Despite the fact that 2001's Phantasy Star Online still stands as one of the most significant titles in the short history of online console gaming, no other game has really tried to do what Sonic Team's space-age multiplayer dungeon crawler did. Capcom's recently released Monster Hunter is about as close an attempt as we've seen so far, but it suffers because of two significant flaws. One is that the gameplay simply fails to capture what was fun about PSO--by today's standards, this is a clunky and cumbersome action game. And the second is that its execution of online play is archaic in a way not seen since the days of the Dreamcast.
Monster Hunter takes place in a pseudo-prehistoric time and place--our best guess is somewhere around 20XX BC--in which small tribes of humans with a fair amount of technological sophistication live mostly in peace. Except, of course, for all the monsters. Actually, "monsters" is a little bit of a misnomer, as the majority of the creatures you'll encounter tend to resemble stylized dinosaurs. There are certainly some creatures here that we're pretty sure do not hail from any prehistoric era, such as the thieving tribe of cat people, or the big dragons, and this blending in of seemingly random elements gives the game a kind of anime vibe.
Before you enter the world of hunting monsters, though, you'll need to create a character. The character-creation system is all pretty boilerplate stuff. You choose your character's gender, and each option has its own set of prefab faces and hairstyles to select from. You also get to choose your character's voice, which manifests itself as a collection of "hip!" and "huah!" sounds. There isn't an especially deep level of customization, but the sheer number of choices you have within the available set of options makes up for a lot. Either way, your character will soon be buried under layers of armor and massive weapons, so in the end it truly does not matter much.
The first time you play, the game will take you automatically to "the village," which serves as the hub for all your offline activities. It's here that you get all your quest assignments; buy and sell goods, weapons, and armor; and rest up. You can also take materials you've collected out in the field to a shop in the village and use them to upgrade weapons and armor, or create something from scratch. The game encourages you to use the crafting system rather than just buy all your gear by making it cheaper to craft than to buy. Once you talk to the chief in the village, who will present you with a list of quests that you can undertake, you'll head out into the wilds.
There are two basic types of quests you can take on in Monster Hunter. First of all, there are the hunting quests, in which you're charged with entering the faux-prehistoric wilds and slaying a certain number of beasts, or bringing back trophies of your kills, such as horns, skins, or hunks of meat. The combat is pretty simple. You start off with a single blade weapon, though you can choose to switch over to the slow-moving but extremely powerful great swords or hammers, the faster-moving dual swords, or the ranged bowgun fairly early on.
There's definitely a distinct feel to each of the weapon types, but none of them really feel responsive enough, and the sensation that you're fighting against the controls is a fairly constant one. You'll move your character around with the left analog stick and initiate attacks with the right analog stick. Each direction on the right stick will perform a different attack, and there are a small number of combo moves that you can pull off, but the whole system feels a little too automated. Once you start in on a combo, it takes a while to make it stop. This is problematic because the game has no real lock-on system, and if the monster you're trying to slay moves after you start your attack--which happens often--you'll find yourself combo-attacking thin air. The movement in general feels pretty clunky, too, as you need to come to a complete stop in order to eat something or sheath your weapon, and your character does a weird little half step every time you stop, which creates unnecessary pauses whenever you want to change direction. So the combat in Monster Hunter unfortunately isn't great, but then, there's the other type of questing to be done.
That other type--the gathering quests--requires you to scour the environments for stuff like herbs, mushrooms, or more-dangerous bounty, such as monster eggs. However, by making you wander around the different zones, looking for patches of mushrooms or the bright colorations of the herb plants, these quests prove to be even less fun than the hunting. The game really piles on the gathering quests early on, though the ratio does eventually even out a bit.
Your alternative to "the village" is "the town," which serves as the hub for the online version of the game, and though it's a little bigger physically, it's functionally not that different. In fact, except for the part where you're either in a party of up to four human players or lone-wolfin' it, the offline and online modes are roughly identical. Of course, many of the quests are inherently more entertaining if you play them cooperatively.
Actually playing the game online is pretty straightforward, but getting from the main menu to a place where you can actually start playing an online session is a needlessly drawn-out process. Between hitting X to choose to go to "the town" and having a selection of lobbies presented to you, you'll have to hit the X button no less than 11 times and sit through three progress bars. If this doesn't sound fun, well, it isn't.
There's a ton of other weirdly archaic design in the online game, such as the excessive number of tiers within the lobby system. First you have to choose a server, then a color-coded "area," and then a "town" within that. The four-player limit for the parties works, considering the size of the maps in the game, but limiting the "town" population to eight players seems like an unnecessary bottleneck, forcing players to hop around from town to town to find a group they really want to play with. Other stuff, like the lack of headset support, just makes the whole experience feel really antiquated. It's as though Capcom has completely ignored the lessons offered by all the online console games over the past several years.
The technical quality of the graphics in Monster Hunter surpasses the Dreamcast game that it's inspired by, though not by much. The areas you'll fight in are pretty confined, and have some blocky level geometry and highly pixilated textures, and yet there are noticeable loading times as you travel between them. The monsters definitely received more care than the environments, and though they generally look and move pretty naturally, they are marred by some of the worst aliasing we've seen in a while. Also, the camera is, in a word, terrible. It will never rotate on its own, even as you change direction, leading to some awkward perspectives. Since your control over the camera angle is limited to pressing L1 to snap it right behind you, or using the D pad to manually rotate it (which requires you to stop moving, unless you have two left thumbs), your struggle with your perspective on the action will regularly be as challenging as your battles with the monsters. But even beyond these technical issues, the whole look of the game is just kind of bland. You don't get a great sense of personality, and the color palette is uniform and drab.
Still, there's a certain consistency to the game's look that's worth something. But the sound is a bit random. Rather nondescript adventure-themed orchestral music pops in and out seemingly without any rhyme or reason, which contrasts bizarrely with the freaky monkey-grinder music that plays when you're cooking up some meat. The environmental music is at least appropriate, and though there isn't a lot of variety in the sound effects for each type of beast, what's there is generally fitting. As mentioned above, your character's speech is limited to a set of action-oriented grunts, though other characters will vocalize their text-based dialogue with either vaguely foreign-sounding speech or creepy backward-sounding speech.
Ultimately, Monster Hunter just feels irrelevant. Its seemingly single-minded purpose of re-creating the Phantasy Star Online experience apparently superseded any motivation to make it a unique, original experience. Had Monster Hunter actually been released during the Dreamcast era, which is where it seems to hail from, it probably would have fared pretty well. But in today's world, it's merely a living fossil, reminding us of what online console gaming once looked like.