Monster Hunter Generations can be a tough game to love. It isn't going to treat you nice--if you're having trouble with a battle, no hint screen pops up pointing out the obvious tells you may have missed. The creatures have no large, glowing "hit me here" emblems like in most other action-adventure games.
You learn--sometimes through repetition, often through failure--how to deftly use your weapons. You have to watch your prey carefully, plan out an attack, and when the beast starts to limp, then you go in for the kill. When you fail, it's almost always because you were too greedy, you rushed headlong into battle instead of being patient, biding your time. This is the flow that Monster Hunter Generations captures so perfectly, and which lies at the heart of why Monster Hunter is such a consistently well-regarded series.
Last year's Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate added a couple of new weapons, as well as the ability to attack from above and mount your prey. Monster Hunter Generations retains 4 Ultimate's additions and takes them even further with new Hunting Styles and Hunter Arts. For a newcomer who might just be getting their head around which weapon they should use, there's an intimidating amount of new info at the outset of the game, but the Hunter Arts in particular open up combos and attack possibilities that make playing the game easier than ever before.
Doling out damage in combat builds up various Hunter Arts meters that have a wide range of helpful effects, from an automatic combo that deals major damage to a stamina boost that can help you escape dangerous situations. The new Hunting Styles determine how many of those Hunting Arts you're able to equip and also affect the combos you're able to pull off. The Guild Style is the closest to the standard Monster Hunter experience for people who don't like change. The Aerial Style lets you jump, making the relatively new mounting mechanic even easier to pull off. Striker Style sacrifices some combos in order to use more Hunter Arts. And the Adept Style is an advanced setup that allows players who are able to dodge and guard with expert timing to hit for additional damage.
The additions don't decrease the game's difficulty, but they do provide new ways to approach combat and allow even novices to wreak havoc on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the game does a terrible job of explaining how most things work, including the new Styles and Arts. Tutorials are text heavy affairs and even within tutorial missions, you're frequently told to consult your Hunter's Notes (basically an in-game manual) for more information. To get an education on how to play Monster Hunter at the skill level required to tackle the game's tougher beasts requires finding an experienced friend or going to YouTube videos for practical advice.
But a great way to jump into the game for newcomers, and to breath new life into the experience for veterans, is by playing as the cat-like Prowler. The game's feline companions have become more and more involved with the main game over the years, but in Generations, you can actively take on the role of a cat you recruit. The rules for cats are different from the regular hunters'. You can't use items--instead, cats are able to perform actions like fishing and mining without wasting any consumables. You have nine lives, giving you a few more opportunities to fail during a fight. And the cats have a whole slew of different abilities that they can learn by leveling up. The Prowlers aren't quite as hardy as the main hunter, but the focus on faster action, being able to gather resources without using items, and their unique combat abilities make them a great way to change up both the single- and multiplayer campaigns.
Gameplay-wise, the Prowlers are fairly self-explanatory, but the customization, abilities, and leveling system is very different and much more complicated than the standard hunter. Like with most things in Monster Hunter, either trial-and-error or online guides are a much better way to figure out how things work than wading through the frequently sparse in-game explanations.
Otherwise, Generations hews closely to 4 Ultimate: the musical score is great and worth wearing headphones to fully appreciate. The excellent online multiplayer system, despite the lack of voice chat, provides stable connections whether you're online or in the same room as your friends. Generations even tries to make the game's primary systems easier to access. The multiplayer arena has a staging area with all of the amenities you'll find in town: tweak your character, upgrade your armor, fill up on a stat-boosting meal. The hunter area is so friendly that in some ways, it makes exploring the game's towns feel almost unnecessary.
Each town is full of visual personality and offers new quests to collect from the townsfolk, but those quests could just as easily be collected elsewhere. Admittedly, it would be annoying to constantly check the stock of each town individually for new items or needlessly go back and forth between towns to get to the actual game of hunting. But, outside of the nostalgia elicited by character cameos from previous Monster Hunter games, you're not given any compelling reason to explore or visit the different locations.
It's easier to hang out in the main hub since that's where you have to go to group up with other people anyway. But spending any amount of time there highlights Generations’ bigger issue: there's no good reason the game should separate its single-player and multiplayer content. Calling them that is a bit misleading. To clarify, the main game, with separate towns and NPCs, is only available offline and as a single-player experience. The mostly nonexistent story about powerful monsters sits far on the periphery of the game. But the Hub area, where you can group up with other players or take on challenges on your own, offers up the mostly the same quests with mostly the same rewards but minus the story.
Essentially, to get the full game experience, you have to play through almost every quest twice, but you can only increase your publicly displayed Hunter Rank by playing in the Hub. The same problem existed in 4 Ultimate, but that game got away with it to a degree by giving you an evolving town and a more cohesive narrative to explore in single-player. In Generations, there isn't enough of a divide between playing with friends and playing on your own to make the separation feel like anything more than artificial padding.
But none of Monster Hunter weaknesses are able to drag down the core experience. That artificial padding forces you to fight the same monsters over and over again, but that's something you'll want to do anyway to complete the best sets of armor and just better at the game. Monster Hunter Generations' tutorials are obtuse, and you can only learn where to find some rare items by dumb luck or by looking them up in a guide. But the combat system still offers the same deep rewards it always has. Monster Hunter Generations still feels like a niche, punishing game that bears more in common with Dark Souls than an adventure game you'd typically find on 3DS. But that punishment never feels arbitrary.
After dozens of hours I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this adventure--there are other weapons and Hunter Art combinations I want to try, and of course, there are many more monsters to hunt. With Monster Hunter you get out what you put into the game, and Monster Hunter Generations is a game that compels me to put in more of my time.