Alas, Monster Hunter. The game I always turned to whenever I felt small. A world I didn’t necessarily topple into in order to feel massive because, if anything, its menagerie of formidable Wyverns and flatulent Conga habitually bludgeoned me into negative hit points. But what was so appealing about the Monster Hunter games was the assertion that one didn’t have to be massive in order to face down smothering odds, and that brute force was a mere tool at the disposal of style and methodology.
Monster Hunter: Freedom Unite was the hopeful enhanced edition of the prior action-RPG, Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The Western Monster Hunter games were ported from the second Monster Hunter for the PlayStation 2, which never reached outside Japan. After a modest reception on larger consoles, Capcom decided to translate the franchise onto portable devices, and Freedom Unite received a Western PSP release in 2009.
In a restricted sense, it worked. Very well, in fact. Freedom Unite was a veritable hit in Japan, with a million copies sold on the first day. Western reception, on the other hand, was, and continues to be, comparatively dry.
What little story Freedom Unite possesses is simple. Lone, incipient hunter you are, your exploits in the snow-capped mountains are cut short with the prompt arrival of the Tigrex, an enormous wyvern adorned with orange-blue stripes. After a brief battle you are rendered unconscious, awakening in the parochial village of Pokke. Weakened, but before the straightforward path to Monster Hunter glory.
However, in Freedom Unite, the line between ‘straightforward’ and ‘easy’ has never been more stark.
A large part of what there is to love about Freedom Unite lies in its stunning visuals. Expansive maps are comprised of craggy mountaintops, tropical jungles and punishing desert territory, all of which are home to highly specialised – and highly lethal – monsters. Your timely rendezvous with the notorious Tigrex opens up an unforgiving world of hulking, fanged gorillas, subterranean manta-worms and paralysing super-wasps. The tally of things that can kill you in Freedom Unite is vast, and its diversity has come to be a hallmark of the Monster Hunter series.
Ventures are punctuated with smaller, peace-loving beings too, however – and from the passive mammoth creatures, the Popo, to the nippy anthropomorphic Felyne race, the prehistoric world of Freedom Unite breathes with every alcove. And it’s truly beautiful – however ambiguous and terrifying – to behold.
The village of Pokke constitutes your base of operations for your monster hunting antics; a place where you can buy armour, farm and stock up on provisions for the treacherous path ahead. Whilst the purpose of the village is more administrative than anything else, the atmosphere of Pokke is one of rustic cosiness; a warm, welcoming lull after hours of beastly gallivanting. You can even adopt a capricious little pig to return home to – a friend I continue to be incredibly attached to.
Freedom Unite possessed a combat system that has since been refined by the Souls games, boasting gargantuan foes with equally dessimating attacks. Weapons are extravagant but equally taxing to handle, making calculating one’s moves imperative, as one ill-timed roll or wonky swing could very well send you reeling into the cold clutches of oblivion, lending greatly to the game’s challenge level.
It’s also remarkably satisfying to watch your character prancing about Pokke with all the vaulting vigor of an incredibly pent-up Freudian.
While in retrospect there are similarities between Capcom and From Software’s creations, Freedom Unite still achieves a very personal uncertainty as to what waits around the next corner and with the looming prospect of randomly spawning beasts over unrelated missions, the sense of danger remains as fresh today as it did then. As a result, Freedom Unite‘s world – six years on – still appears very much alive.
The life of Freedom Unite extends beyond the single player experience, and its online play system is the reason some return to the game. The PlayStation Ad Hoc Party function allowed four PSP and PS3 owners to team up and brave true titans, which, considering the tough single player tussles, amounted to a more balanced and deeply involving battle experience. Admittedly, Ad Hoc practice is relatively thin nowadays, but Monster Hunter’s capacity for camaraderie endures to this day, surfacing in the more recent 3DS titles.
That said, the series is a gem with some very distinct blemishes. Freedom Unite is certainly no exception, with clunky combat manoeuvres and esoteric gameplay explanations overshadowing some of the game’s truly beautiful aspects.
Capcom’s inefficacy at explaining the game to newcomers has filtered into the series’ overall reception, which has only hindered its reputation. Battle tutorials take the form of exhaustive dialogue segments, which, especially when so insistently placed at the beginning of the game, makes Freedom Unite difficult to really jump into. The interface is particularly elusive, adding a weighty start up time to Freedom Unite just to learn its navigation. Rest assured, this isn’t a game you can play in your lunch break.
Combat movements are slow, leaving the player vulnerable to hits against large groups of enemies. Healing said hits are no picnic either, and last a positive age, requiring the player to distance themselves from the action in order to heal and evade failure, which isnt’ always easy when there’s a litter of raving Giaprey on your behind.
The worst part of Freedom Unite, however, is its wonky camera controls. The camera is unintuitive and lacks precision; often requiring manual adjustment via the D-pad’s left and right. This unnecessarily complicates combat situations, and strikes as particularly archaic with retrospect.
Freedom Unite takes a risk-reward decision with quests, but it doesn’t always serve the game well. Particularly bountiful quests will eventually ask the player to pay in-game currency to progress, which is a crude way to keep out beginners. Each time you fall in battle, your pay is docked, which saw me continually out-of-pocket before unlocking the next set of adventures. Previous quests must then be re-done or useful crafting items sold, again touching on that prehistoric sense of the nomadic, but proving incredibly repetitive in the process.
The lasting mundanity of a game with such epic moments is unfortunate, and seems to have affected the series overall. Monster Hunter still holds a reputation for heavy grinding and steep learning curves – something that perpetuates the series’ rather niche audience.
Freedom Unite’s glorious soundtracks remains one of my favourite things about the game. An orchestral treasure, Freedom Unite‘s score offers epics to tap into the soul of the hunter. Each boss revels in its own operatic theme, hikes are mellifluously resonant, and many humorous inflections are taken to brighten the mood. There is a distinct sense of majesty exuding Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack, and alongside its towering behemouths and lush landscapes – it’s certainly a game that sounds as good as it looks.
Freedom Unite is a rewarding game, but only when studied extensively. The stringent control scheme and haphazard camera controls make the combat significantly more difficult, and possibly contributed to the game’s poor Western sales. This being said, Freedom Unite offers a level of immersion uncommon for a PSP title, and its hefty challenge has gathered something of a cult following.
In the wake of Freedom Unite and its predecessors, further entries have built upon the world of the hunter, and with the fourth installment proving more accessible than any other in the series, the Monster Hunter following is timidly – very timidly – expanding, albeit largely on a Nintendo platform. Unfortunately, this means that there’s not a terrible amount of reason to return to Freedom Unite, as later installments have proven a little more forgiving, navigable and visually pleasing, but it does stand as one of the historical roots of an elusive cult franchise.