"Monster Hunter: World" was the first game I've played in Capcom's cultishly popular action RPG series.
Normally, that would be a footnote to a game review, a way of contextualizing my gripes so the more initiated can decide how much weight to give them. But with "World," my experience — or lack thereof — needs to go in the lede. And that's because rookie players like me are this game's target audience.
Previous "Monster Hunter" games attracted a following of handheld players in Japan who craved its high difficulty and cooperative features. But "World," the fifth main entry in the series, is Capcom's first significant attempt to grow that following. Not only was it released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (and, later, Windows), but it was the first "Monster Hunter" game ever to be released worldwide simultaneously. So, as an American console player, it's the first "Monster Hunter" that has felt like it was made for me.
Of course, it's still a "Monster Hunter" game. The core feedback loop seems simple: You fight monsters in real time, then use their body parts and other resources to get stronger and fight tougher monsters, then repeat. But that loop is a long and narrow one. Some of those fights last as long as 20 heart-pounding minutes, and outside of a pair of centerpiece boss battles, they're the only adversity in the game. Where other action and role-playing games space out their difficulty spikes with more manageable enemies, "World" is wall-to-wall danger.
Surviving that danger and completing the game's main story took me almost 60 hours. That level of challenge for that length of time, stuffed into two weeks, could be exhausting. But it could also be exhilarating. So, in that sense, "World" succeeded. It didn't just hook me on "Monster Hunter," it helped me understand why it's so popular: Because it punishes and rewards in equally extreme measure. And each response works in cooperation with the other to keep you in the hunt, eyeing your next prey and where its plunder could take you.
That's the real story of "World." The story sees a group of hunters journeying to the New World, including yours, whom you can customize through a menu that might take you longer to complete than any monster fight in the game. This Fifth Fleet is then ravaged by an island-sized magma monster, Zorah Magdaros, shipwrecking them. After the fleet sets up camp at the naval hub Astera, your hunter is tasked with researching Zorah Magdaros and clearing out any other monsters you might find in the New World.
If the "New World" name wasn't on-the-nose enough, the game's extractive conceit makes it obvious: You're a colonist.
You've come to a land untouched by the human hand to cull its wildlife and collect its resources. Somewhere in "World," buried behind a menu or a conversational prompt, is reassurance that your little safari is meant to protect the native fauna through study, or removal of its predators, or something. But an early cutscene underscores the violence of the Fifth Fleet: When you find a Kulu-Ya-Ku, an ostrich-like monster, it's presented as a goofy curiosity. The music is whimsical, fun. Then your superior orders you to kill it anyway.
The game's thicket of menus and upgrade systems makes it easy to see such monsters as raw materials. As someone new to the series, I felt overwhelmed by it all: Weaponry, crafting, research and more, and not just for my hunter, but for her cat-like Palico companion, too. For maybe the first time ever, though, I was thankful that Capcom held my hand forcefully through each complicated layer of "World." I quickly discovered how I wanted to play, and how I needed to use those systems to play better.
With my dual blades and healing support from my Palico, I slayed almost the whole taxonomy of "World" with copious dodging and belly stabs. It's the same strategy I use in "Souls" games, which speaks to their similarity to "Monster Hunter." Indeed, the monsters of the New World are big and brutal, and though their attacks can be telegraphed, all it takes is a few of them to end the fight. Your margin of error is so slim that you might find your wrist shaking as the minutes add up. And in "World," they add up.
That's one difference from "Souls" games. Monster fights in "World" unfold across several spots on the game's five knotty maps, migrating to a new one when you whittle their health down a certain amount. During the pauses, you can sharpen your blades, restock potions and eat something at camp to buff your stats. The pauses also hint how much health the monster has left: "Monster Hunter" games don't give their enemies HP bars. But unless a skull appears over their icon on the map, or they limp back to their nest, you're clueless how much longer you have to go.
I can tie much of my exhaustion and exhilaration playing "World" to its lack of HP bars. I could hack away at a monster for 15 minutes, only to fail the battle after fainting the allotted three times — then face the anxiety of doing it all again, uncertain how much more damage I'd have to inflict. Or I could stew in that uncertainty mid-fight, only to suddenly see the victory screen and hear its triumphant horns — then release my breath and loosen my posture in a euphoric instant. Rarely did a fight not end one of those two ways.
The only things that made the fantastically realized beasts of "World" less daunting were familiarity with them — and power over them. And those went hand-in-vambraced-hand.
To fight the next monster on the food chain, you have to get familiar with the ones you've bested. Finding tracks and other traces of them unlocks information about the parts you can get for crafting into more powerful gear, perhaps a weapon strong in the element the next monster is weakest against. Sometimes, you have to slay a monster repeatedly to amass the required parts. And sometimes, parts can only be obtained through capture, blunting the genocidal edges of the game's premise — but not by much.
This grind, too, is at the mercy of the monster fights. If they're fun, it's fun, and vice versa. They're more fun with friends, or just fellow hunters, whom the game makes it easy to find through an SOS players can fire if they need help from the online ranks. They're less fun when your lock on a monster is broken or the luminous scoutflies that lead you to them send you elsewhere, which are common aggravations in a process that's anxious enough as it is. In other words, "Monster Hunter World" gives as good as it gets.
If you play
GAME: "Monster Hunter: World"
TL;DR: The first "Monster Hunter" to target western console players accommodates them comfortably without sacrificing the difficult grind of its damage sponge boss rush structure, and the results can be as thrilling as they are maddening.
GENRE: Action role-playing game
CONTENT RATING: Teen for blood, mild language, use of alcohol and violence
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Windows and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player, cooperative online multiplayer
DISCLOSURE: I received a download code for this game from Capcom and finished its main story in 58 hours prior to writing this review.