Already incredibly popular in Japan, the Monster Hunter series has had difficulties appealing to a wide audience in the West. The Action/RPG franchise is often criticized for its very harsh learning curve and its lack of a storyline. Initially available on Sony’s PSP, Capcom started releasing the games on Nintendo’s platforms starting with Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii and Monster hunter 3 Ultimate on the Wii U and the 3DS.

It has now been one month since the exclusive release on the 3DS of the latest game in the franchise, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. The developers added an online lobby, and to help newcomers, they softened the learning curve on the early stages and introduced crucial concepts early on in the game. The game also hosts a large number of brand new monsters and many recurring fan-favorites. Let’s say it straight up, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the best game in the series so far.

For anyone not aware of what exactly Monster Hunter games are, they are best described as a series of gauntlets against a large variety of bosses. You play as a hunter and start the game with basic equipment and supplies and must create your path filled with monster parts and viscera that you will wear as new equipment.

The original Monster Hunter had seven different weapon types, but Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate boasts 14, of which the seven original are present, albeit improved and with new moves assigned to them. The latest additions, the Insect Glaive and the Charge Blade, are imaginative and bring new exciting approaches to defeating your foes, especially the Insect Glaive which allows you to effortlessly mount monsters, a new mechanic introduced in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate.

Let’s talk about these new mechanics, mounting and climbing. Monster Hunter 3 and its derivations introduced underwater combat, a feature still controversial among players. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate removes it all-together and instead adds a whole new z-axis to the hunts. Your hunter can easily climb or leap from nearly any ledge or cliff. The movement is fluid and feels natural, and the new maps are obviously designed with this new addition in mind. Free falling is fun as it is, but if done correctly can lead to an even cooler mechanic: mounting.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - review - Region 2 - 1

Every weapon has been given a brand new attack whose entire purpose is to allow you to mount a monster. While in the air, simply press the attack button and your hunter will attempt to strike any foe in range. If you happen to hit a monster, then you might just straddle it and will be able to release your inner-cowboy, rodeo style. In-between the “Yeehaws” and “Yippees”, you should remember to repeatedly stab your impromptu ride in the back until it falls writhing in pain as you aren’t riding horses or bulls, but gargantuan beasts that do not like giving free piggy-back rides. They will try to shake you off, and you will have to interrupt the wild stabbing and try to hold on for dear life.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - review - Region 2 - 2

As for the gameplay, the controls are best described as misleading simple. X and A to attack, B to dodge, and R for specific moves related to your weapon. There lies a deep combat system that is just as much demanding as it is rewarding and gratifying; your entire move-set depends on the weapons you brought for the hunt. Do not expect the Great Sword to play like the Long Sword simply because they are both massive blades, the former prefers hard hitting blows while the latter favors fluid dance-like combos. The fluid and evasive strikes of the Sword and Shield might appeal to some, while others will fall in love with the barrage of shells provided by the Heavy Bowgun. Which weapon suits you best is for you to discover.

Your hunting grounds are varied, as you will explore glaciers and underground volcanoes, without forgetting to visit the desert, or a mountain circled by fog. The environment, though varied, can feel empty at times, made all the more striking when you notice the low level of detail of distant walls and background elements. The different beast’s movements are fluid and feel natural. There are attempts at creating the semblance of an over-arching ecosystem, but it is not really noticeable. It is a pleasure to rediscover old monsters in tandem with brand new ones. It is a blast to overcome the brutality of the Tigrex all over again, or partake in a deadly tango of blades with newcomer Seregios.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - review - Region 2 - 3

The game is composed of two parts, the solo “campaign” and the multiplayer hall. The solo campaign has you investigating a new “frenzy” virus as you travel across the land in a caravan. Where previous Monster Hunter games only had one village as a hub, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has many to choose from. While offline, you will be assisted by ‘felynes’, cat-like humanoids, who will help you in your hunts. You start with one main felyne that stays by your side for the entire game, but are eventually able to recruit others to the hunts.

Among the new features are also expeditions where your hunter is tasked with exploring a new zone, The Everwood, where he/she can gather and hunt anything he/she finds there. Completing these expeditions can unlock guild quests that increase in difficulty every time they are successfully completed. Incidentally, just as the difficulty goes up, so does the quality of the rewards.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - review - Region 2 - 4

The first half of the solo campaign, if it can be called as such, is more the tutorial of the game and serves to introduce players to most of the mechanics and intricacies the game has to offer, and it’s clear Capcom put as much effort as possible in making the game accessible to newcomers. The learning curve, though softened, still remains harsh, and players could still feel lost in their first few hours. This is an issue because the game demands close to 30 hours to even start grasping the depth of the combat and gathering components. Monster Hunter games require commitment, and even though Capcom tried their best at making those first few steps as welcoming as possible, new players are still likely to be rebuffed early on.

For those that stick through it, they will find an extremely rewarding experience. Monster Hunter is an RPG, but it does it differently than others. There is no experience bar and imaginary level points. Once you complete certain quests you simply gain access to other, often harder, quests. Your character, however, never changes. The equipment will change, the weapon as well, but dominating the game and its challenges depend on your skills exclusively.

You start the game fighting small monsters and incrementally gain access to larger, fiercer foes. You are the one that must learn the attack patterns of these beasts, and you are the one who must learn when it is the moment to leap in and strike. Monsters are tough, especially the later ones who will kill you mercilessly for the simple fact that you happen to breathe the same air they do. They will not make it easy on you, nor will you want them to as this is what makes the fight all the more rewarding when you slay a challenging monster and carve its corpse to wear its skull as your new helmet and its spine as your new sword.

The crux of the game, however, remains in the multiplayer. Capcom finally added proper online functionality, allowing up to four players to hunt together by using the online hall in the game. Do not think it will make the hunt any easier, as monsters will remain very challenging even with the help of three other hunters. You can also download free monthly updates that will award you with new quests and new gear.

Among the many new additions of the first update, was included an armor similar to Link’s iconic green attire from The Legend of Zelda, including a Master Sword and Holy Bow. Expect many more of these in-game tributes in the coming months, such as a Samus’ armor and cannon, and Mario and Luigi outfits for your offline felyne-companions.

If you’re already a Monster Hunter fan, then rest assured that this game will absolutely not disappoint. If you have never touched a Monster Hunter game before, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is your best bet to get you started.