Over the past few weeks I've fired up the Wii and played it both off and online. I've stayed up playing far too late into the night. At work I've scoured the wiki over lunch to plan out what weapons and armor to craft. I'm using my laptop to type this review because my regular computer's keyboard is presently plugged into my Wii. What game could possibly amass such a high degree of fascination?

You needed to ask?

Well, if you are typical of gamers outside Japan, then you probably did need to ask, since the Monster Hunter franchise has not enjoyed the huge following in Western nations that it does in its homeland. Monster Hunter Tri, which hit U.S. shores on April 20th, carried Capcom's hope for bringing monster mania to Wii owners. I'm happy to say I am part of that newly initiated audience.

The game has seen a big advertising push, starting with a demo disc allowing the curious to hunt a couple of the game's large cast of critters. While I enjoyed the demo, it did not come anywhere close to representing the heart of Monster Hunter, and likely turned a few people off. This was no fault of the demo, but due more to Monster Hunter's intrinsically deceptive appearance. It looks like a hack-and-slash action game: big, dumb, and flashy. If you walk into this game trying to play it as a hack-and-slash, though, you set yourself up for a very frustrating time, which is why I want to take a few paragraphs to explain the nature of this unique beast.

Monster Hunter Tri is an action game with a heavy focus on tactics and strategy. The depth of its menu system would make a full-blown JRPG jealous. It tends to overwhelm newcomers with the volume of stuff to do and manage, and a number of its mechanics seem downright archaic. The main draw is, of course, hunting monsters, but success or failure depends heavily on preparation.

The cycle of activity generally flows thusly: Equip yourself to head out into the field to forage and hunt game (herb gathering, fishing, bug hunting, mining, etc). Run home to combine your materials into better supplies/forge better weapons and armor. Head back into the field to hunt a challenging monster, carving pieces off it to carry home and forge even better stuff. Take your new gear and supplies out to hunt even bigger foes. Repeat.

As a formula it doesn't sound very exciting, but as a game, where everything you accomplish and everything you are is built upon your own efforts, it is incredibly satisfying.

The item combination system is vast, allowing for the creation of numerous healing, offensive, and supportive objects. Weapons bought from the vendor can be upgraded many different ways at the forge. Numerous armor sets can be crafted to open different skill sets and augmented with skill gems. This is where the strategy aspect of the game is centered: preparation. Going after a foe that spews venom? Mix some antidotes and carry them with you. Does the monster spit lightning? Strap on the armor set that's most resistant to electricity. Wandering the desert at high noon? Bring Cool Drinks so you don't fry. These are just the simplest examples. When I say the system is deep, I'm not mouthing mere hyperbole—go browse the Monster Hunter 3 Wiki and get a taste of what I mean. This is tip-o'-the-iceberg stuff.

Once you prep as best you can, it's time to head out on the hunt. Here is where the game switches to tactics. If all you do is charge headlong at a monster and slash away, I guarantee your armor, your healing potions, and your weapon will not save you. The boss monsters are not merely lumbering targets. They don't have flashing weak spots and your character is not superhuman (or, at least, not as super as in most games.) You can die pretty fast in Monster Hunter. Watch and learn your foe, as you would in a fighting game. Stick to a strike or two instead of a combo if that will save your tail from a nasty counter. And for the love of Zeus, learn to sheathe your weapon and run away. That button dedicated to running real fast is there for a reason. Leave the area the monster is in, if you need to; it won't regenerate its health.

The last topic I'll address here is a collection of miscellany that leaves a lot of people scratching their heads, frustrated by the "bad design" or "primitive controls": I speak primarily of the camera lacking a lock-on and the long, unskippable animations associated with such vital activities as healing yourself, restoring stamina, or sharpening weapons. These are not merely developer eccentricities, but calculated design choices.

The camera can only be rotated manually; there is no option for locking it onto a target. I've read speculation that this is done to keep the game from being too easy, but I have a different hypothesis. I think a lock-on camera is simply unworkable.

In many games where the player is surrounded by a hoard of enemies, only the foe focused-on actually attacks. The rest merely threaten as they politely wait for you to switch the camera to them. In Monster Hunter you are often swarmed by smaller enemies as you fight a boss; and don't be surprised if a second behemoth wanders in to join the fray. There is potential for being attacked by multiple enemies from all sides, including above. The monsters themselves can be highly mobile and truly gigantic; they don't just consist of one big hit box. A tail here can be severed, a tusk there broken, wing armor too hard to damage but a belly soft and vulnerable, if only you can maneuver well enough to score that hit. Moving around a beast to make a precise strike on a particular part of its body is a large part of hunting. I figure the only way to make this gameplay work is to keep the players free of automation which can be too limiting.

In a game of tactics, knowing your enemy is only half of the intelligence you need. You also must know yourself. That giant sword takes time to swing, that bowgun requires a few moments to load. Potions don't drink themselves and hunks of meat don't teleport into your belly. Every action is accompanied by an animation that can take a few seconds—seconds where you stand completely vulnerable to attack. Most video games have characters that move as though there's no gravity, no inertia. Stand up and jump in place. Do you just instantly spring into the air or did you have to bend your knees and push off first? Mario doesn't bend his knees; why is that?

In many games, it is not unusual for animation to skip a few steps, sacrificing realistic movement for instant action. This immediacy is important to keep the game feeling responsive. You hit a button and something happens right away. When you suddenly encounter a game that adds that wind up time back in it can feel jarring, especially if you don't understand why. In Monster Hunter, every action can have multiple consequences. Healing yourself at the wrong moment can result in being trampled to death. The game demands that you think strategically and act deliberately, weighing the benefit of an action against the risk. It's all checks and balances.

That is Monster Hunter Tri, an action game with a brain and an ocean of content. The world built to support these mechanics is beautifully realized and sets everything conveniently within reach. For the single player experience, Moga Village, a tiny fishing community, acts as home base. The game introduces you to its world at a very gentle pace, starting off with mushroom hunts, rather than monster hunts. This initial easing in is lengthy but not contrived, offering Monster Hunter newcomers an easy initiation, while series veterans will be chomping at the bit to get to the good stuff.

Progression in the game does not follow a linear path, with the hunting of one monster leading directly to an even fiercer foe. Finishing quests opens new quests but missions will be constantly revisited to collect resources for forging. You will find yourself killing or trapping the same monsters multiple times in your personal quest to accumulate materials needed to forge whatever weapon or armor you covet. In other words, a lot of grinding is involved in gathering materials and gaining ever higher hunter ranks. Thankfully, this repetitive game progression is kept fresh by the monsters themselves, which ever remain highly dynamic, challenging, and entertaining foes. Complacency can result in an embarrassing defeat at the claws of a lowly Great Jaggi. I know from experience.

The single player game offers an enjoyable experience, with a simple but well written story (seriously, the writing in this game is excellent) moving things along. If all you do is play single player, you won't be disappointed. That said, Monster Hunter is meant to be played with others.

There are two ways to experience multiplayer: Arena Play and online Questing. Arena Play can be played online, but it is also the game's only local multiplayer option (split screen, limited to two people offline.) Here, hunters are equipped with preset armor and weapons and tossed into a colosseum with one or more angry beasts. (Good luck!)

Online uses Capcom's own servers, requires no friend codes, and is free outside of Japan. Players gather in cities, select a quest, then cooperate to accomplish the quest's goals. You can jump online at any time, and every item you gain translates to the single player mode and vice versa.

Coordinating to take down a challenging monster can be tricky and here, voice chat via Wii Speak is a real boon, hypothetically speaking. Sadly, the reality is that Monster Hunter's implementation of Wii Speak is mostly rubbish. I gave the device as fair a shake as I could, including finding volunteers to test it under ideal conditions. If your gaming area is quiet and you turn the game volume down while keeping TV volume normal or turned up, you might be able to understand each other. After being assaulted with garbled voices background noise of music and movies, people shouting at each other, and dogs barking, I just unplugged the Wii Speak. The game does have a headset option, so if you have one compatible with the Wii, try that; it couldn't be any worse.

If that wasn't bad enough, in the Japanese release of the game, up to ten people could gather in a city then divide into hunting parties of up to four for quests. When voice chat was added to the Western release of the game, these ten person rooms had to be cut down to just four, alas. It was a good idea to add voice chat, but ended up being a poor trade-off. Most people will just stick with text, either using the in-game type pad or a USB keyboard. Text works fine, though typing while dodging monsters is a skill all on its own. The character limit is pretty short, though, so most sentences will need to be broken up.

Communication issues aside, the online play is a dream. Monsters are pumped up a bit to compensate for being assaulted by a hunting party and working with a group to take them down is fantastic fun. Monster Hunter Tri's online game would be a stand out on any system; but on the Wii, with a rather barren online play landscape, it is an absolute beacon of solid, engaging interaction. I was really impressed.

Speaking of impressive, all of this goodness is wrapped up in a stellar presentation. At some point in the game, just ignore your quest and be a tourist for a while, go gawk at the beautiful world you find yourself in. The environments are broken up into interconnected areas that act as your hunting arenas, which the monsters can freely travel between. These areas are loaded with naturalistic detail, creating truly convincing landscapes. I love them all but I'm most impressed by the volcano simply because the game gets it right. So many games present a "lava stage" with blocky black rocks surrounded by flowing rivers of red that look plainly artificial. Monster Hunter Tri, on the other hand, gives us Mount Kilauea's sinister cousin, complete with pillow lava and geysers of steam where the molten stone hits the sea. I tip my beret to the art team. Of course, it's all just pretty pictures if nothing moves well, but no worries there. The wildlife is full of life. Antelope-like kelbi leap and prance, giant herbivores lumber and lie down to rest, and the star monsters locomote in a variety of smooth, utterly convincing ways. Even as they tower impossibly high over you, they move naturally and possess realistic weight.

The sound and music fill out the audio landscape with just as much care. You'll be treated to the quiet sounds of nature as you stroll through forest and fen; then appears a grand beast, and a sweeping composition fit for an epic gladiatorial battle fills the air. The only hole in the audio is voice. The people speak a very low key, looping gibberish, their messages conveyed purely by text.

The above are the most important points; but before I wrap up, I have a few things to consider that didn't really fit into the narrative.

The font is an abomination. Really, how hard is it to choose a font that's clear? Whether or not it's too small, the font is hard to read. Is that a 'Y' or a 'V'? Maybe an 'X'? I don't know, I'm just guessing here. I've heard it gets so bad on some TV displays that the letters present as indecipherable blobs, rendering the game unplayable on that set.

Addiction forming. Not kidding, if you are prone to forming addictions or obsessive behavior, you might want to pass on this or have an intervention on stand-by. This game will suck you in. Right now, I feel like I'm wasting my time typing this when I should be playing.

Choice of controller. The game functions perfectly well with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck setup. You can customize the controls to a small degree, including how much motion control you want to register. The game is also compatible with the classic controller and pack-in copies are sold with the Classic Controller Pro. This version of the Classic Controller is tweaked to fit Monster Hunter needs and feels very nice with its grips fitting comfortably into my hands. It's my preferred controller option.

Pointer usage. Monster Hunter actually uses the pointer function of the Wii Remote, regardless of what controller setup you choose, in a minor way. You can click on monsters in the field and drag their info into your Hunter Notes. This can be a bit tricky when you are running for your life from said monster. You can also point at skills in the menus and a window with a description will pop up. This is all helpful, if a bit awkward.

Monster Hunter Tri is a big game with a lot of depth. There's a learning curve to getting good at taking the monsters down, but the single player game does a nice job of easing you in, though it will feel slow to players already familiar with this series of games. The game play is extremely engaging both on- and offline, with the online aspect really shining. It also looks and sounds fantastic, with wonderful art direction and music composition. It gets a big thumbs-up from me. See you online!