In Japan, the Monster Hunter series is a huge success, but has still to ignite the same interest this side of the world. Part of the reason may be the cumbersome game mechanics and poorly-balanced difficulty that's dogged the series, with the former proving a larger issue with the experience transplanted to handheld.
Yet with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, Capcom had already taken a step in the right direction in improving these mechanics, and again with 4. And now with Ultimate, we've a version that allows us to focus on the real meat of the game.
At the game's heart there's a simple yet addictive concept. Obviously gameplay hinges on hunting down creatures, but the beasts demand you give it all in battle. In order to be sufficiently well-prepared, you need the right equipment. To get those, we have to kill specific monsters to capture materials to build that equipment.
Kill, build, hunt bigger monsters. A concept that, while seemingly dull, has motivated us to sink hundreds of hours into the game. As we're tied in long-term, the second essential component comes into play: the adventure.
This time we're travelling to multiple locations with a caravan loaded with job-specific NPCs, such as cooks and blacksmiths. It means a little more variety with different conversations between characters (and some elaborate cutscenes) and an added sense of purpose as you journey as part of a group.
The game's also integrated a better transversal system. We can now climb walls and jump atop monsters to fight them more effectively, and there are also special jump attacks. Somewhere along the way underwater attacks were canned, but we doubt anyone is sorry to see them go.
(Side-note: MHU4 makes another solid argument for Nintendo including a C-stick on the New 3DS. The extra nub makes it much easier to orient ourselves and to keep track; particularly important during the more stressful battles.)
Two new weapons join the mix: the Charge Axe and the Insect Glaive, both combining elements of melee and ranged combat. The former works akin to sword and shield, but can be charged while fighting - when it start glowing you can switch to axe mode, with damage and range increasing. The Insect Glaive is a staff which allows you to summon an insect (doesn't sound impressive, but wait for it) that will damage enemies and buff our character at the same time (there you go). There are eleven blademaster weapons now, while the gunner class has got three at their disposal.
One single weapon cannot be recommended, as all play differently and so it comes down to personal preference. Capcom at least let you try out each type, as you'll find one of each in your inventory to begin, and there are optional tutorials on each. We found it a good addition as what weapon we started out on proved not as good fit as we thought, letting us respec our character later on.
For the first time on 3DS there is a fully integrated online multiplayer mode that can be started at any time in-game (previously MP was local only). In addition to the normal missions there are also a guild quest system, in which each player generates individual tasks, and we can share through guilds cards and StreetPass with others. Anyone traveling alone can discover missions and also find rare weapons and armour - some of them from old adventures of the series.
All this makes for a more rounded experience. But Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate still feels a bit clunky and ponderous, similar to the likes of other RPGs such as Lords of the Fallen.
This is a challenging game and as a result you'll make slow progress. But precisely because of that, each milestone reached feels rewarding. Factor in the co-op element, and the motivation to succeed is enhanced even further.
It is without a question the best game in the series, and if you feel like an adventure that demands using all of your abilities and resources, you'll find nothing better on 3DS right now.