Monster Hunter is what I call, in the best possible way, a Ronseal game – the RPG does exactly what it says on the tin. Since its global breakthrough with 2018’s World, Capcom has done even better with cutting down the faff and getting players straight into the main event, while Monster Hunter Rise streamlined it into an almost arcadey variant where some hunts could be over in less than ten minutes despite still being allotted the maximum 50 minutes typical in the series. That may be a better fit for a flexible system like the Switch but understandably comes in for criticism from core fans used to more of a challenge.
Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak is then just what doctor ordered: a massive expansion that relocates from the Japanese-inspired village of Kamura to the more medieval Elgado, but also isn’t afraid to knock you on your arse and see more hunters getting carted (community jargon for when you’re KO’d by a monster before the scene cuts to a cat wheeling your body on a cart back to camp).
As an expansion that can only be accessed once players have beaten Rise’s campaign, it should come as no surprise that the expansion’s new Master Rank quests don’t need to throw out a glorified meat puppet for your first hunt. Then again, for this hands-on we’ve been thrown in the deep end by taking on a four-star Master Rank hunt. Also, despite having sunk over 100 hours into Rise since last year, it’s been a few months since my last visit so I was a bit rusty, re-familiarising myself with my main weapons Long Sword and Hunting Horn on top of Sunbreak’s new mechanics.
Nonetheless, this hunt was the perfect opportunity to take on new monster Lunagaron, something of a cross between a dragon and an ice werewolf. The latter description certainly is in step with the spooky vibes in new map The Citadel, complete with gothic castle ruins surrounded in an ominous purple aura, though it’s like a different place entirely when the sun comes up.
To put it simply, Lunagaron hits hard. That’s especially the case when its ice elements come into force, adding a new layer of armour on its already tough scales, and when standing on its two feet, its front claws can slam down on you, swiping more than half your health. Alas, this beast had me running ragged for the 30 minutes before all my three lives were used up. But getting pounded and learning from your mistakes is exactly what you want from a new monster.
For the second hunt of the preview, I fared better, perhaps because the battering from Lunagaron had reacclimated me, but also because it was in more familiar territory, taking place in the Sandy Plains map from Rise and against returning monster Seregios. Not that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s flagship wyvern is a cakewalk, in particular its attack that has it firing its scales like projectiles that can inflict the dreaded bleed status. I also had to deal with a Diablos roaming the map, and just like in Rise, you can expect up to three monsters roaming the map at any given time, though you can also use them against each other. In that area, the expansion has also made the ability to mount and temporarily control weakened monsters easier by letting you initiate wyvern riding with just a basic attack.
This new hunt also had me partnering up with an AI-controlled hunter, Elgado’s arena quest handler Master Arlow, while I still had my Palico and Palamute companions to hand. I can’t say it was too noticeable a difference, perhaps because Arlow was keeping his distance a lot of the time as a Gunlance hunter, but he proved his worth by dropping in some much needed heals when I found myself knocked down one too many times by the tough monsters.
Fortunately, unlike with other human players, AI hunters don’t share your lives pool, so it’s no big deal if Arlow gets KO’d, though there’ll be a cooldown period before he gets back into the action. These shouldn’t be considered a substitute for hunting with other players, which has always been core to the Monster Hunter experience, as AI hunters are only available in the new Follower Quests. They’re essentially optional side quests but nonetheless flesh out Sunbreak’s characters so that they’re not simply glorified quest givers.
While the appeal of a new expansion is more powerful gear that can be crafted from all the monster carcasses you fell (remember you can also capture them, the quicker and more humane way to end a hunt), that’s not something I was able to delve into during this preview. I was however able to sample the new switch skills added for each of the 14 weapon types, including new Silkbind Attacks that consume the wirebug gauge. Where hunters could previously customise their switch skills to fit their playstyle, you can now set two different switch skill loadouts and then swap between them on the fly. The inputs required doesn’t exactly make this intuitive at first, though additional UI at the bottom of the screen helps you keep track of all the different inputs and whenever they change whether you’re holding down ZL or just skill swapped.
Admittedly, it was a tad overwhelming trying to process all this during a preview session while trying not to get stomped by a raging monster, so I found myself falling back on the Long Sword’s reliable parrying Silkbind attack that was already in the base game. Still, I imagine hunters will be eager to dig deeper into the intricacies of each new switch skill, whether it’s swapping skills mid-combo or swapping while evading to look like a proper bad-ass.
On the basis of these hunts, Sunbreak is shaping up to be more of what fans want: more Monster Hunter to give you a run for your money, with more mechanics to wrap your head around, which should compel veterans to find new strategies. It certainly compelled me to give Lunagaron another go, overrunning my allotted hands-on session in the process. But that’s what monster hunting is all about, the drive and satisfaction that comes with one more hunt, and before you know it, hundreds of hours have flown by.