As we patiently await the confirmation of Monster Hunter Tri's release in North America, Capcom has alleviated some our anticipation with the release of Freedom Unite, the expansion to 2008's Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The PSP exclusive not only adds new missions, monsters, and plenty of gear, but rectifies a few of the problems found in the previous portable installments. Will it entice hunters to take up arms once again, or should they stay home this hunting season?
Freedom Unite is all about hunting and slaying increasingly more difficult monsters. You don't have to endure tedious level grinds or raise your character's stats. Instead, the focus is on gathering various materials in order to forge better armor and weapons that will make your life as a hunter easier. You then take your arsenal into action in over 400 quests, ranging from retrieving herbs, to taking down deadly behemoths. As you successfully complete each quest, you earn rank points and cash that allow you to take on more arduous tasks.
True to Monster Hunter's form, Freedom Unite is very challenging, and even the beginner quests prove to too much for average gamers to go at alone. This game is meant to be played with other hunters in a party, so be prepared for serious challenges if you don't recruit some friends. Capcom, however, has made the solo campaign just a little bit more manageable this time around with the addition of a new NPC character that can accompany your hunter into battle.
Though there's no formal level system, you have the option to arm yourself with weapons from among 11 different types, each with unique abilities and fighting styles. This provides a flexible approach to combat, as in many cases, you need to master several different weapons in order to handle the more advanced monsters. One of the biggest drawbacks to the system is that once you're in a quest, you can't change equipment, so if you've picked the wrong tool for the job, you're in for a rough time.
In addition to your armor and weapons, making sure your hunter is properly stocked with potions, tools, and other supplies is crucial to surviving the harsh wilderness. You can purchase new inventory at shops in the game's hub town, as well as make use of free pre-quest items before every outing. You can also pick up items at your farm as well, including rare ones only available through upgrading your farm, or by completing special treasure hunt missions. Items can also be obtained during quests by fishing in ponds, mining rocks, or gathering flora.
Unfortunately, the game does not sport a true online option, so partying up with friends isn't as easy as it should be. Instead, you're forced to group up locally via adhoc, which isn't too bad, if you can actually find other people to play with. However, if you have access to a Japanese PSN account, you can give the new online adhoc party a spin, which also supports voice chat.
You'll get plenty of mileage out of Freedom Unite, which can easily clock in at over 100 hours if played through thoroughly. Of course, plowing through it in marathon sessions isn't for everyone. Luckily, you can still enjoy the game in smaller doses, one mission at a time.
Like the other Monster Hunters games, one of Freedom Unite's biggest shortcomings is its camera. Where most 3D action games provide some form of lock-on system for combat, Freedom Unite adheres to the series' tradition of manual camera control. This is made even more complicated by the fact that character movement and camera controls are both mapped to the same side of the PSP, as was the case on the PS2 versions. You need some serious dexterity to multitask, but thankfully, the shoulder button can reposition the camera quickly behind your character at any time.
As if the camera didn't pose enough of a challenge, mastering the different weapon types comes with a steep learning curve. The basic sword and shield combo will satisfy most beginners, but eventually, the long range of projectile weapons and the sheer power of slower great blades will come in handy. The broad selection allows for several different play styles to suit your preferences, but again, it requires some effort to get used to everything.
No matter what weapon you select, basic combat is controlled through the same set of buttons. You're able to run about freely while your weapon is sheathed, but once you pull it out, your mobility is limited. Though you can roll to dodge attacks, combat in Freedom Unite stays true to Monster Hunter's give-and-take style. Expect to charge enemies with your weapon drawn, get a few shots in, and sheathing it before running away to escape a counter attack. Timing is everything, and a little bit of patience will go a long way toward being successful in battle.
Additionally, using weapons is not always the most effective means to take down your prey. Using a well-placed trap, or lacing a piece of raw meat with poison, can be just as lethal as any blade or gun in some instances. In fact, in some cases, it is nearly impossible to take down your target without relying on these kinds of tactics. The selection of tools at your disposal really ups the strategy factor, and provides for a very rich experience.
Porting Monster Hunter to the PSP is always an ambitious task, and it's surprising to see just how much detail Capcom cranks out of the handheld with Freedom Unite. Each of the unique locales look great, and the day and night cycles, as well as the varying weather effects, are a nice touch. New equipment additions appear visually on your character, and the animation is fluid and runs at a steady rate. The game is also light on the load times.
There's also some really good use of natural ambience, which really transports you to its exotic locales with the sounds of indigenous wildlife. Finally, the soundtrack hasn't changed, but it's just as stirring as ever.
Though it's labeled as an expansion, Freedom Unite can easily stand on its own. Its experience is as rich as you've come to expect from a Monster Hunter game, and it adds enough new features to keep veterans engaged. It's still not as newcomer-friendly as we'd like, but once you overcome the initial hurdle, you'll find a lot in here to keep you busy.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation Portable.