The original Monster Hunter wound up being a highly anticipated game that ultimately fell short of its potential when it shipped for the PlayStation 2 in 2004. The third-person action game set you loose in a prehistoric world and let you hunt massive beasts alone or with up to four friends. However, despite its propitious setup, the game was marred by control issues that ultimately kept it from delivering on its promise. The recent release of Monster Hunter Portable for the PSP looks to be a smart adaptation for Sony's portable system, with a fair amount of the issues from the original game, as well as some interesting new content. We got our hands on the import version and have been hunting monsters on the go to see if it lives up to its expectations.
The core experience of Monster Hunter Portable should be familiar to anyone who played the original game. If you get down to brass tacks, this is a tweaked version of Monster Hunter G, which was itself an upgrade to the original Monster Hunter. You'll find the content from both games contained therein, as well as PSP-specific elements, such as ad hoc multiplayer (sorry no infrastructure folks) and a revamped control scheme.
You'll begin by creating a custom character that falls into one of four main types based on his or her main weapon. As before, you'll be able to tweak your character's name, sex, face, hair, hair color, and voice. The story begins in the comfort of your hut, which contains your bed and an item box. Your hut is situated in the game's hub, a town, which connects to the gameplay areas. There is also a new farm, which lets you forage in between quests. Speaking of new elements, there will be significantly more cat content than the previous entries in the series, thanks to the new farm, which is run by the little critters, and a swanky kitchen, where the trained cat staff is on hand to offer you dinner and a show. Once you've made your rounds and had a look around town, you'll chat with the village elder and start getting some jobs, which will familiarize you with the basics on monster hunting.
Once you take on a job you'll head out to the appropriate area and get to work. Before leaving the relative safety of your camp you'll be able to stock up on items such as flint, food, weapons, ammo (if you use a gun), and cooking implements, which you may need while you're out and about. You'll head out of your camp and commence with the hunting and killing of monsters. As with the console games, the portable Monster Hunter offers a "love it" or "hate it" mix of standard hacking and slashing peppered with random bits of goofiness. If you're deep into role-playing and living the adventure of a prehistoric dinosaur hunter, then you'll no doubt be irked by some of the fluffy stuff, like when you're cooking meat (taken off your kill) over a spit and you hear chirpy music. The same holds true for the cat people you'll encounter. However, if you look past it, Monster Hunter comes packing some neat Phantasy Star Online-like stuff. As we mentioned, you'll be able to cook food, use the materials you get off critters to enhance your gear, and collect unique items.
Your overall time in the game will be spent taking on missions, killing or foraging as the need arises, and exploring the hub area in between assignments. The town hub lets you upgrade your gear, talk to locals, farm, and take in some fine cat cuisine and entertainment. Aside from the single-player experience, Monster Hunter Portable features some slick multiplayer action for up to four prospective hunters via the PSP's wireless capabilities. We've only just started to scratch the surface of these modes, but so far we like what we're seeing.
The visuals rank among some of the best seen on the PSP (those from the PlayStation 2 game are re-created almost perfectly). The engine makes effective use of its polygon budget, mixing detailed character models and environments with smartly placed 2D elements. The technique works quite well and helps offer a good sense of scope and wide-open space to the adventure as you explore the vast grassy plains, dense woods, and dark caverns. In addition to the in-game graphics, Monster Hunter Portable also gets some extra mileage out of clean CG movies that pop up. However, the game does still appear to share the same rough spots as its console cousins, so you should prep for occasionally awkward camera angles and some slowdown. Hopefully, these things can be fine-tuned before it hits the States.
The audio is comparable to the PlayStation 2 version, right down to the Dolby Pro Logic II support. All the effects appear to have made the leap from the PlayStation 2 and they sound as sharp as ever, especially through a good pair of headphones. The music, a mix of epic sweeping tunes along with the goofier fare, is good stuff.
Based on what we played, we can say that Monster Hunter Portable has a lot going for it. The single-player game offers a fair amount of quests to go through and a solid amount of challenge. However, as before, the multiplayer mode is where the game shines. The experience of taking down a large beast with a party of four is as satisfying as ever, and the assorted items you can collect offer plenty of incentive to do just that. All of the above greatly benefits from the streamlined control scheme, which enhances the gameplay dramatically. Finally, the improved cat content is a plus for those who are feline fanciers. Anyone thinking of importing the game should be aware that MHP is heavy on the Japanese and requires a decent grip on the language. While it is still possible to get through the menus through trial and error, you'll be missing out on quite a bit. Your best bet will be to bide your time until the game, titled Monster Hunter Freedom in the US, hits early next year. Look for more on Monster Hunter Portable in the coming months.