It's not difficult to see why the Monster Hunter series has become the leading PSP franchise in Japan. Offering gamers the chance to hook up together on quests to hunt ferocious monsters and search for hidden treasures across an appealing fantasy game world, this action RPG possesses many of same addictive qualities that have made other role playing games, such as the Final Fantasy titles, so popular. High praise has been lauded on the latest game in the series, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, after it became the top selling game in the Land of The Rising Sun last year, besting the likes of Pokémon Platinum and Wii Fit. In the U.S. and Europe, though, Monster Hunter faces a very different type of audience. Will it appeal to the taste of Western players?
Monster Hunter Freedom's combat mechanics will test even the most hardened of gamers. The third game in the series, Freedom Unite once again places you in the role of an up-and-coming hunter who must complete various hunting, slaying and gathering missions to achieve glory. Setting off from your base camp of Pokke Village, you pick up quests from the Guild Hall and embark on treacherous missions across stunning environments, including snow-capped mountains and harsh desert terrain.
Freedom Unite is all about learning your craft and learning it well. If you begin a quest without preparation, you'll be obliterated by the tough monsters lurking around every corner. Whether you're heading out on a level-one quest to pick mountain herbs or braving the cold desert nights on the hunt for the land shark, there's a lot to learn if you plan to come back alive and earn your reward. Combat in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is difficult to grasp at first, but once studied and practiced, it is intensely satisfying.
The lack of a lock-on targeting function means that you have no assistance in battle and ensures that combat is challenging. Freedom Unite tests your patience by pitting you against some formidable and clever opposition while asking that you spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the deep combat system. You have to learn each of the monsters' strengths and weaknesses and those of your weapons. Learning monster "tells," monitoring monster attack patterns and knowing when to strike is also part of the hunt. Other variables add even more strategic layers to the combat. The environment, for example, plays a part in battle (your energy gets sapped when it's cold), and every weapon and item you choose to bring along all factor into the equation. Make the wrong decisions and you'll head back to Pokke Village empty-handed.
Speaking of Pokke Village, there's plenty to do there as well. You're given a plot of land where you can mine, fish, catch bugs, gather mushrooms, and plant seeds to raise different crops. When you finish each quest, your farm becomes an essential visiting place that grows in stature the more you nurture it. These resources can then be used for cooking, which increase abilities, or to combine and forge new items that may come in handy during battle. Though you're constantly repeating the same actions to mine ore or catch Rumblefish, you're earning money from the land, which subsequently allows you to develop your character into a stronger hunter.
Gathering and collecting items in the game world is extremely important to your progression. Not all items must be hunted, gathered, or farmed; many objects can be combined to make more powerful objects or potions. There's a great deal of fun to be had out of finding new ingredients and then combining them. You can, for example, mix a fire herb with a nitroshroom to make gunpowder. Though there's a large element of trial and error, there's great reward for your efforts as you find and create powerful items that aid you on the battlefield.
Part of the appeal of the Monster Hunter series in Japan is the ad-hoc multiplayer functionality, which allows up to four players to meet up and embark on quests together. In the U.S. and Europe, however, that feature isn't such a strong selling point -- there just isn't the same social PSP-playing culture in these two territories as there is as there is in Japan. Social hand-held gaming in the U.S. and Europe is largely faceless, an activity confined to gamers' living rooms and bedrooms where there's an Internet connection. In fact, you're more likely to get mugged getting your hand-held out in public than to find a like-minded gamer to join your lobby for a spot of monster hunting. It's a crying shame that Freedom Unite doesn't offer true online functionality, because the four-player questing is absolutely brilliant. So, the bad news is that unless you've got a bunch of mates willing to join you around your house, your Monster Hunter experience is going to be a lonely one.
Still, with demanding and fun combat mechanics and a huge index of items, weapon types, armor, beasts, and quests, Freedom Unite will delight RPG gamers seeking a real challenge. With hundreds of hours worth of gameplay waiting for you, it's an RPG that's meant to be played at a slow pace, though the frequent load times slow it down a bit more than we would have liked. In short: if you're expecting a quick thrill here, you won't find it. Freedom Unite is for those who wish to master new skills with patience and hard work. It can be tough to get going, but Freedom Unite won't disappoint anyone who spends some quality time with it.