It’s slay all the way down

Monster Hunter Now is a location-based game with one verb and no purpose.

If you read through my coverage of location-based games on this blog you’ll find I have generally been hard on games made by Niantic. In part, because they’re pretty much the *only* game developer making location-based games these days and unfortunately, they keep making the same game over and over again. I was sad to hear that their NBA All-World game didn’t even last a full year before being shuttered, and yet, I told you so.

Niantic is really good at making high-quality pieces of software, and are masters at building addictive game mechanics, but, so far, they are largely missing purpose in the design of their games; for me, anyway. Sure, I can walk around my neighborhood collecting digital things, but their games want me to do that forever without giving me a good reason to do so. I’m a purpose-driven player of games, in that I get hooked on a game if it gives me the right motivation. Usually that’s through a good story, world-building, or quest design. Niantic isn’t typically very good at those things.

Cue Monster Hunter Now, their latest branded location-based game. Monster Hunter is a long-running series of video games with a diehard fan base and core game mechanics that match a lot of what Niantic likes to create, so it’s a partnership that makes a lot of sense. The Monster Hunter games have players, well, hunting monsters. It’s not a series I’m all that familiar with, and my knowledge is mostly through gaming cultural osmosis. Track monsters, equip specific weaponry depending on species, kill them, harvest them for parts… something something. 

Monster Hunter Now takes the basic ideas of the series and brings them to a location-based experience with monsters spilling into your neighborhood that you must physically walk around and slay. “Slay” is a verb used constantly in this game. Slay this, slay that. Never “kill”. These creatures deserve to die so we don’t kill them, we slay them.

The game features a *very* loose story with two characters (including a talking cat called Palico) suddenly appearing to provide the player with quests and guidance about what to do with all these monsters crossing via dimensional rifts into our world (spoiler: slay them). 

Palico serves as a neat mechanical feature, as well as quest-deliverer, for as you walk around your neighborhood, it’ll run out and grab resources for you. Additionally, you can mark a monster with a “paintball” to save it for later when you’re physically in a better place to spend a minute playing that monster fighting mini game, and the Palico has its own supplies of paintballs it’ll auto-use for you as well. 

The game is so stingy about giving you paintballs, however, and the Palico tends to mark low-level monsters irrelevant to any quests you’re on, that the paintball mechanic might as well not exist at all. I’m not sure I see the design reason for keeping those as such a limited resource (other than they want you to pay real money in the game’s shop to buy more…) as the ability to save monsters for later makes me want to take more walks with the game. 

A longer view of Monster Hunter Now’s gameplay.

Avaricious design decisions aside, Monster Hunter Now’s failure stems from my earlier accusation: a lack of purpose. The game presents the player with occasional story-driven quests, but those quests are layered on top of typical gameplay and the player rarely has agency in their success. Most of them have the player collecting a certain number of a special object, and those objects are randomly ejected from “gathering points” around the world, but those are places I’m visiting as a normal course of play anyway. Or, I’m assigned to hunt specific monsters, and maybe I’ll steer my walking path in order to find them, but that’s not markedly different from regular gameplay. The game’s quest design is startlingly bland.

I chose to reach character level 40 before writing this post. I thought, surely, by then the game would reveal some interesting loops and quest design, but even after reaching that point it became clear the path wasn’t changing. Monsters became harder to defeat, and I unlocked dozens of slightly different weapons and armor that I could slowly and slightly upgrade, but it was the same game from start to (my) finish. 

Monster Hunter Now is very pretty, has excellent sound design, and its combat is lively, but Niantic wants you to play this version of the game forever. This version of the game does nothing to earn that devotion. It’s a disappointment that stung more than I expected, even though I knew going in that its makers refuse to create a game differently than what they’ve created before. They’re serving us the same dish of Pokémon Go, over and over and over again. Between this and other high-profile attempts like The Witcher: Monster Slayer, it’s hard not to feel like this is very likely the last of location-based games we’ll see of this caliber. I might even say that Niantic slew the genre.