Hunting season is over.
People love to romanticize the past, and the farther back you go, the more romantic it gets. That’s probably why most fantasy takes place in medieval times instead of, say, 1985. But while fair princesses, overflowing flagons of mead and scores of mythical beasts just asking to be whacked sure sounds dreamy, we suspect medieval life was really lame. The ladies probably bathed on a monthly basis and the mead probably smelled like barf, though dragons are cool any way you slice it.
And slice it you will in Monster Hunter: Freedom, the weird PSP version of the weird PS2 game. Once again you roam about endlessly killing giant beasts, but once again, it’s just not very fun doing it. Our suspicions about bogus fantasy romance have been confirmed.
[image1]There’s not much happening in the quasi-Middle Ages epoch of Monster Hunter: Freedom. After using a barebones character creator, you'll discover that your little buddy lives in a small shack in a modest village, driven to be a true hunter, which really means snagging leet gear along profit's path. Since you're just a famished simpleton in simple times, you bug the village chief for quests because… well, that's what hunters do, we think. You mysteriously can’t get out of town without a quest, so think of it as a hunter’s license.
We guess the lack of direction, backstory or plot is where Monster Hunter gets its "Freedom" from, since there's no world to freely explore at all. In order to even leave town, you have to visit the single village chief and scroll through the handful of quests that you must take for your rank. They come in a whopping two types - gathering or hunting. Freedom my foot.
Once you have passed the invisible barrier protecting your wee town from the rest of the world, you’re taken to a loading screen. This takes you to a big map divided into sub-zones you’ll have to pass through on the way to your particular hunting ground. Naturally, passing through each of these requires you to stop and load. That’s a lot of loading and you haven’t even completed one quest yet.
Not that doing quests is much of a reward, though. Given how expensive weaponry and armor is, there is no dodging a long, monotonous road of quest farming in order to rack up enough cash for some decent gear. Completing a quest doles out a bigger cash prize than anything you'll find in the field, and you'll notice that certain quests are way faster to do than others, so you will be doing the same quest ad nauseum. It takes farming to be a hunter?
And don’t think for a minute that you can jump ship in the middle of another boring farmfest. If you feel like doing something besides the quest objectives, like kill extra monsters, catch new fish, or gather extra items, you must fulfill the quest objective in order to keep that stuff since you won't be warped back to town if you don't. Grr.
[image2]All this hunting and farming wouldn’t be so bad if the combat wasn’t so frustratingly clunky. Despite the fact that three of the four melee weapon types allow slightly different combos and guards, the attacks move slowly and take too long to finish, putting you at a constant disadvantage, especially against multiple monsters. It takes so much time to unsheathe, hoist, then swing at any of them that you wind up taking significant damage every time you attack. Once you're tenderized in the middle of a blood flurry, you'll need to regroup and use a potion or something, except that you'll have to take a couple more hits while going through the ‘sheathing your weapon’ animation. Then you run like all hell to a position where you won't be getting raped from behind while blocking just to slurp down a heal item.
But before you start whacking away at enemies again, your character slowly and inexplicably flexes his muscles, which he does after using any sort of potion, first-aid kit or health-restoring items. It seems like a small detail, but such narcissism leads to even more vulnerability and cheap hits. Sometimes you’ll get knocked right out of the quest zone and have to sit through load times just because your stupid avatar thinks he’s Mr. Universe.
This scenario of getting powerlessly owned is unavoidable, since a monster that gets pissy will in turn aggravate everything in its area. However, every monster is pre-programmed to attack only you, so expect all infighting to end once you show up. This total lack of A.I. can be maddening, especially when you’re inadvertently helping out a beast by attacking what it was just attacking, only to watch both creatures suddenly team up to kick your ass.
To deal with such uneven odds, the game lets you combine items to create more powerful weapons and ammo. The problem is, you have no idea what two items combine to make something useful. So you go back to your little house in the village, fill your inventory with everything in your storage box, and just go down the list trying every item combination until something takes. You have to waste time shackled to your PSP going through every combination of an inventory list in order to find a combo that works. If you have only one of a useful reagent and it happens to make something you need more of, you better remember which quest loaded what map, then which zone had the right monster or bush, then do that quest again! Sound like fun? It's more like taxes.
[image3]Sadly, the PSP version does away with the online support that made the other version of this game more enjoyable. It does have Ad Hoc multiplayer play for up to four, but that’s not nearly as useful as the Infrastructure the game desperately needs.
The best part of Monster Hunter: Freedom is its look and feel. Every weapon and armor piece has its own detailed look, and if you like aggressive, spiky bits, your hunter will end up looking pretty snazzy. Great textures and fluid animations are accented with just the right environmental noise to create a tight, visceral feel. Running and panting through dense foliage in plate mail and carving a side of raw meat from a fresh kill feels spot-on. Er, we think.
It’s too bad the rest of this mess doesn’t feel as good. Monster Hunter: Freedom tries to capture the odd, free-form gameplay that made its console counterpart so quirky, but its load problems, aggravating combat, lame AI and lack of online play dulls its blade immeasurably. Hunt for something else.