So close! Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is so incredibly close to being amazingly fun and addictive that it almost causes physical pain to give it such a middling score. On the surface it's got everything: lots of monsters to take on, a deep combat system that feeds directly into the even deeper item management, and a pleasant rustic setting rendered in some of the nicest graphics yet on the PSP. All the hooks to be one of the best games on any system this year are there, if only the combat wasn't so broken in such basic ways.
It Monster Hunter Freedom 2 starts out promisingly enough. Creating a character is easy, and a series of tutorials explains what seems like an endless progression of item and weapon systems. Each of the nine weapon types handle differently, and the school is always open if you want to experiment with a new style of play. Daggers, lances, guns, hammers, and the wonderfully bizarre hunting horn all have their own style, featuring different attributes that directly effect their use in combat. The weak daggers are exceptionally fast, with a special high-speed fury skill that drains the stamina gauge, while the hunting horn can play three different notes that combine to grant special status effects. Some types of swords can block while others are faster, and hammers have a charge attack. Finding the right weapon type is figuring out how you feel like playing today, and in theory it's a lot of fun.
Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is an undeniably flawed gem, and it's deeply frustrating that it's broken in such basic ways
Less theoretical is the quality of the item system, which can rapidly become an addiction for the obsessive-compulsive. Basic items are found in the field, and can include anything from animal hides, claws, and bones to herbs, mushrooms, minerals, fish, bugs, and more. A huge variety of things can be created by combining two items, such as the common Blue Mushroom and Herb to make a basic healing potion, and more advanced supplies can be created by a series of combos. A handy reference menu lists off the items that can be combined, but until the combination is successfully made doesn't say what's being created. Raw items also come into play with weapon, armor, and accessory creation. While there's a shop that sells new equipment, it's much more fun to create new toys or improve existing ones.
Once your avatar is well supplied, it's time to hit the quests. These can be gotten from several places, ranging in difficulty from free money to pure evil. Gathering quests, where the point is to get as much stuff as possible, are great for stocking up on scarce items, while hunting quests require a giant beast with near-endless power be brought down. There are variations on those two themes, but the hunter-gatherer society of Monster Hunter pretty much dictates the gameplay themes.
Still, there are hundreds of quests to choose from, and each one earns points used to improve your hunter's standing. Prestige points are awarded for a successful quest, while pokke points come from scavenging scarce items in the field or doing certain tricky side-quests. While prestige is nice, pokke points can be invested in the farm or spent outright on rare and useful items. Plotting a path back to base carrying a giant carnivore egg in both hands, knowing that even one hit from a bug or long fall off a ridge will shatter it, can be nerve-wracking, but the pile of points and cash it earns can't be beat.
With all this going for it you'd think Monster Hunter Freedom 2 would be a surefire win, but sadly there's just one little thing working against it. While much of the time in-game is spent managing items and working towards creating the most powerful badass to ever strut across the tundra, the rest involves dealing with the monsters who live there. Having a camera that that isn't fundamentally broken is absolutely necessary to take on the big, evil, vicious creatures who see you as little more than a tasty snack, and it's just not there. When three fast Giaprey are attacking from all sides, there has to be a clear view of the action to make the fight play out properly. With no way to lock on to the enemy, and the most inconveniently placed manual camera controls ever, that's just not going to happen. Combat quickly turns into a matter of pointing the character at a creature, clicking the L button to center the camera behind her, and repeating as necessary when the monster moves. Getting nailed by a charging beast that exploited the time it takes to re-calibrate the camera will never, ever be fun.
Adding to the frustration is a steep learning curve for the button layout. Triangle pulls out the weapon, but also acts as the primary attack button. Square, on the other hand, sheaths the weapon but also doubles as item usage when the weapon isn't drawn. Tapping L centers the camera behind the character, but holding it brings up the quick-use item menu. Finally, R doubles as the special attack when armed and dash when unarmed. What all this means is that going from a battle situation to running away to use a healing potion is an exercise in gaming rocket-science.
Despite all this, I've honestly enjoyed a fair percentage of Monster Hunter Freedom 2. It's not impossible to learn the button layout, and the camera gets a little less broken with practice. Exploring the vast world of Monster Hunter is a lot of fun, and there are so many well thought-out systems that it seems like there's always something new to discover or create. Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is an undeniably flawed gem, and it's deeply frustrating that it's broken in such basic ways, but if you can come to grips with its issues there's a shot of pure gaming addiction hiding behind them.