A little over four years ago, Niantic reps sat down with Capcom to propose a Monster Hunter game similar to what Niantic had done with Pokémon Go. To hear the companies tell the story, Capcom agreed to it right there in the room.
Within a few months, Niantic had ramped up hiring at its newly created Tokyo studio, and built a prototype with monsters laid over a real-world map. Over the next four years, Niantic chipped away at the idea, built out the technology, tried some things that didn’t work out (like making all combat based around gyroscope controls), and settled on an approach that will feel very familiar to Monster Hunter fans.
Ahead of Niantic showing the game at this week’s Summer Game Fest Play Days, Polygon participated in a closed beta test for the game and spoke to Niantic CEO John Hanke and chief product officer Kei Kawai, as well as Capcom Monster Hunter executive producer Ryozo Tsujimoto and Monster Hunter Now producer Genki Sunano, to get a closer look at how the game has come together.
In short, the time spent seems to have paid off. Monster Hunter Now feels like the most traditional video game Niantic has made. Of course, this being a Niantic game, there are plenty of twists on what “traditional” means.
How it works
Like most Niantic games, Monster Hunter Now places you on a real-world map and asks you to explore the fictional universe layered on top. Here, that means digging up resources and fighting monsters while exploring swamps, deserts, and forests.
The first thing that stands out is how fast the interface works. You can spot a smaller enemy on the map, tap on them to zoom in and fight, take them out with a few quick hits, and zoom back to the map all in about three seconds. Bigger monsters come with a bit more setup and a results screen that shows what you earned at the end, but those too can pass by in 10-15 seconds early on. Digging for resources is similarly quick, and the game assigns you a Palico cat partner who runs around doing much of the digging for you, so it’s easy to play while walking outside without needing to keep your head buried in your phone.
As part of that, there’s a nice mix of active and passive play. You can fight when you have time, but as you walk around with your phone in your pocket, your Palico will chase down resources on its own. The game will tag monsters you come across for you to fight later, so there’s a good balance where the game rewards you for going out even when you don’t open the app. You can also tag large monsters yourself with paintballs to essentially capture them in your phone and add them to a list so you can fight them whenever you want — which, apart from being a nice Monster Hunter throwback, makes for a decent thematic connection to Pokémon.
The bulk of the game, though, consists of fights against larger monsters, with combat that feels meaty and substantial. Swipe to move left, right, in, or out. Choose lighter weapons for quick attacks or heavier weapons to charge up big hits with elaborate animations. Target specific parts of monsters to knock them over. Time dodges perfectly to get a stat boost on your next swing. It’s simpler than a traditional Monster Hunter game, to be sure, but carries over much of the same feel.
“Between the time that we designed Pokémon Go, which started in 2014 I guess, and when we started working on this game in 2019, mobile networks got a lot better, a lot more robust, there was a lot lower latency, so we felt like we could push the envelope in terms of fast, high-speed, low-latency combat in multiplayer,” says Hanke.
One of the game’s big twists on the Monster Hunter formula is a 75-second timer on fights, designed to make it easy to play with others outdoors. This changes your priorities in battle, where you may try to avoid taking a hit not because of the damage you’d take, but because of the time your recovery animation would eat up. According to Kawai, the team has gone through extensive experiments to nail down the time window, and is still open to adjusting it as the team gathers more feedback.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll ever [have] 20-minute battles.”
The speed also ties in with how the game’s multiplayer works, which is quicker and simpler than in something like Pokémon Go. There’s no lobby. You just tap an icon when you’re ready to fight a monster and the game will send you names of players nearby who are ready to join. Tap again and you all head into the fight, with up to four players at once.
It’s worth noting that, early on in the beta, the game isn’t especially difficult. While you have access to a number of weapons and can track down resources, forge new weapons and armor, upgrade the supplies you have, and use power-ups, you don’t need to do any of that. Most enemies will easily fall if you just tap the screen a bunch. Over time, Kawai says players will track down more challenging monsters — apparently four- and five-star monsters are more or less impossible for individual players to take down by themselves.
According to Tsujimoto, this is done to help players get accustomed to the game’s interface in the beginning stages, but it doesn’t last especially long.
“An important element of an action game is that you learn from your mistakes when you can’t beat a certain monster,” says Tsujimoto. “You learn whether you made the wrong move, whether you used the wrong weapon, and so on. And we think that this game has the right progression for the player to learn what they need to do in order to defeat those monsters.”
The beta doesn’t allow players to purchase the game’s currency, instead doling out a certain amount per day for free (used for items like Potions to refill health, Well-Done Steak to increase your life bar temporarily, and a Wander Orb to increase the size of the area where you can find things while exploring), so it’s hard to judge how well the game will balance its difficulty progression and monetization at this point.
One of the big questions remaining is how the game will evolve after the early stages. We know players will be able to forge new weapons and armor and upgrade their gear, and find bigger and more difficult monsters to fight. But I was only able to cover the first hour of the beta for this story, so it’s hard to say how different the game will feel as you increase your rank over time.
Niantic also says that the game will change quite a bit prior to its official release in September, so we may see additional features added between now and then.
“We’re not going to talk about it today,” says Kawai with a laugh.
“With regards to Palico, obviously there are lots of opportunities to develop new elements, and we’re very much excited to explore those,” adds Sunano.
Regardless, I’m pretty happy with the game as it exists now. Much like Pokémon, the Monster Hunter license feels like a natural fit for a map-based game, and exploring to find monsters and dig up bones, metals, and crystals feels much stronger narratively than, say, walking to grow plants in Pikmin Bloom, or collecting crystals to increase your stamina in NBA All-World.
You do throw paintballs to save monsters in a Rolodex to fight them whenever you feel like it. But sometimes convenience is more important.