It's been a bit of a trend for Kotaku to put these comparison articles to emphasize the difference between two titles. In most cases, it is usually satire or humorous, but often enough even those articles take themselves seriously enough.
This is one of those serious articles in which I am going to compare to eerily similar games, which are simultaneously substantially different.
"But if they're so different," you may ask, "why bother making the comparison?"
Well the thing is, SS and MH both heavily rely on the same concept. Very heavily. So much that at a quick glance you'd think one was a moodier ripoff of the other. This is because they focus on the same style of gameplay: four player co-op arena-based boss rush. In fact, they even share the same type of repetition in their gameplay, often recycling bosses and environments in the name of longevity.
But let's get down to what makes these titles unique when compared to each other.
Monster Hunter takes place, throughout the franchise, in a variety of colourful, prehistoric style villages. These are small, but fairly explorable, filled with a diverse group of characters who don't utter more than a grunt, followed by in-game text filling the screen for your squinting pleasure. In it, you have a nice, cozy home to stash your things, and probably a pet. It's a quaint and peaceful life.
By contrast, Soul Sacrifice sees you stuck in a claustrophobic prison cell throughout the entire game, with the sense of impending doom coming as your captor slowly prepares a fork and knife to devour your life essence to stay young. Grim, isn't it? To make matters worse, your only companion is Librom, a fanged, talking book who actually absorbs you into its pages only to pit you against monstrous beasts which are pulled straight from nightmares. It's all in good intentions, believe it or not, as you both have the mutual understanding that by learning the secrets within Librom is the only way you may learn sorcery and escape. Beneath the human skin book covers, demonic eyes, and sharp teeth, lies a concerned friend. But if I had to look at this thing every time I woke up, I think I'd prefer solitary confinement.
The Playing Field
In Monster Hunter, once you set foot outside the city for the first time, there's a world to explore. It's not nearly as daunting as, say, Skyrim. But it's massive nonetheless. It's alive. It has its own ecosystem and a variety of places to see and explore, obstacles to traverses, and nobody to tell you where to go or what to do except your own resources. Even though each area is connected by a tunnel and a loading screen, there's a sense of liberation in the air. Total freedom.
You'd think you'd get the same sort of treatment from within Librom, but instead you're put into a slightly larger cage which is held by the confines of the page rather than metal and bone bars. The vistas are equally beautiful, perhaps moreso, but a prison is a prison, something the game tries to remind you over and over again. So all you're really doing is moving from a cramped cage to one with more legroom. Doesn't sound too bad? Wait til you see your new cellmates.
Monster Hunter's village hub is a nice little community where they give you armor and weapons among other trinkets. There's plenty of places to go, ranging from farms to item shops among other things, and this all varies between which game you happen to be playing. This is also where Monster Hunter becomes a mite problematic. You see, it's biggest success is on the portable devices. True, it started as a home console release, and still pushes for it, but sales skyrocketed in Japan when they could take the co-op experience on the go. The village hub isn't the best approach for organizing your inventory as it is quite time consuming to run back and forth to restock your supplies before readying for some multiplayer mayhem. On the home consoles, however, it's nicer than most RPGs, which scatter certain traders with specific goods all over the world. Everything you'll ever need can all be found in the same town.
In Soul Sacrifice, Librom is your hub. That one book holds absolutely every damn thing for inventory management on a single page. A single page. Everything from modifying your appearance, to changing offerings, to charging your arm, hiring mercenaries, and even renaming yourself is all done in a single menu. Even in the online mode, all this can be accessed in the "Arm Yourself" page in the lobby as well between matches. It does emphasize the fact that even amidst friends, you're really all alone in this craphole, but it's nice to have everything a flick of the page away to prepare yourself with, especially when you're in a hurry.
There's no story in Monster Hunter to speak of. At best, you can read the monster encyclopedias or just talk to other people who tell you some of their opinions on the monsters. Monster Hunter tries to push story telling by having things happen in your town in the later games to move things a bit forward and to give you drive to accomplish your goals with something more than just superficial rewards, but the end result is in the end you're just fighting for better loot.
Soul Sacrifice is filled to the brim with backstory, not just for the characters, but for the monsters. They're so imaginative that you'd actually want to take a bit of a break and read them for your own amusement. Even during the fights, remnants of the monster's human personality seeps through, letting you take a passive glance at their history mid combat. It's really quite amazing. Sometimes heartbreaking. I tried to make a particularly evil character, with a focus on magic and dark arts, but after hearing the story of the Jack-O-Lantern, his pleading cries of being drafted away from his family for war, of never being kind enough to his mother, of actually crying, over and over again, for his mother in a distorted sob, I genuinely cried. Try as I might, as much as I needed to do so to build my character, I couldn't sacrifice the creature. In the end, the backstory alone left me to spare the man each time. With that said, it's quite a shame that the core gameplay never takes advantage of the deep world in which it throws you in each time. Never will you really explore to see these events unfold, never will you experience anything but the combat within Librom, with the exception of only reading the story, as masterfully presented as it may be. It makes sense for there to be a sense of disconnection between the reader and Librom's world, but it is such a shame that where Monster Hunter took far too many steps into telling an uninspired story, Soul Sacrifice barely tries to do more than simply writing it down.
This is a no brainer. Monster Hunter is a far more difficult game. It is hard. Brutally hard. It oftentimes can make Dark Souls look like a joke without fail. Monsters can wipe out half your health bar in a single move. And they never stop attacking. Many of their attack also have large areas of effect, making timing, preparation, and tactics take center stage. Teamwork is essential to get the job done, but there's no actual co-op mechanic to speak of. I could also go on for hours and hours about how the RPG elements in the game work. I probably would, but forty hours into the game and I've still yet to get a grip on it. And this is on my second MH title. Needless to say, if you're good at Monster Hunter, you've got bragging rights that sadly not many people will understand. And I envy you.
Soul Sacrifice is undeniably much, much easier, if only for the accessibility. In fact, the game outright tells you through "mini-achievement" notifications in each match, which reset after every round, if you're doing something right. The combat is still very challenging, with rather tough bosses that come in massive variety and are fun to fight, but more impressive is the very unusual focus on co-op. I'm going to leave this link here (again) to direct you to an example of what it is I'm talking about. But to delve into the details of how the game is actually a co-op experience, there's actually spells which work in sync with other players. In MH, you had the hunting horn weapon which changes stats for other players. In SS, you have the ability to summon shields to guard your allies, radial healing spells which heal everyone within your, well, radius, and some spells which actually require someone to cast a spell for you in order to take effect, like the "mask" spells which turn you into one of the golems you can summon. Needless to say, its awesome.
The bottom line is, where Monster Hunter had a focus on difficulty and tactics, Soul Sacrifice had a focus on fun factor and direct teamwork. Either way, both are great systems, depending on your mood or whatever floats your boat.
Both titles succeed because of their portable nature, so this is an important part to talk about. It's mostly a quick recap of what has been said already, however.
Monster Hunter is not a portable title. The amount of planning and dedication it would take to build a proper character could take hours upon days of thinking. In addition, combat with a monster could take anywhere from 15 minutes up to a full hour, making for a very intense bus ride if nothing else. You also have to actually find the monster on the map, which is just as time consuming as well. It doesn't help that when you're online in Ad Hoc Party, you can't access all your items in the gathering halls (lobby).
Soul Sacrifice takes much, much shorter time for everything. Partly because of the small, arena-like playing field, partly because it has your entire hub on the aforementioned single page. It's the perfect monster hunting title to play on the go in that regard, considering battles can take between five to fifteen minutes, ample time for waiting for something or when on public transit.
Believe it or not, the more recent PSP Monster Hunters win this round. Soul Sacrifice has the luxury of coming out on a very good piece of hardware, and granted it looks more polished (heck, it looks stunning in more than one area) but Monster Hunter comes to a close second. So close, in fact, that it can sometimes be hard to believe you're playing this on a PSP, and that's saying something considering the frame rate is more stable than in Soul Sacrifice. Its beautiful vistas are worth sometimes just staring at from afar and the monsters are surprisingly detailed.
Soul Sacrifice does have one thing going for it; the dark atmosphere. It's not to say that it's great because it's dark, but the nature of the dark, pseudo-medieval theme provides ample room for creativity in setting design, ranging from the grimy, disgusting holding cell you're in, to a flying Atlantis. Which also brings creativity to...
Where would either of these games be if it weren't for the great monsters? Yes, that was a rhetorical question. This is actually a bit of a difficult decision because the nature of why these monsters are so great differs greatly.
In Monster Hunter's case, you're essentially fighting one thing; dragons. Many, many dragons, with a few other monsters sprinkled in between, usually ranging from large lizards to dinosaurs. The pattern here is that they're mostly reptiles of prehistoric origin. There are a few others as well, but at later points in the game they usually fall into obscurity. Many also return in sequels without many new friends. So what makes Monster Hunter so special in terms of monsters? Nothing, really. The joy comes simply in the notion of overcoming them. Winning a battle against the creatures in Monster Hunter is a huge deal, even though the game expects you to do it again and again. Of course it's a huge deal, considering it can take up to an hour. But it is challenging, not just on your button mashing and reflexes, but your ability to work as a team without the luxury of co-op mechanics. It's that sense of doing what more often than not feels impossible and screaming at the top of each mountain in the game "I did it!", letting your screams of victory ring in the ears of other player's headsets in the form of incomprehensible feedback. Please don't tell me I'm the only one who does this.
However, while Soul Sacrifice isn't quite as satisfying in that regard, you have to see these guys. The monsters are rotten, miserable-looking eyecandy. Each monster, no matter how many times portrayed in other media, is incredibly inspired. Even the hyper-generic slime is an incredibly detailed boss with a horrific design that genuinely looks like it was worked on for months by talented, eccentric, and borderline psychotic artists. It's cherry on the cake that every single one of them has a backstory worth reading, and each of them also have a personality in game, letting you decide whether they are loathsome or pitiful, giving you the option of righteous (or bastardly) punishment, or merciful saving. Again with the example of the Jack-O-Lantern, I have never had such a personal connection with monster design, not even when they instilled fear into my heart back in Dark Souls. The design alone is a smashing achievement.
So what matters more? A sense of accomplishment or a connection between you and your foe? Would you rather fight something just to beat it and challenge yourself, or would you like to indulge in gripping, imaginative design?
That about sums it up. Quite longer than I expected it to be. Writing this was more than I bargained for. Anyway, discuss: Which is "better?" Which do you like more? What do you agree or disagree with in this article?
Now excuse me while I go run to the body shop and buy a new set of fingers.
Disclaimer: Pictures of Monster Hunter taken from the web. Soul Sacrifice images taken from personal Vita.
Opening image: images1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120705141951/monsterhunter/images/f/f0/Monster-hunter-logo.gif - modified