Monster Hunter Generations is, at its core, a celebratory release. With the franchise now past a decade old and starting to make notable sales progress in the West, this entry combines areas and characters from across those ten years with some new ideas. Nintendo gamers that have been following the series since Monster Hunter 3 (Tri) onwards will pick up plenty of references, while some locations and cast members originate from PSP entries; yet with all of that nostalgia there's also the nod to evolution. This is a series that needs to remain fit to survive, and this title makes key moves that could prove vital in future generations, even if their presence here is still firmly rooted in the past and present.

The core elements that drive this franchise remain in place, a reflection of the fact that each entry - particularly on Nintendo hardware in the West - has been largely iterative. As a series Monster Hunter is uncompromising, with players expected to grind and accumulate in order to progress towards the distant end game. It's also relatively unique in its approach - there are no character levels, but rather the focus for the player is to gather materials and money to craft better armour, weapons and accessories, along with key items that are vital for survival on the hunt. To newcomers it can all seem rather obtuse, yet once understood it's surprisingly intuitive and - most of all - engrossing.

Generations, for its part, sets out to try and help new players to understand the underlying mechanics and, by extension, the path to long term success. An extensive 'Training' section at the main quest desk takes players through a lot of important lessons, from gathering and combining items to successfully cooking raw meat. The most pleasing aspect is that experienced players can ignore this area completely, with only modest rewards available across hours of tutorial quests. It's a prime example of the development team listening to feedback and refining its approach, helping inexperienced players without burdening those that want to get straight into the action.

Nevertheless, this entry above all others needs some adjustment from even the most experienced of Hunters. When creating your character you now also choose a Hunter Style, with four options in total. Those that want classic play can pretty much get it through the Guild option, yet the others all add enticing twists to the gameplay. Striker charges your Arts gauge quickly (we'll get to that), Aerial allows for quicker and rather stylised dodges and a dramatic jump into the air in a pinch, while 'Adept' is pitched as the option for the most skilled players, with last ditch dodges allowing for 'insta-moves' that do significant damage.

That's a big choice in itself, though you have freedom to change Style at the drop of a hat - a smart move by Capcom to encourage experimentation. You're expected to dabble, as a result, with the game's NPCs even reminding you that there's a lot to try out with 14 different weapon types, all conceivably working a little differently with each style. In reality, many likely have a favourite style already, whether ranged attacks, over-sized but powerful weapons or small but quick close range weapons that rely heavily on blocking or dodging.

As an example we've stuck largely with a weapon introduced in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, the Insect Glaive. Each Hunter Style certainly has weapons it suits well, and the Aerial option combines beautifully with the Glaive for athletic moves. The 'mounting' move becomes a fast-paced lunge, propelling your hunter across significant distances - as both an offensive and defensive move it's extremely effective, and it adds a great deal of tempo and intensity to a battle. Each Style, in their own ways, contribute to this, shaking up approaches and making decade-old mechanics fresh and intriguing to try out. There's scope, also, to develop multiple weapon sets and adopt different styles depending on the foe. If you want to mount a monster regularly, perhaps for a sub-objective, then Insect Glaive / Aerial is a terrific combination. When fighting a slow but powerful monster, however, perhaps Great Sword / Striker is the solution.

Beyond these choices there are the Arts to consider. Depending on the chosen Style and weapon these serve as special moves, with a gauge gradually charging during standard attacks; when it's full you can activate either with button presses or tapping an icon on the customisable touchscreen layout. These add a little extra dynamism to battles, undoubtedly, and mastering their animations to time them for a hit is another part of the ongoing intricacies of the hunt. They're not as big a game changer as the Styles, but there are plenty to choose from and it's fun to experiment - they feel like a minor extra, but certainly add a little spice to proceedings.

Once you get to grips with the many weapons, the Styles and the Arts, the familiar gameplay loop will come into force. Early quests pit your entry-level character against relatively easy foes, and a number of early hours should also be spent accumulating as many resources as possible. In terms of balancing this entry does a decent job of reminding you of your hunter's weaknesses, too, should you rush ahead too quickly. Typically this happens when a big monster gives you a tougher time than expected, perhaps with hits stripping away more health than anticipated. It's a well crafted system, periodically forcing us into a Smithy visit to assess options for new armour sets.

This aspect of armour and weapon creation is central to the premise, of course. Some minor tweaks have been made to the formula, too, occasionally encouraging repeat hunts to gather particular monster parts. Upgrading armour - for example - is no longer a simple case of money and armour spheres, with higher levels also requiring monster parts at a certain value. It necessitates hoarding a broader range of resources, though it feels like a rare case of a change that wasn't necessary to improve the experience.

The Quest structure, similarly, is an area that is a very small step back from 4 Ultimate. We praised this one's predecessor for its attempts at a stronger narrative, giving a larger world incentive when completing quest after quest of hunts. Generations opts for nostalgia, instead, albeit utilising that weapon to throw in a lot of content, along with new 'main' monsters and areas that Nintendo gamers may not have experienced from the IP's Sony days. Four villages have NPCs that give you village-specific quests, and there's an underlying system in which you earn points per village, earning their favour and special rewards in the process. The strength of this is the variety of locations, but the narrative arc is paper-thin, at least in the 35 hours+ that we've worked through prior to this review. That doesn't undermine the core enjoyment, as such, but it feels celebratory of franchise history as opposed to a setup designed to enhance the game.

That critique aside, there's a lot to enjoy in the way Generations nods to the past. Bherna, Kokoto, Pokke and Yukomo are the core single player hubs, with the first being new and the most central of the four. Fulfilling quests across levels eventually takes you to a broad range of maps, too, with over half being new to this Nintendo-era fan of the series. With the usual mix of volcanic, woodlands, ice-covered territories and more besides, there's always a thrill in going to a new area to encounter different beasts. Verticality in climbing up some areas also remains, and some subtle redesigns seem to bring older areas up to speed. Throw in returning characters from past games that give the hunter new quests, and there's plenty to keep players busy.

A new inclusion to add even more quests is Prowler mode, in which you play as one of your Palico / Felyne cat-like buddies. As was the case in previous entries these critters have their own armour sets and weapons to forge, and they're suited to very different kinds of quests. Unlike the hunter's requirement to carry equipment for mining, catching bugs and so on, Palicoes can effectively gather indefinitely courtesy of infinite usage of the key items. They have no stamina bar, either, so can dash around at will - they're undoubtedly fun to control.

As Palicoes are limited to using their skills as items, and with their combat being frenetic but weak compared to a human hunter, they fit a specific brief. Perfect for gathering missions, they also have their own sets of quests to take on which can include some monster hunting. It was smart of Capcom to keep these Prowler quests optional in terms of game progress, as the quirky charm of Palico play will likely wear off for some. After all, this is a game where the big encounters are the most memorable, the battles against hulking beasts. For those encounters the Hunter feels like the right protagonist, with two AI Palico buddies along for the ride to help out. As an addition to add a bit of fun, however, Prowler mode is very welcome, and groups of friends may see the appeal in a bit of Palico multiplayer from time to time.

Palico management, meanwhile, has also gone up a notch, though it can take a while to settle into a pattern to make the most of the systems on offer. A special Palico area of Bherna village is home to critters replicating some services seen elsewhere in 4 Ultimate, albeit with a little extra depth. The key is that, in order to fully utilise the opportunities on offer, you need to build up a team of Palicoes beyond the two you'll inevitable pick as your favourites on hunting quests. Building a diverse team, each with different abilities, takes a little time and patience but is ultimately worthwhile.

Though the setup can feel a little oblique until familiarisation kicks in, we eventually got into a pattern of having fixed Palicoes per task, adding a fixed process of Felyne management to our routine. One Palico is needed to trade resources, vital for the likes of Herbs and Blue Mushroom, while we have five rotated across four spots for Palico hunts. In the latter you pick an area, play a brief catapult-style minigame, and wait until after your next quest for the Felynes to return with some handy resources. The Palico Dojo, meanwhile, becomes a key spot for training these critters to accelerate the levelling up process, give them 'catnaps' to regain enthusiasm, or to manage their active skills. It is daunting at first and seems like a lot to take in, but after initial confusion players are likely to find a process that works for them. It's arguably just busy work, but the loop of resource gathering is an essential part of this series, so in this case it's a twist on the formula that can be oddly addictive.

The core features described above form the single player segment of the game - local and online multiplayer take place in an entirely different, self-contained hub. As before the online portion (as it will be for most people outside of fan meet-ups for local play) has quests isolated from the main adventure, which leads to some repetition in the mission to advance quest levels all over again. It remains a bug-bear of ours that a lot of time spent offline contributes nothing to explicit progress in the online hub, yet there are also good arguments for why this approach makes sense. The online quests are undoubtedly tougher from the start, for one thing, so players should really spend a good amount of time on the solo campaign before tackling the multiplayer segment.

Capcom has a strong formula for online play in this series that continues here. The difficulty curve is steeper between levels, accounting for the presence of up to four players and the fact all involved should have plenty of offline experience, and it's a solid setup. In our pre-launch sessions we encountered no issues, with lag-free performance in showdowns with large beasts; as in previous entries large monsters are shared across connections, but resources and small monsters are generated separately for each player, no doubt to help keep things running smoothly. Aside from watching a fellow player occasionally fighting a small monster you can't see, it's an immersive and hugely enjoyable experience to go on the hunt with others. Based on previous series entries we anticipate this solid performance to largely continue post-launch.

If there's one downside to the online play, it's the absence of voice chat. That's been the case in all three entries on 3DS, which felt like a tease after having the facility via the GamePad in the Wii U version of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. Very few 3DS games have ever supported voice chat, yet it's still a miss worth mentioning as it would make some aspects of online hunts far easier; pre-baked messages and a touchscreen keyboard aren't always as effective. Hopefully this is the last main series entry on Nintendo hardware where this is a shortcoming.

In terms of performance we have a continuation of 4 Ultimate with the same engine being used. On our New Nintendo 3DS model the framerate was impressively solid with the 3D effect enabled, with rare chokepoints - only a few instances - prompting us to switch to 2D for slightly smoother play. Based on the previous entry the performance difference between original and New 3DS models is likely to be minimal (something we couldn't check this time), though it's worth noting that the C-Stick on current models can once again be used for camera control. The visuals pop nicely in 3D, meanwhile, and though the hardware is showing its age the aesthetic of the series is still pleasing. Sound is also a high point, with blood-curdling roars from some monsters and fantastic music that gets the blood pumping in a battle. As with much of this game, the presentation represents a refined formula a decade in the making.

It should also be said, simply because it's not been explicitly stated above, that the monsters are the stars of the show once again. Both returning and new designs are bursting with character, from relatively conventional dragon-like creatures to what are essentially enormous killer bunnies, and many more besides. Along with the fabulous fashion of the armour the monsters bring the personality to this game in a big way, with their peculiar movements and aggressive tics when under pressure. The monsters are - in a word - fantastic, and their designs, along with identifying 'tells' when in tough combat with them, are the essence of this game and the broader franchise.

With that, we should probably start to wrap up, though an assessment of any Monster Hunter game could be the length of a doctoral dissertation. Monster Hunter Generations maintains the tradition of delivering a staggering amount of content, layering systems upon systems for players to master. By adding more in the form of nostalgic locations and new combat styles, Capcom has also found a nice blend that enables this entry to just about feel fresh and unique from its predecessors. Small niggles remain, such as occasional moments where monsters hang around in areas that trigger zone transitions (you'll know what we mean when it happens to you), but they're over-shadowed by the many positives to be found throughout this beast of a release.

Conclusion

Monster Hunter Generations is another must-have for fans of the franchise, blending the old with the new for an excellent overall package. Hunter Styles add a little extra intensity and tempo to combat while this game also tries to welcome newcomers with optional tutorials, with Prowler mode undoubtedly designed to be quirky and alluring to players of all kinds. It does some things better than its immediate predecessor - Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - but also a couple of things a little less impressively. The nod to nostalgia brings a lot of locations and quests to keep players busy, but loses a little of the narrative edge and focus of its predecessor.

Generations, overall, is the match of its predecessors that also boasts some innovations and improvements. This franchise is yet to reach near-perfection (total perfection is impossible, of course), but it's still one of the most enjoyable and immersive time-sinks to be found on Nintendo hardware. For any gamer ready for a long-term challenge, with tough battles and plenty of complexity to master, this is most certainly worth hunting down.