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The Monster Hunter franchise has already made a name for itself as the end-all, be-all of fantasy beast slaying where tagging leviathans and carving swaths of dragon flesh for armor is just another day in the field. Monster Hunter Tri is no exception. Despite somewhat blocky graphics and slightly antiquated mechanics, the newest installment on the Wii is just as addictive as the rest.

Split into two modes, you have the option of slashing monsters offline in the Moga Village or online with friends and strangers in the big bad City. Both follow the same pattern of scavenging, hunting and customizing your equipment sets. Of course, in the Village, it’s just you and eventually your tiny, somewhat helpful companion Cha-Cha as compared to the City where thousands of people of different Hunter Ranks are ready to join up. But before you dabble in online quests, it’s best you get your feet wet in the Village first.

While touted as a “story mode,” the true purpose of the Village is to develop your skills as a player and nab a few pieces of armor before making a fool out of yourself among more experienced users. After customizing your character from gender to vocal attitude, you begin as a rookie with nothing but a hunting knife, iron sword and a poor excuse for armor. The villagers, however, expect you to slay a sea serpent who has been terrorizing the island. Lucky for you, the game doesn’t include the classic “leveling up.” In other words, the only difference between you and a blooded warrior is your equipment, items and experience as a player.

Unfortunately, the journey toward becoming an epic hunter couldn’t begin more slowly. At first, you will probably frolic joyfully through the open Moga Woods, excitedly slashing insects and merrily digging up unique varieties of mushrooms in order to concoct special potions back home. Eight hours later, you’ll be trudging across the same damn island, slashing the same damn insects and digging up the same damn mushrooms. Like the worst RPGs, your only quests involve slaying the same beasts and scavenging the same items again and again. And while you may be able to craft better armor and weapons, sewed from the flesh and bones of your latest kills, you’ll still be hacking away at your prey with nothing more than A, A, A and more A.

Once you’ve completed a set amount of quests, the leviathan appears. Unlike its predecessors, Monster Hunter Tri allows you to search for prey under the sea. Because of a healthy pair of lungs and underwater air bubbles a la Sonic, breathing isn’t too much of an issue. Attempting to swim less like a spastic, finless dolphin suffering from vertigo, however, is another matter. The camera and directional controls are absolutely abhorrent, making underwater kills especially challenging. On the other hand, this uncontrollable mess is what makes the appearance of the leviathan so frightening. Meeting those beady red eyes is the first time you’ll encounter a true monster that, at this point, you’re not near talented enough to fight. So you run. Or swim. Or try to swim. And it’s terrifying.

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These are the moments you cherish: encountering a behemoth, piecing together a sword or special item after painstakingly waiting for that one rare drop and every satisfyingly challenging kill. Even finding your quarry can be an exciting endeavor. Surprisingly, monsters behave with a great deal of realism. Some fight in packs. Others will rear their heads and charge. Even great beasts, once they lose their stamina, will hobble away from battle and attempt to regain their energy. Tagging your prey, surveying wildlife with binoculars and sneaking up behind a skittish deer-like Kelbi can be terribly addictive. Unfortunately, these moments are far and few in between within the Village. And since you can’t earn Hunter Rank points by questing alone, you’ll be eager to charge into the City once you get the hang of battle.

The City offers many of the same amenities as the Village. You can visit the blacksmith to craft and upgrade equipment using material found in either the Village or the City. You’ll also find stores that sell items from health potions to pickaxes – one of the many tools you need to find certain materials on the field. For an extra kick in battle, the kitchen will cook up stat-boosting cuisine for a fee. And finally, NPC traders will offer quality collectibles in exchange for the right set of items.

Of course, the true value of the City lies in the ability to play with real people. The same quests that seem like complete bores in the Village are thrilling once you add another three hunters to the bunch. Still, some of the missions, like fishing for a dozen goldfishes, aren’t as exciting as stalking and capturing high-level beasts. For these major league hunts, a good team, a solid set of tools – bombs, traps, etc. – and your ability to slash and dodge at the right time are all keys to success. The game also supports the Nintendo WiiSpeak so that you can communicate with your team. Every quest earns you points in order to increase your Hunter Rank. The higher the Hunter Rank, the more challenging the quests become. The more challenging, the more fun the game gets. Unfortunately, despite how far you may have progressed in the single player campaign, you’ll start at Hunter Rank 1 in the City – another reason to never return to the Village.

With tens of hours of hunting, online questing and loot gathering, Monster Hunter Tri is one of the best games you’ll find on the Nintendo Wii. The controls are a little finicky, the graphics are so-so and the camera is god-awful. But you’ll hardly notice any of these faults. You’ll be far too busy smashing rhinos over the head with hammers you carved from its brother’s scalp.

Bottom Line: Monster Hunter Tri has its faults, but it does everything it sets out to do – nothing more, nothing less. You won’t find a story, dialogue or any innovative mechanics. But there’s plenty of looting, hunting and gathering in epic fantasy landscapes and bringing home the big prize to make into a shirt. For some reason, there is something uniquely satisfying about felling a great beast and wearing his skin in triumph.

Recommendation: If you only have a Wii, you need this game. Otherwise, it’s completely up to whether monster hunting and equipment crafting seems up your alley. Most likely, your Wiimote’s batteries will tire long before you do.

Score: [rating=4]

Meghan Watt pre-emptively clarifies that by saying it’s satisfying “wearing his skin in triumph,” she is specifically referring to monsters in a virtual, fantasy setting. This isn’t Silence of the Lambs.

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