There are plenty of mightier, meatier monsters to be found out there in the wilds of Monster Hunter World’s Astera. Like Tobi-Kadachi, the mutant squirrel bastard who’ll stun you with the spark in his tail as he leaps from one tree to another, or the fire-breathing Anjanath who’ll happily one-shot fledgling hunters. Later, there are the grand towering Elder Dragons that’ll knock you this way and that as you whittle away at their generous pools of health on hunts that sap up the best part of an hour, all before you pick yourself up from the forest floor, dust yourself off and, like a kid stepping off a rollercoaster, say to yourself let’s do that again.
But still, it’s the humble Paolumu I’ve ended up loving the most. A mid-tier monster who prowls the Coral Highlands – a stunning otherworldly tangle of clashing pinks and purples that looks like it’s been culled straight from some 60s sci-fi gem – Paolumu is a masterpiece of offbeat imagination told through exquisite design and animation. A cutesy flying wyvern with a neck that can puff up until it looks like a child’s swim ring, the Paolumu is a bat/hamster hybrid who’s a joy to fight. I spent half a day happily dancing alongside them and repeatedly slaying them, just so I could plunder their remains for a full kit of gear; a fluffy number that serves some campy Barbarella fierceness. There are sturdier, more useful armour sets out there, but that’s not really the point of Monster Hunter. It’s all about doing things with a little bit of class.
And Paolumu gets to the very heart of why I love Monster Hunter; it’s silliness delivered with an awful lot of style, and all built around one of the most compelling loops you’ll come across in gaming. Hunt monsters and strike them down, so that you might craft trousers from their carcass that’ll help you best other, greater beasts whose corpses can then be used to craft more powerful trousers still. Rinse and repeat, until you realise you’ve clocked up a good 100 hours and found yourself looking at the family cat, wondering what kind of perks you might earn if you skinned them and turned them into a hat.
Monster Hunter World, which serves as the foundation for the fifth generation of Capcom’s series, doesn’t change any of that. At its very core this is the very same Monster Hunter, and in many ways it’s a more streamlined affair than we’ve become used to in recent years. After the dizzyingly broad variety box that was Monster Hunter Generations – itself a compilation of sorts that brought the fourth generation of Monster Hunter to an end – it’s even a relatively slight offering. Gone are the Hunter Arts, and there are no new weapons added to the 14-strong roster. In Monster Hunter World, the very kernel of the series goes largely untouched.
Which is well enough, really, given how wonderful that kernel is, and Monster Hunter World at least makes an effort to open it up to all. To say it’s accessible might be a slight overstatement – it’s quicker to get new players into the thick of the action, though it’s still just as quick to knock them back on their arses a few hours later and several key systems remain unexplained throughout – so perhaps it’s best to say it’s undergone a fair amount of modernisation, and now lags only slightly behind its contemporaries.
There’s an all-new training area where you can learn the intricacies of the hunting horn, or how to become more effective when wielding the hammer. Out on the field, scoutflies will now guide you to your prey once you pick up their trail, doing away with the headless dance that preceded the majority of hunts in older versions of the game. Progress is now more parsable, with single player and multiplayer combined and a clearer through line piecing together the campaign. The difference between Monster Hunter World and its predecessors can feel profound, though it says a lot about how impenetrable these games once were when the fact you no longer have to look up online what key quests you need to complete to move things forward is something worthy of praise.
To say that this is all simply Capcom opening up Monster Hunter to a broader audience is doing it a grand disservice, though. Elsewhere, there’s a reinvention of a long-standing series that’s just as radical in its own way as Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild, and just as effective too. At the centre there’s that same taut combat – communicated with such fidelity it feels perfectly at home on the big screen – though Monster Hunter World’s real trick is building outwards. The clue is in the title, really, and Monster Hunter goes to great pains to draw you into its environments.
They might not be as plentiful as before, but they’re certainly more detailed. Areas such as Wildspire Wastes and Ancient Forest are impossibly dense arenas, offering up seemingly endless warrens it’s easy to get lost in. Each map is now one seamless whole, with the loading screens that used to divide individual areas now excised completely. Each area is now thick with secrets, and with little tricks that can be used to help turn the tide in your favour during any particular hunt. There are traps to be sprung, beasts higher up the food chain to be summoned to help your cause and all manner of tools constantly at your disposal. Monster Hunter World is so crowded with ideas, and so liberal in their disposal, that it maintains the ability to surprise even after scores of hours worth of play.
In Monster Hunter World exploration is a reward in itself, in which you can partake in an expedition – the new open-ended adventures in which you’re free to tick off whatever bounties you’ve picked up as you please, or merely tinker with the scenery – just as eagerly as you might take on a new hunt. It’s not quite open world Monster Hunter, but it certainly benefits from a new sense of purpose in its environments. This series has never been short of fantastic beasts and wondrous toys with which to slay them; now it’s got playpens that are just as impressive to boot.
Like Breath of the Wild, Monster Hunter World is a game that looks towards the west for inspiration, yet it’s also one that western games could do well to learn from themselves. At a time when the likes of Bungie and EA are struggling to reward players for their investment in persistent online worlds, Capcom finds itself with something approaching the perfect formula. It’s only getting on for over a decade old, but it’s certainly never been any better than this.
That’s not to say it’s without its eccentricities, or its faults. There are omissions that will prove controversial with returning players – there’s no prance gesture to be found, an edit that will surely cut the deepest of all. For fresher players there are frustrations, such as the seemingly binary multiplayer scaling that makes it harder for smaller groups to overcome certain monsters than the solo hunter. There’s the clunky menus, and the many systems acquired over the years of Monster Hunter’s long history that clatter around clumsily together; there are the appendages and offshoots and dead-ends that can still, despite the best efforts of Capcom in Monster Hunter World, make it all seem infuriatingly arcane.
Invest a little, though, and you’ll get an awful lot back. The truth of Monster Hunter – and arguably its greatest strength – is that you’re never truly its master, and that every player, be they novice or veteran, is always learning something new. Monster Hunter World sees 13 years of evolution come crashing together with some new influences to create a very exciting breed of beast. This has always been a superlative series; with the release of World, it’s only become easier to see that’s an undoubtable truth.