Up until now, the Monster Hunter series has mainly existed in my periphery. I knew of and respected these games for the better part of the last decade, but I never played any of them (with the exception of Monster Hunter: Stories) due to what I had perceived as a simplistic concept and gritty tone. I couldn't have been more wrong. Thanks to Anime News Network putting this game on my desk, I now regard Monster Hunter as one of the most immersive, colorful, and engrossing franchises on the market today. The series comes with a fair share of hindrances, to be sure, but it's more than deserving of the limelight that 2018's hit – Monster Hunter: World – thrust upon it, thanks to its absurd mechanical depth and fantastic visual design. But in order to talk about Rise, the latest mainline release in the series, I have to talk about some aspects of the franchise as a whole. Specifically, the glue that binds the whole experience together: the gameplay loop.
There is no leveling system in Monster Hunter. You don't get stronger by gaining experience points from slaying beasts or allocating some sort of in-game currency. Instead, its progression system is entirely gear-based. This means you will go out into its biomes, collect resources from the environment and from monsters, and use those materials to craft from a list of weapons and armor that grows as you progress through the game. Difficult challenges must be overcome by assessing the tools available to you and chasing after the ones you feel will prove most beneficial in the hunt.
This means considering what sort of elemental damage or status inflictions you'll be encountering, and which ones the monster you're hunting is most susceptible to. It can even mean looking at the movement pattern of the beast and which of the 14 weapon types counters it best. Then you have to acquire the gear itself, which sometimes requires breaking off certain parts of the bodies of specific monsters during combat or even trying to capture them alive. This process continues until players collect enough types of armor and weaponry that they feel prepared for any threat the game can throw at them. It's easy to see how this loop can lead to farming fatigue. Taking down a monster several times without getting the specific part that you need is frustrating, especially considering that hunts can sometimes last over half an hour. However, wielding the hide and fangs of powerful, memorable foes and steamrolling through a monster that once dragged you through an hour-long fight in a matter of minutes is immensely rewarding and a tangible and visible way to depict progression. This unparalleled sense of forward momentum is a vital ingredient in Monster Hunter's recipe.
Every aspect of that loop plays into what I feel is the design focus of the entire development team: Authenticity Monster Hunter games are painstakingly designed to make the player feel as though they are pushing themselves through all the rigors of hunting an actual monster. In Monster Hunter: World, beasts must be tracked and studied in order to learn their habits and weaknesses. Weapons dull during combat and must be sharpened. Your hunter becomes fatigued over time and has to cook and eat to regain strength. Monsters also feel realistically grounded within the world. They fight with each other over territory, rest, feed, and flee when badly injured. Luring them into traps, poisoning them, and sedating them can be key to taking them down. The 14 types of weapons at your disposal are unique and imaginative, perfectly toeing the line of the player's suspension of disbelief. You don't feel like a legendary hero or a super-soldier; you feel like a guy with a big sword hunting dragons.
Rise, I think, will be divisive amongst fans because it does away with a touch of that authenticity in order to add more depth to its combat specifically. Monster's locations are always prominently displayed on a map, and when they flee their destinations are marked as well. Additionally, the Palamute mount and Wirebug grapples make traversal a breeze. Combined, these elements dial the energy of the hunt way up, greatly reducing the downtime spent searching for or chasing after monsters.
My favorite design element in this latest entry is the decision to make monsters mountable. Coming up with ways to get monsters face-to-face and riding them into battle against one another is an absolute power trip, and by far the most enjoyable piece of Rise's combat pie. Aside from the normal game, Rise also introduces new “Rampage” quests into the Monster Hunter formula, which I think will be decidedly hit or miss. These are basically tower defense segments, complete with tower management and prioritization tactics. Personally, without any of the aesthetic flair of the one-on-one fights, Rampage mode lost me, and I stayed out of it when I could.
That flair is an important part of what makes Monster Hunter compelling. Rise had a much harder time hooking me than World, and almost entirely because of the dip in visual quality that the Switch demanded. Where it improved, however, was in the audio department. I'm not talking about music – none of the tracks stood out to me that much – but the dub. The voice acting in this game cannot and should not be overlooked. Hunters shout and gloat throughout every fight. I'm thoroughly impressed with how many different voice lines there are for using different items or accomplishing different feats during combat. That simple touch made me feel even more immersed in my character and their world than I'd expected.
There are many nitpicks I have with the Monster Hunter series, as well as Rise specifically, but I think the most warranted complaint I could make of these games is their approachability for newcomers. These games do not hold hands or explain themselves. When I picked up Rise, I was primarily in a state of confusion for the first 15 hours, before returning to World (which I had bought a year prior but put down quickly) for its more thorough tutorials. Eventually, I even turned to guides and forums for instruction, which I typically try not to do while writing reviews. I feel that if a game is unable to impart an understanding of its mechanics to a player, then that's a failing on the developer's part – not the player's.
For series veterans, however, Monster Hunter: Rise provides enough new mechanics and features to deliver a deeply engaging gameplay experience. It's imaginative, fun, and well-designed. And it can be all that and more for new players as well, but be warned: you may have to be prepared to sit with the game for at least 15 hours before the gameplay really clicks, and within that space, there's going to be more than enough frustration to make you want to drop your controller permanently.