As you've probably guessed since I wrote our preview, I'm currently deeply immersed in the world of Monster Hunter Generations. It's not review time quite yet, but as I've been alternating between Generations, Bloodborne and most recently Dark Souls III, the latter two being my 'spare time games', I realise that in principle these titles are surprisingly similar. Punishing difficulty, pattern-based fights and a whole lot of weirdness.
The difference with Bloodborne and From Software's Souls games, beyond various mechanics, is the 'mature' darkness in those titles. It's basically like having a nightmare in which Arthurian legend / Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones takes place in hell with the Souls titles, it seems to me, while Bloodborne is part-Victorian England that's gone very, very wrong. Yet these games share plenty of similarities with Capcom's decade-old franchise - they encourage a hoarding mentality (well, more-so with Dark Souls III than Bloodborne), there's plenty of grinding for gear and boosts (albeit mainline Monster Hunter games don't have conventional character level-ups) and there are long, brutal battles against enormous beasts.
Yet what's so humorous about Monster Hunter is how ridiculous and deliberately quirky it is. After all, this is a series where expo booths advertising it are full of plushes and cute props, and where bizarre fashion and feisty Felynes / Palicoes are the ultimate cats of all time. It also disguises mean-spirited design in winks and smiles - when you drink a potion, eat meat or use a curing item in the game the character goes through a ridiculous extended animation. Consuming a potion isn't enough, he / she has to do a pose to show how satisfied they are. It's all part of the game's delightful whimsy, but let's think about it - it's also an enormous pain in the backside.
Throughout the past 4-5 years in which I've been enjoying the series I've uttered many expletives in a tough encounter when, having strategically placed myself in a corner to down a potion, the monster spots me and charges into me just as I've taken it, cancelling out the benefits. I can't count how many times I've cursed my Palico buddies for standing next to me when I'm sharpening my weapon, drawing a Rathian over to do its annoying poisonous tail attack. Maybe it's because I'm a dog person, but I want my Palicoes to leave me be and distract the deadly dragon-type-thing, not run over to me to say how brave they are.
There's also the realisation that, when you cut through the cuteness and funny animations, this is a game about humans' cruelty towards nature when going about its business and expanding. Many quests come with a story such as follows:
My huntin' is near as bad as my dancin', but my little sis? Best moves in the tribe! I wanna make her a costume of serpent scales for the big festival. Could ya help me back a big snake?
That poor Najarala, doomed to die for a young girl's outfit...
This is all, naturally, deliberate. Monster Hunter is a series that sets its stall right in the name, taking place in fictional pre-historic lands, with plenty of fantastical weirdness to enjoy alongside the brutal realities of people vs nature. Through its in-game economies it is all about survival of the fittest, with your hunter starting out with nothing - in little other than pants, in some entries! - and earning their way to the top and the status of heroic hunter. It's ye olde capitalism, with Zenny instead of dollars.
It's not my intention to take it all seriously, though - Monster Hunter is at its heart a silly franchise, and that's why I love it. The intriguing items you hoard and combine, the joshing humour of NPCs, the colourful villages, the wacky monsters that sometimes have amazing animations, it's all designed to raise a smile. It's interesting though, I think, how that contradicts the obtuse inaccessibility that the series represents to newcomers. The more recent entries, and especially Generations, provide plenty of tutorial material, though players still have to spend a long time getting to grips with the complex mechanics at work here.
Things can get more serious in the narrative, too, with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate doing a great job of establishing an end-game and over-shadowing doom across the long, long campaign. It's a series that demands a lot of grinding and commitment, with dozens and even hundreds of hours being the norm for playthroughs. Even after the core single-player quests are done there's always more to do - online quests, weapons and armour you want to forge. It's almost neverending.
Capcom is clearly happy with its formula, repeating and refining it over a decade plus of releases, and adding a bit of spice along with a greatest hits collection of content in Generations. Yet in its current form it'll always be a niche IP, capable of shifting millions of units (the majority of which in Japan) but a long way off 10 million+ per release. I'm intrigued to see how Monster Hunter Stories is received in Japan for that very reason. When you add that to various other spin-offs, the ambition is clearly to get more players of different types trying out Monster Hunter.
For some, though, the main series hunts will always be the best.