Battles aren't just rewarding because of the intrinsic sense of accomplishment they offer, but also because they provide opportunities to collect incredibly important components that grand monsters drop, which can then be forged into new weapons and armor. Much of the equipment looks great, and getting better stuff can make all the difference if you're having trouble defeating a given foe. There's always something tantalizing dangling under your nose, pushing you to hunt the monster that may drop that scale you so desperately need. In fact, collecting is a major part of Monster Hunter Tri. You catch bugs, mine for iron, fish, and harvest berries, and most of the ingredients you haul back to the village can be combined to make helpful items. Your chest will eventually be loaded with various objects of differing uses. You can create serums that reveal the locations of enormous monsters on the map, drugs that enhance your attack power, and bombs that temporarily stun your enemies. There are tons of recipes to discover, and it is fun to combine two items you haven't combined before to see what new concoction will spring forth. You don't need to go questing to gather these goodies, though: You can head to the nearby Moga Woods, where you can grab the most vital goods, as well as take on the nasty beasts you've already defeated in quests.
The Gobul's tail will shock you. Literally.
Even if you stick to just the single-player experience, you will make one new friend: Cha-Cha, a charming little scamp that joins you on your adventures. Cha-Cha buffs you by performing dances, and he wears various masks that affect his behavior in the field. While wearing the acorn mask, Cha-Cha attacks monsters; while wearing the fluffy mask, he helps you locate your targets. This little fellow isn't always as useful as you'd like; you might get covered with mud and need him to come bop you on the head to get it off, but he'll be merrily gathering mushrooms instead. Nevertheless, he's too adorable to remain angry at for long.
If you really desire companionship during your travels, however, you should head online. It takes a short while to get used to Monster Hunter Tri's online structure because it's splintered into various servers and cities. If you're just hoping to meet up with some buddies to beat up on monsters, you'll need to jump through a few hoops to find each other and figure out how the whole thing works. But once you're used to the setup, it's easy to group up with like-minded players and go hunting for your hulking prey. Cooperative hunts are in a whole different league than their single-player equivalents. Not only is teaming with others inherently more fun than hunting on your own, but having a large beast's attention divided among multiple foes also allows you to be more aggressive during combat. You can charge up and unleash a wild swinging attack with your hammer while one cohort pokes your quarry with a lance and another blasts away at it with a bowgun. One player will set a shock trap while his or her teammate first distracts the giant beast and then lures it into the trap, where it's temporarily a sitting duck. Teaming up to take down one of Tri's big boys is an absolute blast, and everybody gets a fair share of the loot.
The only downside to cooperative hunting is the lack of synchronization among the minion monsters. The small monsters you see aren't necessarily in the same places as those your comrades see, so your teammates flail about as if fighting invisible enemies. This is a bizarre design choice, though this strange disconnect fortunately doesn't apply to the big boss fights. Luckily, every other facet of online play is a delight. Arena quests are particularly enjoyable because they let you and a buddy take control of powerful stock characters and pound on a tough monster. Not only are arena fights great fun, but they also provide a tantalizing glimpse at the awesome armor and weapons your own character might one day equip. In town, you can order furniture for your room in the city and even challenge a teammate to an arm-wrestling match. Monster Hunter Tri supports voice chat with Wii Speak, though few players seem to be utilizing it; instead, they're opting to plug in a USB keyboard, which is an effective alternative. If you're stuck using the built-in keyboard interface, you'll be thankful for the set of stock phrases you can quickly enter. If you'd rather have face time with your friends instead, you can export your character to your Wii Remote and head to the arena for a split-screen co-op battle versus a lumbering foe.
Certain weapons dull faster than others. Always keep a large supply of whetstones with you.
Monster Hunter Tri is an absolute marvel to look at; monster animations are astounding while creatures move with exactly the right amount of speed and heft. Every movement connects seamlessly with the next, which goes a long way toward making this fantastical world so believable. While every environment looks great, the underwater vistas are particularly gorgeous. Long-tailed beasts effortlessly swim past you and schools of fish add color to the murk. The sun dances authentically on the water as you swim toward the surface, and the crystal blue waters near one particular cave seem almost magical in spite of the vicious beasts that inhabit them. It's a shame that Tri's maps aren't more open. As in previous games, each region is split into smaller chunks separated by loading screens. (A vicious foe might even knock you into a neighboring zone if you aren't careful.) But this is a relatively small complaint considering how rich and detailed the game looks. The game's soundtrack isn't nearly as evocative as its art, but it does a fine job of announcing danger. The highlights of the sound design aren't the predictable thumps and thwacks of battle but rather the guttural growls and echoing calls of your gigantic foes. Their deafening roars are vicious and frightening, though even the clattering chatter of smaller creatures strike a menacing chord.
The Monster Hunter series' migration from the Sony PSP to the Nintendo Wii was a smart one. Using the Classic Controller, you never need to fumble around to position the camera, which means you can focus on fighting monsters--not the controls. And what monsters they are: Small lizards squawk their complaints as you slash your way through their ranks; meaty sea dwellers glide through the deeps; and gigantic tundra-dwelling leeches cling to ceilings, ready to siphon your health away. Taking on the toughest of these terrors is exhilarating, particularly when you join up with other adventurers. Scattered issues, such as online synchronization quirks and a dumb implementation of pointing controls, still prove that the series has some growing up to do. But if you're hungering for some fun, challenging action and online camaraderie, Monster Hunter Tri will satisfy your cravings.