It’s been some time since I last talked about Monster Hunter. Not because there wasn’t anything worth mentioning about it, but simply because I got a bit of the DOOOOOOOOOOOOM *ahem* fever recently and haven’t been able to enjoy anything other than crushing the skulls of vicious hell beasts that ran like their own version of the devil himself was after them as I cocked my Super Shotgun. After my bloodlust has been sated I figured it was time to start feeding into my other interests (yes, I DO have other interests). In the wake of loot boxes completely infesting the game industry with a total disregard for the public and thorough lack of restraint, my attention was caught by a title called Dauntless, a free to play Monster Hunter clone that actually announced that it decided to REMOVE loot boxes, despite the fact that its free to play status essentially gave their presence a considerable amount of leeway in such a practice; I’d certainly be more comfortable with free to play monetization in an actual free to play game than I would in a full price title. So I bought into the closed beta as a way to show my support for them taking this massive step.

I’ve had my eye on Dauntless for some time. The Monster Hunter series of games always had some sort of appeal to me that no other game has managed to capture, not even its clones. If you were to ask anybody what Monster Hunter is about, everyone would tell you it’s about hunting big monsters for parts to craft bigger weapons to hunt bigger monsters. And it’s true! So it may be surprising to hear that I’m usually unsatisfied with the clones for generally doing that formula right.

The thing is, the Monster Hunter series has always been more than that. So much more. If one took the time to really soak in every nook and cranny of the game, hunting monsters is just a single objective in a much grander experience. Other great Monster Hunter clones managed to find their own niche within the niche, such as Freedom Wars’ unparalleled sense of badassery and style, as well as Soul Sacrifice’s absolutely amazing story. However, Dauntless was the first clone I’ve played that ever came close to capturing the experience introduced by Monster Hunter itself, and while it didn’t quite nail it, it did prompt me to think: Just what is it about Monster Hunter that’s so special in the genre? Why do people keep coming back to Monster Hunter, a game whose sequels are so derivative to the previous entry that they’ve unironically been called Japan’s Call of Duty?

It may surprise you to hear this but all of the reasons eventually circle back to the fact that Monster Hunter is… It’s complicated.

No, really, Monster Hunter is complicated. I’d even say it’s downright convoluted at times. Difficulty aside, Monster Hunter is one of the least streamlined games ever made. There are so many inputs and requirements and nonsense that most other Monster Hunter clones, including Dauntless, have conceivably streamlined to be as accessible at the push of a button. I’m not one to gush when a game isn’t streamlined, because the reality of the situation is that usually it just means it’s inconvenient. Yet for Monster Hunter it actually works. In not bothering to streamline the experience (at least not by much) Monster Hunter just has a lot more elements at play, making the game seem much, much bigger than it actually is.

The most obvious example of this is the level design. Monster Hunter is the only series in the genre that actually boasts an open world. I know what you might be thinking: “That’s not an open world. It’s a series of arenas connected by corridors.” This is true in a sense, but it’s also ignoring how Monster Hunter actually goes about this concept in a way to make the arenas feel much richer even if it’s much smaller compared to other open worlds like, say, Breath of the Wild (which is actually a surprisingly close approximation in ways I never expected). Fundamentally, an open world is an area in which players can visit and revisit at will and explore at their own leisure, with many things to do in between and many elements at play. Size certainly contributes to the concept, but it’s also sort of reductive to assume that just because the maps are small that suddenly they’re not explorable. Even in the tiny maps, Monster Hunter has exploration in spades.

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Each zone has its own set of hazards and boons, as well as different materials to farm as well as temperature differences which affect your character’s performance. All the levels connect differently, and while it’s not linear at all, not every path can be taken back and forth. Monster Hunter Tri, which is my personal favorite, even boasted underwater battles which offered more directions in which players could move as well as unique limitations that forced the player to plan ahead around them. At any point in time, there’s a lot happening in the area around you, and a lot for you to keep track of. Most of the hazards are solved with the use of a simple consumable, but that causes you to have to keep track of your inventory space and management, as well as taking up space for resources you could be farming in the level.

This is where the biggest complexity comes in: inventory management is absolutely key in Monster Hunter. To make the most of your equipment, especially for long hunts, you need to bring crafting components as well as consumables in order to craft certain consumables beyond their inventory limit. Invaluable traps, for example, can only be carried one at a time, but one can bring a trap as well as multiple building components to effectively bring more than one trap in a single mission. This means taking up entire slots in the inventory that you would need for foraging to find even more crafting components, and still some crafting components require certain items to be gathered. Any ore, for example, needs some form of pickaxe. Any fishing spot needs a rod. Players will need to prioritize their inventory for each hunt, depending on what difficulty the prey they’re fighting is. In addition, each environment also gives them a slew of options for foraging as well as hazards for them to avoid with consumables such as drinks to cool one down in the hot, desert sands. Sometimes certain hunts will feature more than a single monster, one which might be overpowered or you’re not allowed to hunt, and you may want to bring a dung bomb to drive them away while you’re busy with your first prey. You can feasibly ignore planning ahead for this and simply stock up on health items and traps for maximum damage like I used to for multiple entries, but then you’d be slowing down your character progression, as the only way to progress is strictly through gear upgrades which require a vast variety of components.

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Part of the joy in each entry, then, comes from figuring out these new islands, knowing where the resources you’d need can be located and how one can maximize their efficiency on each island regarding both progression and hunting. I imagine this is why players don’t find buying new entries in the series an exercise in tedium: While each entry is nearly identical to the last, each entry has players rediscovering the game in this fashion. They sort of experience the game as if it’s fresh and new, because in a lot of ways that matter it actually is. Each entry, the sense of exploration and discovery that came from the last time they picked up a Monster Hunter game is still there, they’re just more seasoned and knowledgeable about some of the intricacies now.

And it’s all these elements together that accentuate the combat in Monster Hunter. It’s never just about hitting the monster, it’s always about finding the most efficient ways to approach them: preparing for the possibility of another monster to show up, taking advantage of a monster’s hunger to spike bait with various poisons, determining when traps should be laid, using a fishing rod to pull an aquatic monster onto land, et cetera. Elemental weaknesses, which are the backbone of most RPGs, are merely a single factor, and most of the time you can’t even tell if you’re making any impact with them.

Ultimately, the more I think about it, the more it feels the complexity is the number one factor in the game that encourages people to engage in genuine camaraderie. Few Monster Hunter clones have a particularly unfriendly community, much less a toxic one, but I’ve never once in my long time of playing had a game with other players that didn’t make the lot of us feel like a tightknit group of lifelong friends. And it’s easy to see why: More than any other game out there, co-operation is key, and there are so many ways to co-operate that one could provide a college lecture on it. Both in combat and way out of it, even as far as the game lobby. Primarily, most players in the series have no qualms about taking the time out of the game to actually teach players how to play the game as best as they can, and taking the time to tell a new player about the intricacies and tricks of the game (even the really simple stuff) is surprisingly rewarding.

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Some of my best memories in the game include having a student to call my own, or being taught about some insane RPG mechanics that for multiple entries I never even knew were in the game to begin with. Even just gathering around the table while one of the hunters told us of the recipes for cooking stat-boosting meals before cooking one of them for all of us to share before we set out for the next hunt. Not to mention the quiet moments where we just sat down to go fishing before roasting our catches at the campfire. None of those fond memories actually involved hunting monsters. That’s not to say hunting monsters take a back seat to all these other mechanics, of course. Rather, they are the seasoning that adds the taste to the meaty, hunting part of the game everybody is so fond of. All of these elements come together to make Monster Hunter really stand out as much more than a mere gauntlet of boss fights that Monster Hunter clones and people that talk about it tend to make it out to be.

Monster Hunter isn’t the perfect game, there’s no debating that. Even in its nicheness, not everybody will take to it (and with good reason) and Monster Hunter clones don’t need to BE Monster Hunter. They could certainly be smaller, simpler affairs with a more streamlined system and that’s okay. But all of them are going to fade into obscurity if they don’t understand that the Monster Hunter genre is more than just hunting monsters. I couldn’t pay attention to God Eater for more than a couple of levels, nor could I look past Toukiden (the first one anyway) as more than merely a novelty. Ragnarok Odyssey was so shallow it didn’t even have branching pathways. Games like Freedom Wars and especially Soul Sacrifice managed to find their own ground to stand on as a result of understanding that hunting monsters isn’t the backbone of the formula, but merely one facet out of a much larger experience. In many ways, Dauntless manages to capture that similar spirit of Monster Hunter that so few games have managed to accomplish, although I do wish they went the extra mile and either copied it wholesale or otherwise really gave it an identity all of its own. Still, with Monster Hunter World just around the corner, Monster Hunter’s brand of monster hunting isn’t going away any time soon. Hopefully, neither will the other (arguably just as important) parts the series has to offer.