If there’s one thing games love, it’s new. New graphics, new mechanics, new worlds, new installments. Not truly new ideas though. We've settled into a decade of lavish remakes which put a coat of paint on the classics, and despite backlash against games perceived to rely on “recycled assets”, audiences have lapped up new graphics on old bones without so much as blinking.
Often I think it can be a hollow pursuit. A whole new console generation has ushered in an era where the biggest franchises and exclusives feel tired as hell. My PS5 has gathered dust, save for the rare occasion I boot up an old PS4 game. All the latest cutting-edge technology feels like it has barely pushed graphics more than a few inches forward.
Yet Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak, the first expansion for Monster Hunter Rise, has reminded me that there’s joy to be found in the familiar, so long as it gets deeper and more colorful. An expansion for what was once a Switch exclusive game, people are all over it – even on PC, where they already have Rise’s graphically superior cousin, Monster Hunter World.
Perhaps that’s because this series is defined by familiarity. There is no Resident Evil 4 in its history, a game that sees the series reinvented. World is the closest to a soft reboot Monster Hunter has had, and mostly what it brought was quality of life improvements and even better production values. As with Yakuza, the allure of a new Monster Hunter title is not diving into the great unknown (though there are surprises) but rather returning to something cozy. Prior to any release, I don't see fans clamoring for new innovations; instead, they're praying for the return of series stalwart monsters. My friends who have been begging for Gore Magala, the six-limbed wyvern, practically lost their collective shit at its announcement for Sunbreak.
This expansion picks up the same routines and the same core loop. Take quest, hunt monster, make better gear. Take quest, hunt monster, make better gear, and on and on. That's not to say that it's the exact same tired game as Rise, though: not at all. The joy of each new entry lies in its particular take on all the familiar elements. What's the new cooking cutscene? Well, this one throws in a train full of cats, of course! What's the theme of the new hub? It's a Renaissance Fair!
A new Monster Hunter is like coming home to find someone threw you a surprise party. That joyous, celebratory energy is the series' true secret weapon. More than the elaborate foes and wildly deep systems, I suspect that this central emotion is what draws in so many, binding all its strengths into a resonant experience.
A new tool, the marionette spider, allows you to yank monsters in a desired direction, giving you yet another way to control hunts. There are refinements to the controls and various tools as well, including the ability to run up all small walls without wirebugs – thank god – though even players who haven’t bought Sunbreak will get the benefit of those. It’s a marvel that Capcom can deepen an ocean of systems but by god, they've done it. More impressively, I'm able to follow it all.
The new monsters, like the giant crab that lives inside the skull of an even bigger beast that greets you at the start, showcase the playful imagination that makes Monster Hunter such a fun space to play in. Sunbreak, combined with Rise, represents perhaps the most diverse roster the series has ever had, mixing things up with beasts that will tear apart your muscle memory. The way they animate seems specifically designed to counter expectations; a lot of the monsters even have feints and bluffs they can use to trick unobservant players. A new Monster Hunter game should force you to adapt your builds and employ new tactics, and Sunbreak does it immediately and consistently with each new beast. If it had somehow found a way to bring back underwater combat (perhaps with better controls), it would truly have everything.
As a result, it is tougher than the base game. Monsters hit harder, and the shake-up in types and moves will punish players who fail to adapt. For veterans though, the return of a real sense of danger will be most welcome.
If I have a major complaint about Sunbreak, it's that it holds back many of its new monsters for too long. Given how central they are to the delight of a new expansion for this series, it's a shame that players will have to progress quite far before getting to see them. It makes for a very satisfying payoff, sure – but sometimes leaves Sunbreak feeling like it’s pulling its punches early on.
Thankfully, that frustration is offset by one of the quickly accessible new areas, simply called Jungle, which feels a little closer to the dense, twisted environments that World did so well. Wildlife can be found everywhere, interacting with you and the monsters, making every encounter feel as if it takes place in an ecosystem instead of a gladiatorial arena. Like when I baited a large beast into some shallows, where swarms of swordfish tore through it.
We're in an age of nostalgia, of big-budget games clutching onto familiar franchises and tropes. Monster Hunter is a rare series that threads the needle, comforting without pandering, innovating while staying familiar. I long for more big, new ideas, but if we are going to settle for more of the same, then let it be like Sunbreak – giddy and imaginative while keeping its decades-old routine fresh. By which I mean: more games should have cats in tiny chef outfits, delivering your virtual meal in a miniature steam train.
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