It all sounds so straightforward: in the Monster Hunter World beta - free until Tuesday on PlayStation 4 for PS Plus subscribers - you grab your favorite cat-person, select the tool of your trade, and, yes, hunt monsters until your eyes bleed. But, as fans of the famously-opaque series will attest, newbies who hope to fell giant raptors by carelessly pounding on the attack buttons will soon find their faithful companion wheeling them back to camp on a stretcher, another victim of the ravenous beasts.
Critics often compare Capcom’s epochal Monster Hunter franchise to a more familiar brand of Japanese hack-and-slasher, Souls. But while the two series share a penchant for massive quadrupeds and player punishment, the truth is that MonHun is far more demanding in every respect: time, reflexes, and certainly patience. An artful dodger can carve their way through Dark Souls by mashing R1 and Circle just-so; a complete playthrough of a given Monster Hunter requires ace gear, nerves of titanium, and absolute mastery of their weapon of choice. Much like the eponymous hunters themselves, if you want to conquer this franchise, you have to treat it as your second vocation.
From a veteran’s perspective, World is like slipping on a new pair of your favorite boots - it might feel a little strange at first, but there’s no denying they’re a lot sturdier than the crumpled ones in your closet. To be frank, I expected more overriding change to accompany Capcom’s lofty ambitions - the Switch Axe combos etched deep in my muscle memory managed to cleave through the masses of armored creatures just as well, bar a few minor modifications. I had become so used to what you might call the native “clunkiness” inherent to the previous MonHun games that the newfound fluidity of the fisticuffs felt wrong - it now takes a careful eye to see where the once-threadbare animations begin and end, and the monsters make careful use of terrain to stymy your assault. Though the pace of the combat still happily lags behind the likes of Nier: Automata or even Souls, the precision and care required to best your scaly opponent in record time remains unmatched among its fellow hack-and-slashers.
For those who are just taking up the mantle, however, this beta can feel a little less-than-welcoming. Over the past few months, Capcom has taken great pains to emphasize how World represents the famed franchise’s first real attempt to conquer Western shores. To this end, the developer has smoothed down some of the game’s pricklier idiosyncrasies, modernizing some of the controls and adding in damage numbers that at least give you some idea of whether or not you’re bashing the monster in the right place. Though the game still lacks features that newcomers might take for granted - traditional health bars are nowhere to be found, for example - this belated swath of small improvements goes a long way into making the franchise feel new and exciting again.
With all that said, it’s undeniable that the beta does a fairly terrible job of introducing new players to the world of Jaggi-slaying and Barroth-flaying. Though Capcom included a training area that lets you experiment with the game’s dozen-strong armory, and the in-game documentation offers sample combo-strings for each, the actual movesets themselves are mostly incomplete. This can be especially frustrating when it comes to the more technical weapons, such as the electrifying Charge Blade and the various shades of Lance - even aficionados who want to brush up on how exactly to transfer that charge from their axe to their sword are better served by YouTube or other external sources, as the beta isn’t really interested in elucidating those finer points. While it might seem unfair to hold a beta to such a high standard, for my money, I got a lot of joy out of learning how to use these weapons in 4 Ultimate, and, as a free trial, many who have only ever heard of Monster Hunter will line up to take a peek, and it’s a shame that they have to go elsewhere to do the legwork required to truly excel at the game.
Beyond the tutorial, however, there’s no doubt that World represents MonHun in its best light, with plenty of room for determined neophytes to edge their way in. The hunting grounds themselves have never felt this alive. Glimmering “scoutflies” guide your way to your quarry; inquisitive megafauna scurry all over the map, itching for a scrap; mutated birds patrol the skies. Wander too far into a sandpit, and you’ll fall through its bottom, down into another monstrosities’ nest. You can even chase your prey into the quicksand and follow it as it descends into the maw - watching a bigger beast bite a chunk out of the asshole creature that had tanned my hide for the past thirty minutes proved a very cathartic experience.
Though clever players can use these “turf wars” between monsters to their advantage, I mostly stumbled upon them by accident. A dozen hours deep, the fearsome lizard Anjanath retreated from my gunlance assault up into an area I had never explored before. As I prepared to hit him with a fuck-you super-attack, a giant dragon known as Rathalos emerged from its nest, picked up the beast, and dropped it to the ground for 500 damage. After I finished the job, I returned to the roost to meet this new challenge, but I could only manage a handful of hits before it divebombed me into oblivion.
For those who brave the initial shock of its complexity, Monster Hunter World offers a panoply of pain, slow and steady progress, and the quiet pleasure of a hard job well-done. It represents the action-RPG in its purest form - an endless series of insurmountable challenges that you slowly learn to best, through fancy loot, a sharp sword, and just a little bit of guile. And though I can’t wait to scale the wall, I hope that Capcom does a better job exhibiting its charms to skeptical newcomers. There’s a reason why MonHun is a household name in its native lands; it’s up to them to make the West understand why.