It’s easy to overlook just how crucial level design is to Monster Hunter. It’s the way little details in each map vibe together—the landscape, the topography, the way different sectors connect to one another—that allows everything else to click into place, even if the tense showdown with whatever massive beast is right before your eyes has a way of making you miss the forest for the trees.
But Monster Hunter Rise never lets you lose sight of the forest, no matter what else is going on. This is true in a literal sense, with Rise‘s seamless, sprawling maps offering up stunning vistas to take in. (Even Monster Hunter World, in all its ambition, still had maps broken up into discrete sectors.) More importantly, it’s true in the way a greater emphasis on verticality, traversal, and use of space, coupled with some of the most elaborate maps seen to date, makes the fundamental nature of level design in Monster Hunter a constant (and constantly impressive) point of focus.
Much of this is thanks to the wirebug, a new gadget introduced in Rise. In essence, it’s a zipline that you can use to fling yourself into the air or give you the momentum to start running up a wall. That’s nothing groundbreaking in and of itself, but what it means for Monster Hunter is that you can go pretty much anywhere you want. Map edges notwithstanding, any cliff face, any chasm, any towering ruin or great big tree is something you can climb. Every map is designed precisely with this sort of climbing in mind, an intricate maze of natural skyscrapers. Stamina limits and recharge times between wirebig uses mean you can’t just climb endlessly, and some places are hard to reach, but you can get there with a bit of creative thinking and exploration.
Monster Hunter Rise is a wonderful example of how intrinsically satisfying a good traversal system can be. Before you even think about monsters or rare materials, the simple act of fluidly moving around in this space, almost feeling the wind rushing past your character’s face, is its own reward. The sights you get to see along the way are breathtaking, and the glimpses of this world’s history you can catch in the ruins and relics hidden far off the beaten path are fascinating.
When it comes to the hunt, the combination of wirebugs and seamless environments create an unparalleled degree of freedom in how you approach any situation. The level design itself is one of your most powerful tools, be it for finding shortcuts to efficiently chase down a fleeing monster or getting extra creative with the traps you lay. Being able to move around so freely in the midst of a fight means more options for dodging attacks, creating space to drink a healing potion, or find a good vantage point to launch an attack from. Mobility is a vital aspect of Monster Hunter‘s combat, and Rise puts mobility at the fore.
Palamutes are another side of this coin. These big, wolf-like mounts are fast and nimble, letting you dash around a map far quicker than you could on foot (and they can even drift for a speed boost, Mario Kart-style). Speed alone is plenty useful, but it’s when you start to use your mount in tandem with your wirebugs that you really see their full potential: the momentum you get when you jump off the back of a palamute running full-tilt gives your ziplining the extra oomph to cover even greater distances and reach even greater heights. They also let you do things like sharpen your weapon while on the move, and their combat capabilities are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Between wirebugs, palamutes, and some truly astounding level design, Monster Hunter Rise puts motion at the centre of everything: of hunting, of exploring, of understanding this new world.
The other thing that sets Rise apart is its heavy inspiration from Japanese folklore. The hub town, Kamura Village, is modelled after the mythical vision of a secluded ninja village, in all its thatched-roof, cherry-blossomed glory. Everyone who calls it home looks the part, from the Quest Maidens in their shrine maiden-inspired attire to Fugen the Elder, the heroic ninja who leads the village. Each map that you venture out into is full of ruins reminiscent of ancient Japan, from stone lanterns to towering old pagoda. Where previous games have typically taken cave paintings and Mesoamerican sculptures as inspiration for monster icons, Rise is pure ukiyo-e.
This inspiration carries through to the design of the new monsters, which are all put an animalistic spin on yōkai of Japanese folklore. Take the Aknosom as an example: a crane, but with its tendency to stand on one leg and the way its wings and collar form the shape of a parasol, it’s a dead ringer for a kasa-obake. Kappa, tengu, ningyo, onibi, and plenty of other yōkai all get their moment in Rise, with monstrous (rather than ghostly) designs that are quintessentially Monster Hunter yet instantly recognisable to anyone with at least a passing familiarity with yōkai stories.
In Rise‘s central storyline and the new Rampage quests that come along with it, there’s a clear inspiration from Hyakki Yagyō (“Night Parade of a Hundred Demons“)—an old legend that tells of a horde of yōkai roaming the land, spiriting away anyone who crosses their path. Rampages are basically a Monster Hunter take on horde modes, with a light tower defence twist, as you defend the village against an onslaught of monsters. Where your typical hunt is (usually) methodical and calculated, rampages are desperate fights for survival with little room to draw back and recoup if you find yourself outgunned.
Behind all this is the same captivating game loop that’s made Monster Hunter such a hit from the get-go. The journey to hunt ever-stronger monsters, using the trophies from these hunts to craft ever-stronger equipment, never grows old. Even if you find yourself hunting the same target again and again, trying to get that last missing hide or tail, the dynamics at play mean it never gets repetitive—every hunt winds up feeling unique. The complexities and nuances of the different weapons are enough to make each one feel like it could be a separate game in its own right, and mastering even one of them is a long journey—but a long journey where every step feels momentous.
Monster Hunter Rise carries on as World did before it, with a focus on opening the door wide to new players without sacrificing the complexity and depth that gives Monster Hunter its longevity. A smooth difficulty curve, helpful tutorials, and enjoyable story all help to ease players into the experience. There’s more of a focus on solo play as a viable option now, with a full array of singleplayer quests alongside their multiplayer variants; while multiplayer is still where much of Monster Hunter‘s appeal will lie for most, you can still play Rise entirely solo if you want, and still get the full experience.
For the multiplayer side of things, the move back to a portable console means local co-op is back. As much fun as it can be to play Monster Hunter with friends online, it can never quite come close to the joy of getting a bunch of friends round, linking up your consoles, and going on a hunt together. But the important part is that, however you prefer to play—solo, online, or with a local group—Monster Hunter Rise gives you its full support.
Monster Hunter has gone from strength to strength over the years, and Monster Hunter World in particular felt like a high point for the series. But Monster Hunter Rise manages to one-up even that ambitious game. A renewed focus on vertical level design and mobility take everything that makes Monster Hunter work to new heights (pun absolutely intended), and the Japanese inspiration gives this latest outing a very different, very impressive new sense of style, but without forgetting the series’ roots. Truly, Rise is Monster Hunter at its absolute best.
Monster Hunter Rise is developed and published by Capcom. It launches March 26 for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.