Capcom's iOS games present a truly insane roll of the dice. You've got terribly reimagined ports of classics like Mega Man X [$4.99], wonderful ports of underappreciated games like Ghost Trick [Free], ports that are maybe a bit too perfect like Street Fighter II Collection [$3.99] or the dearly departed Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, and games that take familiar names and series and go in strange directions like Ghosts 'n Goblins Gold Knights [$0.99]. This time, however, they've really gone and done it. Just when you think they can't make you doubt them any further, they go and totally redeem themselves with an absolutely fantastic iOS version of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite [$14.99].
Let's start off this review with the bare facts. Yes, only the second paragraph and we're already dealing with nudity. That's how you know it's a spicy one. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite was originally released in Japan in early 2008 on Sony's PSP system. It was an expanded version of the second Monster Hunter Freedom game, which was itself an enhanced portable version of the Japan-only Monster Hunter 2 for PlayStation 2. While the series had gone relatively unnoticed on the PS2, it steadily picked up popularity in its handheld installments. With the release of this game, the series exploded in popularity in Japan, selling over a million copies in the first week alone, and establishing the series as an icon of modern Japanese popular culture, a position it still enjoys to this day. Not bad for what amounts to an expansion pack.
After this game, the series branched out, with one further installment in the Freedom series on PSP, which was never localized, and a few mainline sequels for Nintendo systems, two of which have seen English versions. Yet, for many fans, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is the installment that holds a special place in their hearts, and that might explain why Capcom has selected it to be the first traditional Monster Hunter game on iOS. Best of all, they've enhanced the game in a few ways, most notably allowing English handheld gamers to play together online for the first time without any additional hardware, and carefully redesigned the interface for touchscreen play instead of just cramming eight virtual buttons on the screen and calling it a day. If you're keeping track, that makes this an enhanced port of an expansion of an enhanced port of a PlayStation 2 game. If that doesn't give you warm fuzzy Capcom nostalgia, I don't know what else to say here.
It's no secret that, like fellow Japanese pop culture gaming icon Dragon Quest, Monster Hunter has had a tough and bitter battle winning over Western gamers. It's a series whose tempo doesn't quite fit the expectations you might have just from hearing the abstract concept. You hear 'Monster Hunter' and you're probably imagining epic battles between your well-equipped, armor-clad hero and terrifying, fire-breathing dragons and such. Well, those fights are in the game, but this game takes its hunting seriously, and there's more to hunting than just drunkenly stumbling into an animal's space and waving your weapon around at its nose until it dies. For every thrilling action-packed fight, there's at least triple the amount of time spent preparing traps, planning escape routes, gathering supplies, and so on. Charging into things disorganized will earn you a swat on the nose, and as the monsters get bigger and more dangerous, those swats will take off appropriately large pieces of your face.
Monster Hunter is an action game that is often mistakenly thought of as an RPG, and while it does have RPG elements in its equipment and quest systems, the real progression for the player is in skill and knowledge, not higher levels and new abilities. Your equipment will get stronger as you play through, but almost all of the abilities you will ever have or need are yours to use from the start. It's up to you to make the best of them, and part of that is learning how each monster you'll come across behaves. It's perhaps hard to adjust to when so many of today's games are built around meeting the player in their comfort zone, but this stubborn refusal to settle is a big part of why Monster Hunter is ultimately such a satisfying experience. There are a number of things about the game that will certainly chafe you until you get used to them, and the game will force you to do so whether you like it or not.
This is never more apparent than in the early part of the game, where you will have to complete a couple of hours worth of training missions, many of which involve very little hunting of monsters at all. You'll be sent out to gather certain herbs, or carry an egg from a nest back to your camp, and when you finally are sent to kill something, it's a relatively non-hostile creature that will barely fight back. You will probably be ready to throw your paintbrush and paint bucket on the ground and tell the teacher off for wasting your time when you just want to learn how to fight. The final beginner training mission sends you after something a little bit more dangerous, however, and it may dawn on you during that mission what the purpose of all that figurative fence-painting really was. Walking up and poking the monster with your weapon of choice is only a small part of winning in Monster Hunter, while knowing the environment and how to take advantage of what it offers are huge aspects, and by the time you finish the training missions, they'll be second nature to you.
The basic structure of the game never really changes much. The town of Pokke serves as a hub where you can take on missions, tend to your farm, and upgrade, buy, or craft items and equipment. You can access your item box, save your game, or just chill out by talking to the townspeople. When you're ready to head out, you can take a mission from a variety of sources. The missions are ranked according to difficulty and completing them will earn you cash, items, and guild points that go towards increasing your Hunter Rank. As your Hunter Rank rises, you'll have access to more difficult missions with greater rewards. Increasing your Hunter Rank is one of the main goals of the game.
After taking on a mission and departing Pokke town, you'll travel to whichever destination the mission takes place in automatically. These places are large maps made up of several smaller interconnected areas, and cover a variety of terrain types such as snowy mountains, volcanoes, deserts, and jungles. You'll start off in your camp area where you can access your bed and a couple of special item boxes. Each mission has a time limit, and you need to accomplish your goal before it runs out. If you happen to run out of health during a mission, the cute little Felyne characters will drag you back to your camp. You'll incur a time and reward penalty, but you're free to try again if you have enough time left. Once your goal is met, you'll be given your reward and transported back to the town.
You can choose between 11 different types of weapons, each with their specific strengths and weaknesses. You will need to play very differently depending on the one you choose, but there's no penalty or loss for changing weapon types, so feel free to keep a variety on hand to suit the needs of each mission. You can't change your gear while you're in a mission, though, so it's good to have a fallback weapon that suits your personal playstyle for cases when you're not sure what will be best. Some of the weapons allow you to run, block, roll, or use items when they're unsheathed, while others restrict you heavily at the cost of power. No one weapon has it all, so you're always going to have to work around drawbacks, no matter what you bring. If only you could somehow have four different weapons to work with, some of those bigger monsters might go down more easily.
The game's format is wonderfully suited to handheld play, since many of the missions are relatively short, giving you a convenient stopping point if you need to put the game away and do something else. At the same time, improving your equipment, increasing your Hunter Rank, and improving the town offer great over-arching goals that keep you coming back. There are tons of missions and a lot of things to do in the single-player mode. I haven't even mentioned fishing, bug-catching, mining, cooking lunch, combining items, running your Felyne kitchen, playing with a pig, training your assistant, and so on. It's basically Animal Crossing with gobs of violence and skinning your neighbors so you can wear their faces as hats. You could easily spend dozens of hours playing the game on your own, and you probably will. The funny thing is, it's actually just the warm-up for the real show.
Sooner or later, you're going to run into monsters that test your skill a little bit too much. As I mentioned, no one weapon does it all, but if you could bring in a few, you can probably cover most weaknesses. Well, for the first time in English on a handheld system, it's very easy to play online multiplayer in the iOS version of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. All you need is a WiFi connection, no extra console required. Up to four players can join together to take on a variety of missions with some truly amazing spoils. Like everything else in the game, playing effectively as a team takes a careful, planned approach. You can hit each other if you're not careful, and most groups of hunters are only a few bad swings away from things going completely bananas, especially against some of the more powerful monsters. If you work well together, however, the rewards are great, both in terms of items and personal satisfaction. This is where the series shines brightest, and it works perfectly in this version.
The biggest thing I was skeptical about with this version was the control system. Sure, the game supports MFi controllers, and it obviously plays as well as it did on PSP with one, if not better thanks to the camera being mapped to the right stick, avoiding the player having to use the "Claw" grip. Most people aren't rocking controllers, though, and those that do have them don't always bring them when they're out and about. So, in the interest of science, while preparing for this review, I played the game primarily in touch mode, and I'm happy to report that it works better than I would have imagined. Things are streamlined in a way that there's never an excessive amount of virtual buttons on the screen at any given point in time. Contextual actions only have their buttons come up when needed, and certain things assigned to extra buttons have been intelligently collapsed into the existing layout. The camera is a bit more fussy to deal with here than it is on a controller, but it's partially made up for by allowing you to quickly snap the camera just by touching the screen. On the other hand, using items is easier with the touch layout. The directional stick takes a little getting used to, but if you've been gaming on iOS devices, you'll be fine.
That sets the pace for the port overall. It's absolutely fantastic. The bump in resolution has had no effect on the framerate, so everything looks great and runs smoothly, even against big chunky monsters. The excellent music and awesome sound effects are all here, and, like other English versions of the series, the translation is top-notch, with lots of funny text and no glaring problems with readability. Like reading this review, getting completely into Monster Hunter Freedom Unite requires patience, but once you understand the game, it's basically a bottomless pit of enjoyment, as the massive thread in our forum will attest to. You could spend literal hundreds of hours playing through all of the content it has to offer. This is a flawless version of an incredible game, and my animal-faced hat is off to the people at Capcom for putting this together.
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