is already far more dynamic than earlier Monster Hunters, though — again, so I’ve been told — and there tends to be some pointless redundancy between the SOS flares and the lobby matchmaking. I can see the weird vestigial problems of the weird evolution of this system. Why have all this downtime at the home base? Why not be able to find the monsters you’re looking for at any time in one big map, instead of choosing an “investigation”? Why not be able to set global join conditions when first accepting a hunt, instead of choosing between your immediate session players or firing an SOS flare and taking anybody? The game also can’t remember search filters when responding to an SOS, so every time you fail to join a hunt before it’s already filled, you have to set them all up again. I suppose they have to be at least a little clumsy so there’s still room to improve for the eventual Monster Hunter World 2.
It’s not the best setup for anyone who wants to play through every mission concurrently with a friend, since you can’t invite them until you’ve finished the cutscenes, and would have to start separately, then quit the mission later and join into the other player’s instance. This is part of the whole “not being forced to watch cutscenes” thing, which I mentioned was actually a great thing, but it should be handled differently when you’re already partied up with friends. What I do think it’s pretty good about is playing with your friends when you’ve vastly out-geared them, since you may actually still need early-game materials — especially when trying out a new weapon class that you haven’t already upgraded into postgame tiers.
One really cool feature is that you can set custom messages with conditional triggers, like something to say when you’re healed by a party member, or you see them mount a monster. I wish there were a dozen more conditions that you could write responses for, like when you cut off a monster’s tail, or complete a mission you died multiple times in, or you see a party member capture a monster. Honestly, if it were a choice between an update with a completely new boss, or an update adding several more opportunities to write some dumb shit, I’d be torn.
What the game needs most are some new maps. I’d also love to see some more diverse fashion options to wear on top of the armors that actually determine your stats. I’m tired of wearing Dober and Nergigante sets, and it would give me a good reason to fight some new monsters that aren’t gods. I’m actually quite excited to see what comes in the expansion. The only problem is that it’s very difficult to pick this game back up again after taking a few months off: it’s daunting to even think about returning to the fights that were tough even when you still remembered what you were doing.
It’s hard to believe I’m giving a Skinner box a score of 4 out of 5, but it’s the best one out there. Also, some of the worst parts of trying to find everything in this game are mitigated by mods, which the developers have done nothing to crack down on in the multiplayer environment. I don’t love how necessary these are, but I’m glad they exist.