Japan and 3DS are gearing up for a monster couple of months. October sees the release of Pokémon X and Y, which are set to be the fastest-selling games of the year, but before that Capcom is hoping to break records of its own with the long-awaited Monster Hunter 4. It's an ambitious plan, but even if it doesn't topple the PSP's portable third edition as the series' biggest hit, it has a fair shot at being the best.
Anticipation's been simmering nicely for a fair old while: September's launch is half a year after its planned debut, with Capcom spending those six months attempting to "quality-up" the game, according to an official statement.
Then again, it was already looking incredible. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate pushed the 3DS hard, yet somehow Capcom has wrung even more juice from those processors. It's as polished and lively as Ultimate, but the colours are even more vivid, while those brilliantly animated monsters are more imposing and detailed than ever.
No new Monster Hunter would be complete without a few new beasts to tackle. Alongside your usual suspects - Jaggi, Rathian, Kirin, Zinogres - you've got insectoid beasts, fanged lemurs, frogs with tusks and web-slinging nasties that can bind players in a sticky cocoon. Not to mention a jet-black wyvern that can infect its prey with a virus that sends rival creatures into a raging frenzy and reduces a hunter's defences if allowed to incubate. Did we say it has no eyes and a cry like a chorus of human wails? Mummy!
Sounds scary? Try the shark-dragon for size: this Great White with legs has a gaping maw that opens wide to chow down on hunters. Evidently it's evolved to walk on land because there's no more water - undersea scraps are out, which is a relief for those of us who struggled with the camera during Ultimate's aquatic encounters. A relief, until you bump into a walking shark.
Not only are monsters scarier, they're also smarter and more capable of utilising their surroundings in new and surprising ways. Luckily, so are you: you can climb up walls to avoid enemy attacks or get the drop on your slobbering foe, leap across pillars, or roll-dodge off ledges to perform powerful jump-attacks, swinging your weapon in mid-air as (gasp!) you land astride your target.
Yes, that's right, you can climb on monsters' backs and get your shank on. Attack them like this and they'll naturally start trying to shake you off, as you cling on for dear life by squeezing the right shoulder button. If you can ride out the bucking bronco, the monster will calm down, at which point you can start hacking away once more. Repeat the process until the ride-o-meter (our name, not Capcom's) fills up and you'll be thrown clear as the monster collapses, rolling onto its back and offering a brief window of opportunity to get in a few good hits for free.
But what good is having new monsters to whack without new stuff to whack them with? Never fear: Capcom has you covered with two brand new weapon classes. The first is the tricksy Insect Staff, a double-ended weapon that handles a little like the Longsword (in other words, swift and slick) but with the ability to summon an oversized Neopteron to suck the life out of enemies and power you up in the process, boosting offensive or defensive stats, and even health and movement speed. You can also use it to grab some air, pulling off a kind of impromptu pole-vault to hop onto an enemy's back even if there are no ledges nearby to jump off.