Monster Hunter, a series grounded in Player vs. Enemy combat pitting one to four human hunters against an often large and threatening creature with health and attack power that many games would give only to boss monsters. Since 2004 the series has adjusted and refined the gameplay loop to create a more engaging experience and today we’re going to talk about the jump from the oceans and lakes of Monster Hunter 3 to the cliffs and mountains of Monster Hunter 4. My name is Sunder and you’re watching Level Head A series about video game design. Monster Hunter revolves around the concept of hunting monsters. Maps are divided into several areas and players chase after their prey through each zone engaging in tactical push and pull combat. The game is rewarding for a player that can learn how to choose their battles and wait for opportune moments to attack. It’s often called a button-masher but in my opinion this is far from the truth outside of a few select early game bounties. Attempting to run in with little or no strategy against a Deviljho or Tigrex will very likely lead to a prompt defeat.

With the careful and meticulous combat system, maps the new design elements presented in the maps of Monster Hunter 4 are key to defining a new, more mobile experience than its predecessors. This design is showcased from the start in a stage called the Ancestral Steppe. The Ancestral Steppe does what it does so well because of how the mechanics changed from Monster Hunter 3. the major difference here is a shift in how the game manages vertical space. Previously ledges were sparse and climbing them was slow and cumbersome So the route they took to make levels have vertical depth was introduced water and swimming.

This meant that most, if not all vertical combat took place underwater. Swimming and water-based attacks weren’t as intuitive as moving on land and in that sense these actions felt thematically appropriate, if nothing else. Human beings for the most part aren’t in their element when they’re in the water and matching that awkward feeling was moreso detrimental to the gameplay than anything else, in my opinion. Underwater monsters had a huge advantage, learning their patterns was frustrating and unforgiving Running away was hardly ever a viable option and even in cases where it was viable, the monster would often let you leave and stay comfortable and safe out in the depths.

Coincidentally this is what I find tends to be the stumbling block the nets so many water levels a lot of backlash. The game is designed for the land-based experience first and thus the water portion added later down the line feels altogether unnatural and perhaps ironically, less fluid. Monster Hunter 4 had an answer to this. Capcom seemingly heard the feedback being given by the less hardcore players the ones who are put off more easily by these design choices instead of “tightening their belts” and “dealing with it” so to speak. In short, they listen to the audience that wanted a bit more accessibility and thus Monster Hunter 4 features a hugely different movement and climbing system.

Landscapes are full of ledges and cliffs in fact they’re strategically placed to be almost everywhere. The player can execute dashes on walls or use sprint while climbing to climb faster. They can jump attack to deal extra damage bill the monster’s mounting susceptibility giving them a big incentive to use their terrain strategically and often as opposed to minimally and unwillingly. The big difference here is that it wasn’t strategic or helpful to be fighting in the water in Monster Hunter 3. Climbing and swimming are two different ways to address the same general idea and it’s telling in Monster Hunter 4 just how much versatility climbing has an additive game mechanic. It polishes off an already established combat system with an extra layer of depth that feels interesting to utilize and plan around.

These changes of the big reason why Monster Hunter 4’s revitalized level design is so important With much more to work with in combat, every area of map has to include elements that allows the player a chance to use all of the tools in their arsenal. In essence, adding jumping attacks would have little impact if the player revisited maps from previous games as there wouldn’t be anywhere to jump from and make use of the mechanic. In that sense the ancestral step is a smart and necessary piece of design.

Let’s take it from the beginning. When the player enters a mission in the Steppe, the blue box containing all kinds of questions items like whetstones and potions is positioned right here. It’s against a wall and if they were to run straight from the box out of the exit they’ll go right off the ledge. Unless the player takes the time to run out of their way which in most cases they’re not going to do they’ll jump off the ledge in a way not unlike the ledges in the Pokemon series.

This is a minute and basic detail but they’re gonna do it every time they start the map. Ledge-hopping becomes second nature without any need for extra input and that’s important for establishing it as a core mechanic to both newer hunters and returning veterans. Furthermore the player exits into the first area which has several legends back to back. Aptonoths are conveniently placed near the legends just within reach of a jumping attack. Aptonoths are a source of raw meat which the player is encouraged to stock up on early in the game so they always have some steaks to fill their stamina bar with. They’re incentivized to kill Aptonoths to get meat and Aptonoths are directly in the way and ripe to be jumped on Every weapon has different jump attack properties so this is a concise way for the player to get a sense of space for their weapon choice Feeling out the speed and hitboxes of their aerial attack in a safe environment.

Let’s take a look at the missions themselves for a second. The first set of missions of the single player campaign of Monster Hunter 4 are arranged in a way that gives the player taste of each aspect of the game before it finally sets them down into a gauntlet of three consecutive hunts. Things like making a steak or a potion easy but they play on what we were just talking about. After these comes the opportunity to take on some other tasks. For example the first fishing machine has the player headed to the native fishing area of the Ancestral Steppe located in Area 10. Fishing can take some getting used to and Area 10 is devoid of enemies that can interrupt and frustrate the player. Not only that but it’s also the Felyne hideout of this particular map something a new player might miss if they aren’t given a reason to go there.

And that in and of itself is another little bonus for this mission. The felynes will walk up to watch the fishing and a fish is caught they’ll even cheer! Again it’s a small detail but adds a lot to experience. That brings us to the egg fetching quest. These are a bit notorious but the Ancestral Steppe puts the player in a position to learn all they need to know about egg hunting. The eggs can be found in Area Six and it’s a straight shot back to the starting zone through Areas 6, 8, 3, and then finally 1. However when headed out to click the second egg the path between areas 8 and 3 is blocked off. This forces the path around through Areas 2, to 4, to 8. Which have more difficult terrain and more enemies, meaning that the return trip will be about adapting to dodging incoming attacks while holding the egg and learning how far of a fall the egg can survive from.

Now mind you, neither of these quests are required to progress in the game. those Key Quests are a variety of slaying and gathering missions with combat against small monsters like Jaggi and Kelbi. This means that a player with an agenda that sounds more like “let me hunt monsters ASAP!” can bypass this all together while somebody with a more relaxed mindset can take these as they come. The key quests with major enemies are really what allows the player to grow accustomed to combat in the Ancestral Steppe. Before even reaching a major hunt a mission leads to Area 7 to hunt some Konchu, which triggers a cutscene. This is one of the main staples of learning about a new monster. When the hunter reaches their prey’s area of choice for the first time, a small and usually comical cutscene plays that not only tells with the monster is, but also how to fight it. notice how the Konchu climb on the walls in the cutscene. Notice how they roll at the hunter and get knocked on their back with dodged. It’s not told directly with words but it allows easy understanding on how to beat them, and it helps with other monsters as well When battling the Seltas Beetle, which is not only a green-ish bug similar to the Konchu, but also appears natively in Area 7, the player is already equipped with the tactics to have a leg up in the fight.

The Konchu cutscene and subsequent slay mission mission taught that standing near walls and dodging away from them when they charge exposes their weak spots. If the same is done with the Seltas Beetle, it charges directly into the wall and gets its horn stuck, leaving it open for several free and safe attacks. Before reaching the Seltas, though, the player is given an optional quest to begin hunting with a Monster Hunter staple: a large Bird Wyvern. Monster Hunter 4 takes after its predecessor by making the first monster a Great Jaggi, which is of course a larger version the Jaggi that has already appeared in several missions up to this point.

The great Jaggi doesn’t have any ranged attacks or anything that’s too difficult to block or dodge It’s the appetizer for the huge game that awaits. The most interesting thing about its visual design that stands out immediately is the large frill around its head. The reason that this is the part of the great Jaggi that’s the most visually eye-catching is to teach one of Monster Hunter’s most satisfying and visceral mechanics: Breaking. By attackng its head enough with any weapon, the player will eventually send the Jaggi flying back in a flash particles.

Upon closer inspection the frill shows visual damage and a sparkle will drop to the floor which can be looted for Wyvern Tears or other material. On more difficult monsters, breaks are tough because of their more complex movement patterns but the Great Jaggi is an easy-to-fight monster in a setting that the player’s already accustomed to by this point, so they’ll naturally be getting a fairly easy break on the frill. Breaking parts of the prey grants chances for extra rare drops in the quest rewards, most of which are necessary for crafting weapons or full sets of armor so it’s really important that this is established early.

Furthering that point when fighting to Seltas Beetle, the player can actually get a free break on the horn if they manage to successfully topple it from a mount twice. Since the game pushes mounting so heavily and ledges are the entirety of Area 7, even if they missed the frill break on the Great Jaggi it’s unlikely they’ll miss the horn from the Seltas. It’s very carefully reiterated to ensure this mechanic is fully learned. After beating the great Jaggi and the Seltas, the first Urgent Quest will appear, which, when completed, advances the player’s Hunter Rank to the next set of missions. This Urgent Quest introduces a new Monster native to Monster Hunter 4: the Kecha Wacha.

This fight is used to highlight the other major portion of the climbing mechanic, which is vines and webbing. The Kecha Wacha is a quick, shifty, monkey-like creature that shows up an Area 2 The first area in the game to feature a canopy of vines. The player has to fight against it while it shifts from the ground floor to climbing the vines to being on top of them, making this a very mobility-focused battle.

Attacking the Kecha Wacha while it’s climbing vines can knock it to the floor for some free damage but the spacing on this favors close-up and high-reaching attacks This puts the player in a dangerous position since the Kecha has a wide arsenal of quick, wide-swinging moves to use while hanging. This is another instance of stressing the push-and-pull fighting system and the constant struggle of risk vs. reward. While we’re in Area 2, its a good time to mention the breakable environment pieces in the Ancestral Steppe. You may notice that on top of the vines there are few scattered nests. These are helpful vantage points to land a jumping attack in combat, but they also have the unique attribute of being destructible by monster attacks. There are several of these environment pieces throughout the map. In Area 4 there’s a naturally-formed bridge with a gap in the middle. Most monsters can’t follow the player up the bridge and so it’s a decent safe zone to use potions in or to regroup before going on the offense again, but if the player lingers for too long, either side can be destroyed by a monster that’s keen on removing them from safety.

This also shows up in Area 9 which has a very tall climbable tower that allows the player to reach a blue ore vein at the top. Blue veins are the more rare variety so it’s rewarding to climb all the way up there, but when in combat the player may be in for a surprise when the whole pillar comes crashing down, leaving the ore vein inaccessible for the rest of the mission.

In essence, these structures are a great way to get away from a fight for a moment to take a breath before jumping back in. They often provide a vantage point over the fight with some sort of benefit but they can also be taken away if they are retreated to carelessly. It’s all part of this overarching idea of moderation that embodies the Monster Hunter series. Learning when to strike and when to retreat. Making strategic decisions on the fly while also thinking about the long-term effects they’ll have on the battle. The Ancestral Steppe is a culmination of everything a hunter needs to know about that, even showcasing all the new ideas and mechanics that open up a lot of versatility and make every fight memorable. It’s design like this that sets Monster Hunter apart and highlights how far the series has come, and it’s telling of the deliberate design that it’s all in the first map of the game.

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