Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has thus far been 60 hours of The Adventures of Me and My Cat. We've had some great times. Once, my cat got stuck under the claws of a Rathian—your average fire-breathing dragon—and I had to whack it in the head with a hammer to get it off. Another time my cat took one look at a Gore Magala—a darkness-spewing night-black hulk of evil—and ran away, leaving me to deal with it alone. (That didn't go well.) He once saved me from being eaten by running over and bonking me on the head to wake me up after a giant spider sent me to sleep.
You need a friend in Monster Hunter. Not just to distract whichever giant monster is currently giving you the evils, but to help you out at the beginning, when you don't know what's going on. Monster Hunter 4's feline companions are great in a fight and provide welcome levity, but what you really need is another person to show you the ropes, recommend you a weapon and show you how to use it, complement your fighting style, and remind you to take paintballs and whetstones with you on a hunt.
If you've got a friend, you can bypass all of Monster Hunter's earnest but totally ineffective attempts to educate you with screens of unhelpful text and tutorial missions and skip the worst of the learning curve. Single- and multiplayer Monster Hunter are two halves of the same whole: when you hit a wall in the single-player quests, it's finding a group and taking on the multiplayer quests that gets you through (and that gets you better equipment). From watching other players, you learn how a monster behaves and what techniques work best against it. It's like Dark Souls, in that way.
This is my sixth Monster Hunter game, so figuring out the basics was not a problem that I had, but I still remember my first ten hours with Monster Hunter Freedom in 2006 and how frustrating and impenetrable it was. Nowadays, thanks to online hunting (which works very well in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate), wikis and the increasing popularity of Monster Hunter outside of Japan, you don't have to be alone. I've played a few hunts with Monster Hunter newcomers this time around, and it's only by observing their bafflement that I've remembered how off-putting Monster Hunter can still be for beginners, with its dense menus and forests of icons and stats.
A couple of hunts in, though, that fades into the background. When you've felt the rush of toppling something twenty or fifty times your own size and fashioned hats out of its carcass, Monster Hunter's strengths come to the fore. This is, by now, an impressively honed action game, with 14 distinct and balanced weapon classes and some of video games' most impressive, intimidating enemies to kill with them. Changing weapons completely changes the game's tempo. If you're a gunner, it's all about staying back and firing until the last second before sprinting away from a monster, whereas lancers and hammer-users get right up in a dragon's grill.
I used to alternate between the Gunlance—which is a huge lance that fires shells from its tip, amazingly—and the longsword, a zippy, technique-led weapon, but I've been won over by Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate's two new classes, the Insect Glaive and the Elite Blade. The glaive is a twirly stick paired with—stay with me—a robotic insect-thing that you can fire at larger enemies to collect their "essence", and the Elite Blade is a sword and shield that transforms into a gigantic greatsword, kind of like the Switch Axe. They are great fun to use, a welcome change from the Monster Hunter weapons I've been relying upon for years.
The Glaive highlights one of the main changes in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate: you can now climb everything. You can scale walls and icicles and even the monsters themselves - if you leap onto them and attack, you can cling onto them for dear life whilst they flail and roar, stabbing them in the quiet intervals to damage them.
The monsters themselves, fittingly, are still what make Monster Hunter so enjoyable for me - they're right on the line between believable and fantastical. When you see them out in the wild, in their habitat, they look like they belong there, whether they're a hulking stone-covered Urugaan stomping around volcanic plains, or an elder dragon sitting majestically atop a mountain. Monster Hunter 4 puts all its best new monsters right up front, and there are some incredible fights here. The final low-rank single-player quest had my heart in my mouth for the whole 30-minute fight, despite the fact that I've done this many times before at this point. Felling a real bastard of a monster gives you a headrush, especially if it's after a few failed attempts. Some are so majestic that you feel bad for killing them.
Facing lots of new monsters right from the off really helps the pace of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. There are very few tutorial quests, boring gathering expeditions, or fights with familiar monsters, which make it feel more exciting from the start. The story also moves at a much snappier pace, and instead of being chained to one hub-town, you move around between several places that differ significantly both in character and appearance. There's a town at the foot of a volcano, a paradise island that's home to about forty cats, and a village in the clouds. Moving around these different places helped keep me motivated.
It's helped enormously by the quality of the localisation, too. Monster Hunter is full of goofy puns and entertaining dialogue. Even the cats have their own dialect. There's such attention given to this translation; it's a world away from the dry, functional prose of most of Monster Hunter's competitors. These games are known for being tough—and they are—but they're also funny and sweet and never too serious. Even when you've just failed a quest because a pink gorilla caught you up against a wall in an unlucky death-combo, you can't help but smile when you're returned to your village and see a little pig wandering around in a sombrero.
I can't help but wish Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate was on a bigger screen than the 3DS'. It looks good—especially on the New 3DS—but sometimes a whole monster can't even fit on that little screen, and you're left hacking away at a leg or a tail without being able to see what's going on. 3 Ultimate might not have been the best-looking game on the Wii U, but a bigger screen accentuated Monster Hunter's sense of scale. Plus, there was more room for all those menus.
After a certain point, Monster Hunter is as much a lifestyle as a game. It requires dedication from you, and doesn't offer up its best fights until you've made the effort to get to know it. Extraordinarily, you won't face some of its most impressive monsters until you've played for a hundred hours, but it's perhaps just as extraordinary that Monster Hunter still has new things to offer after that time. You could play Monster Hunter for 30 hours and enjoy it hugely, but if you really get sucked in then it becomes almost its own subculture. Your head fills with all this weird knowledge about decoration stat bonuses and skill activations. You don't need to dive that far into Monster Hunter to get a lot of fun out of it, but I really revel in the dorkiness of it all. It'll entertain you for about as long as you want it to, whether that's 10 hours or 300.
After 60 hours, I'm only at the beginning of my time with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Once the game's out in the wild, there will be new quests every few weeks, new people to hunt with, and new Nintendo-themed costumes for my cat. Having slowly converted almost all of my friends to the Monster Hunter cause over the past eight years, I've already got people to enjoy it with, but 4 Ultimate is good enough to bring a lot of new people in to join us.