At times like this, it can be awfully difficult for those not immersed in the culture to comprehend the gaming tastes of the Japanese. Case in point: Monster Hunter Freedom 2 has been one of the biggest hits in the Far East this year, going platinum almost twice over and launching thousands of PSPs with it. How it achieved such immense commercial success remains as perplexing as the media’s obsession with talentless “superstars” like Victoria Beckham. But, as they say, one man’s Angelina Jolie is another man’s Barbara Streisand…or some shit like that.
For those unaware, Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is Capcom’s premier portable role-playing game, and is the sequel to its predecessor Monster Hunter Freedom, which in turn was a port of the PlayStation 2 progenitor. Freedom 2 isn’t a direct port of its PS2 brethren, but more of a handheld update with bits and bobs removed to complement its new portable home.
Cast as a monster hunter in the lowly, snowy Pokke Village, it’s your duty/destiny/calling/9-5 to protect the weak and helpless inhabitants of your new home from all manners of ghastly monsters, such as the Tigrex, Akantor, and countless hordes of flesh-devouring beasts.
Typically, the creatures you encounter are designed with the trademark Capcom lavish flair and idiosyncratic panache that we’ve all come to love and admire. Each monster you come across leaves you both amazed and awestruck, not to mention somewhat disappointed at the conservative nature of western developers and their present fixation on generic realism. Monster Hunter Freedom 2 takes an almost boastful pride in showing off the PSP as the high spec marvel that it is. While mediocre-looking on the PlayStation 2, on my little, chunky, neglected white slab of PS2 port-tastic goodness it shines as both a technical and artistic masterpiece. The score is as epic as one would expect, melodramatic when things get heated yet as soothing as a gentle massage when you’re just kicking back and fishing. In short, Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is as easy on the ears as it is on the eyes.
Outside of slaying the spawns of Satan, the village elder will assign you to simple fetch quests. In multiplayer, you and your buddies can meet up in the gathering hall and tackle quests together, though you can also go it alone if that’s how you roll. You don’t just pick and choose the quests you want—instead, there’s a rank system in place, which involves three forms of missions: hunting (to send a specific beast to his grave), fetching (self explanatory), and slaying, which has you taking out a number of monsters. Get all the missions on at a given difficulty out of the way and you move up a rank with a fresh set of challenges for you to tackle. Along the way, you’ll be able to appreciate the incredible effort gone into the PSP update. The sheer number of quests, mini games to complete, and modifying options available is simply overwhelming.
Multiplayer is a good time if you
have friends with the game.
What starts off with a simple customization of your on-screen persona, soon makes way for fishing, hunting, farming, raising, and many other distractions that serve to fully immerse you into the world of Monster Hunter. The attention to detail is further evident with a near-infinite number of armour and weapon types available, essentially offering thousands of customization options for those amongst us who like to make the game we play our own. Further welcome complications come in the form of weather effects. Storm into a desert mission in your winter gear and you’re sure to get a little hot under the collar, and vice versa. This in turn encourages you to plan ahead, pack the right equipment, study your terrain and ensure you have the right strategy for each mission. On its own merits preparing for your quests is almost a mini game in its own right and one that makes you feel like a “hunter”.
For those expecting a “but,” well, your wait is over. It’s rare to see a developer achieve so much success in the presentation, planning and the preparation aspect of a game, yet completely stumble on the gameplay side of things.
The camera, a long standing problem of the series is back and worse than ever. Sans a second analogue stick, camera control has been left to the D-pad, which, needless to say, is utterly useless. In the heat of battle it’s quite common to die due to being caught offscreen over and over and over again. While movement is mapped to the PSP nubbin, it’s simply not wise to take your thumb off the stick to fix the camera mid-battle. Though it would be easy (and justifiable) to lay the blame on Sony’s poor control layout, it is, after all, Capcom’s game. They should have found a way around the PSP’s control setup to create a method that takes advantage of what’s available to them instead of further highlighting Sony’s incompetence. After all, recent Zelda titles have no camera control, yet no one complains about that.
And you thought unicorns were friendly.
To make matters worse, the lack of a proper lock-on only reiterates the sense of vulnerability and reluctance you feel when going into a battle, though the combat comfortably acts as its own deterrent. Assigned to two buttons, it lacks the grace and elegance you’d expect from a Capcom title, and is akin to sword fighting in a pool of mud (which I’d imagine would be very sluggish). Performing a slash can leave you dangerously exposed as your warrior struggles with the weight of the weapons he wields. Though believable, this anal sort of realism feels out place, especially after you’ve just single handedly sent a pack of Giaprey to its doom. There’s a fine balancing act between realism and fantasy here, but one or the other would have been better, rather than an awkward-feeling mixture of both.
To compound the problems even more, for all the technical wizardry that Capcom achieved, they still haven’t fixed an issue they’ve had in their games for as far back as I can recall. The dreaded loading screen between new areas is a constant thorn in the side; the “Now Loading” image sort of becomes a companion on your adventure, whether you want it to be or not.
Though I’m none the wiser as to why Japan fell head over heels in love with Capcom’s latest, the PSP’s newest baby done what Sony envisioned PSP titles would do back in 2004: offer rich, vast game worlds that we’ve all become accustomed to via stunning visuals to match home consoles, and sell a few million along the way to boot. For all of Capcom’s commendable efforts in nailing the feel of being a hunter, however, they forgot the most important aspect: making their title feel like a game.