Gamers love to sniff out off-the-beaten track, cultish games and, until now, that has been the only way to describe Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise.
For years, Monster Hunter games - primarily confined to Nintendo handhelds, with the occasional port across to consoles - have been massive in Japan, but little known elsewhere. However, Monster Hunter: World, built from the ground up for the PS4 and Xbox One, aims to show the rest of the world what all the fuss has been about.
Here there be monsters
Happily, it has the quality to do just that. Generally described as an RPG (and, as a franchise-first, for the first time set in a properly open world) Monster Hunter: World feels refreshingly different to its peers. At times, it evokes memories of the hunting simulators that were massively popular in the 1990s, except played out in a setting which could easily be the backdrop to a Jurassic Park film.
After a character-creation session, the game whisks you off to the inhospitable, uncharted New World on a ship. There's a bit of a Pilgrim Fathers vibe, as you're part of the Fifth Fleet, trying to get a handle on why the so-called Elder Dragons migrate there regularly.
The ship is destroyed by one such magma-infused behemoth, Zorah Magdalos, but you, your Handler (who gives you quests and tips in the field) and your Palico, an anthropomorphised cat-assistant, make it to the New World unscathed.
There you make your way to Asteras, an endearingly ramshackle wooden city to begin to embark on quests designed both to teach you how to play the game and, as far as the storyline is concerned, to make the surrounding area safe for the myriad eco-researchers trying to find out all they can about the mysteries of the New World.
The initial quests pretty much involve hunting down an increasingly fearsome roster of monsters. It soon becomes apparent that monster-hunting is no trivial matter - particularly if you play the game solo. Monster Hunter: World is designed to be played co-operatively by up to four people in a drop-in, drop-out manner, and if you join a group, you will find the hunts considerably shorter and easier.
But you will also run the risk, in that scenario, of failing to develop a proper understanding of the game's systems and subtleties which are, respectively, sophisticated and considerable.
The monster AI is so good that emergent behaviour - one of the Holy Grails of the games industry - arises in a commonplace fashion. A long and involved hunt of a huge and fearsome beast, for example, might easily take a twist if you drive it into the clutches of an even more deadly foe, enabling you to watch while it takes damage before moving in for an easier kill.
Open world wonders
Monster Hunter World's open world is amazing. The game has an ecological vibe to it so, while you hunt, you'll be collecting and researching flora, fauna and raw materials, pretty much all of which can be crafted into useful - indeed essential - items. The crafting system is exemplary: you can even set it to automatically craft key items when you acquire the requisite raw materials.
But perhaps the best aspect of Monster Hunter world is the way in which it conveys a feel of being a hunter - albeit a heavily equipped one - who is just a tiny human but who must use every resource available to bring down his or her formidable quarry. As you start to track a monster - via its footprints, mucus it has left on the vegetation or scratch-marks where it has rubbed itself - the Scoutflies with which you're equipped begin to show you the path it took.
Then, when you finally meet it, you have to work really hard to take it down.
The process of killing or subduing monsters requires a lot of patience along with careful attention to defence. Most monsters can cause you to faint (you never die in the game, but are returned to the nearest camp on a primitive cart) with just a couple of attacks, so in between flurries of attacks, you must roll away and restore your health with a potion. If you faint three times, you will have to restart the quest.
Selecting the right weapon with which to take on each monster is essential. As your research into a monster progresses, you discover its weak points and which items and elements it is vulnerable to, as well as becoming familiar with the subtleties of its behaviour in combat. It helps to employ traps, some of which must be crafted, whereas others are built into the environment.
Massive weapons of destruction
There's a huge amount of weaponry to choose between, ranging from close-range swords to guns (for which you must craft and carefully choose your ammo), along with giant two-handed swords and axes, and hybrids which transform from powerful but slow two-handed blades into more wieldy and responsive swords.
The bigger weapons can feel clunky - often, when you launch an attack with them, you will find that your prey has moved by the time the attack-animation runs its course. Therefore, visiting the training ground which lets you sample all the weapons is a must.
Monster Hunter World isn't one of those games that believes in holding your hand: the onus is very much on you to delve deeply into all its nooks and crannies in order to gain that crucial hunting edge. Which may alienate some, but which, in our opinion, is a clever approach, since it sucks you in so deeply that the spectre of obsession is raised. You can see why Monster Hunter became such a craze in Japan.
If you're seeking a narrative experience though, you might want to look elsewhere. Monster Hunter World is very much an open-world experience with a few bits of storyline shoehorned in. Although it does hit you with the odd unexpected change-up - at one point, it goes all Shadow of the Colossus, as you battle a mysterious monster on the back of Zorah Magdaros.
Monster Hunter: World is a pretty meaty game, too. The main story hunts routinely take about half an hour each, and you're soon hit with a plethora of shorter side-missions (such as finding ingredients for the cook, who makes hilariously animated meals that buff you before each hunt), along with Investigations, which involve exploring the open world in search of particular catch-all objectives.
Overall, the world of Monster Hunter World proves to be gloriously addictive and endlessly charming.
At times, it might not feel as polished as its ultra-modern peers, but that's a small price to pay given that it never, ever feels remotely scripted in any way. And there are niggling flaws, such as the hopelessly unintuitive in-the-field inventory system, and the need to disengage and stand still both before you can swallow a reviving potion and during the resultant unnecessarily long potion-swallowing animation.
But if you're looking for a glorious open-world game in which to immerse yourself and temporarily ignore the worries of everyday life, Monster Hunter: World will certainly satisfy you - possibly to the point of obsession.