Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Monster Hunter Tri (Demo)

Monster Hunter Tri is the third console iteration of an incredibly popular series from Japan. As far as I know, this is the first Monster Hunter to be actively marketed in the US, so a demo seems like a really good idea. Unfortunately, Capcom chose to distribute the demo disk through GameStop rather than directly or digitally. I walked into a local store a few weeks ago and spotted the display box filled with disks behind the counter. There were a couple of guys with name tags hanging out in the front of the store, but they professed ignorance of the game and demo. So I waited in line while the other two workers were selling the membership program to other customers. When I finally got to the front of the line, the pimply adolescent loudly announced his manager would only let him give out the disk to people who pre-ordered the game. That makes no sense since I wanted to get a demo in order to find out if I'd like to buy the game later. If I was ready to buy the game, why would I care about the demo? Like an idiot, I put down $5 to get the demo and then came back a few days later to cancel the pre-order. The strange thing is both times the clerk asked me to fill out a survey. I think he gets credit whether the feedback is good or bad.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

Prior interest: Low

Until recently, I had a very vague idea of what Monster Hunter was all about: big in Japan, characters wield comically large weapons, "monsters" are a cross between dinosaurs and dragons, online is important for some reason and so on. Exactly why the Japanese pay for online services and sink hundreds of hours in the game isn't immediately clear from the description. Screen shots and gameplay videos reveal the graphics are exceptional, but the action seems very deliberate and the spaces somewhat limited. If ever there were a game that could benefit from a demo, this would be the one.

Odds of purchase: Medium

Besides the disk, the demo came with a huge, color instruction sheet for all the different weapon controls. For instance, if you pick the lance, the Z button initiates a charge, but it charges up a whirlwind maneuver if you are using the giant hammer. While you are certainly free to jump right in and learn the controls by trying them out, examining the control sheet is highly recommended. Only the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls are listed, so if you want to play the demo with a Classic Controller you need to look around online or make good guesses.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

During the loading screens, Capcom warns that there might be differences between the demo and the final game. Other than slight wording changes, I can't imagine what they would change since the game has been out in Japan for half a year. That means it's hopeless to dream the final version will include GameCube controller support. The demo consists of two quests: the one star Great Jaggi and a three star Qurupeco. Both are limited to 20 minutes, so there's some pressure to get right to work attacking the quest monster. As I'll mention in a minute, it's worth your time to explore the Deserted (or Solitary) Island, where both quests are located.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

In contrast to the limited choice of quests, the demo opens up all the weapon types and even offers multiple versions of some. There's also a wide variety of armor choices and both genders. The costumes seem mostly, well, cosmetic, but the different weapon choices force different approaches to battle. Sword and shield allow quicker attacks at the cost of damage per attack. The three classes of bowguns trade slower developing attacks for high potential damage. Trying out all the possibilities turns out to be a major draw of the demo.

After you've made your choices and waited through a stylish loading screen, you are dumped into a hunting camp on the island with no clear clue what's going on. There is an area map with the quest monster clearly marked. So the natural thing to do is to navigate to where it's prowling around. On the way, you'll encounter some more loading screens and a dynamic environment. There are mushrooms, herbs, grazing herbivores, smaller carnivores and odd, tool-using cats. While you can interact with these elements, there's no point to it in the context of the demo as everything goes away after 20 minutes.

When you finally do confront the quest monster, you'll probably find yourself unceremoniously dumped back at camp if you try charging in and hacking away. For one thing, attacks are slow and difficult to aim. For another, monster attacks cause significant damage and are often chained. So if you get knocked down, you'll barely have time to get up before getting assaulted again. You are equipped with plenty of health potions, but you better learn to put away your weapon and use the sprint button to get far away from predators or you'll loose as much health as you gain. Once you learn to read a beasts pattern and develop an appropriate counterattack (involving plenty of evasive maneuver), you'll have an easier time taking them down.

With some luck and practice, you will start dealing out enough damage to see your prey change behavior. There's no status bar, so you just have to observe the monster to know when you are getting close to a kill. The first time I saw the Great Jaggi limp out of the area, I got a sudden adrenaline rush and sprinted after him only to be slaughtered a few minutes later because of over-aggression. It took several more tries to master the patience needed for delivering solid blows without receiving any. When I did complete the first quest (with switch-ax), the exhilaration I felt matched the time I'd spent.

So the demo provides a taste test of the meat of Monster Hunter Tri: hunting monsters. If you look hard enough and ignore the quest, you'll also find a limited sampling of the game's side dishes. For instance, you can kill some cow-like Aptonoth, carve them for their meat, roast it on your BBQ spit, and eat the cooked meat for added stamina. But there isn't much point to doing it since your hunter is already equipped with well-done steaks at the start of the quest. There's a distant sea cave you can swim to that features giant mosquitoes called Bnahabra and a pile of bones to dig through. Clearly the place means something, but with no in-game help, who knows what these things are called or why they exist. Apparently, the full game features a story mode that serves as a sort of tutorial for the game, but the demo dumps you right into the action. And of course, the demo leaves out all online features.

So as a demo, it gets the essentials right: give the prospective customer a taste of the game so they can get excited about it. Unfortunately, the demo focus on a portion of the game that's an acquired taste and leaves out the bits that are likely to be appealing to a broad audience. Fortunately, the rest of Capcom's marketing effort is directed at filling in the gaps. But next time, why not make the demo a free download? Just a thought.