Mercenary Kings Review
Shoot 'Em Up, Collect, Craft, Repeat
If I were to tell you that there’s a game that is part Metal Slug, part Mega Man, and part Borderlands, all wrapped up in the gorgeous pixelated art-style of 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, would you be interested? Well, the developers at Tribute made a little game by the name of Mercenary Kings that aimed to be just that. This side-scrolling arcade style shooter feels like a love-letter to videogames; a Frankenstein-like amalgamation that aims to take the parts of arcade shooters, platformers, and RPGs to create a worthy addition to any player’s library. The only problem is that all these pieces never really come together. Every part of the game works, but nothing about Mercenary Kings ever really shines.
You play as either Empress or King, two soldiers brought back from the dead to defeat the evil Commander Byron Baron who is plotting something wicked on Mandragora Island. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill plot, and I’d love to say that it’s not worth mentioning, but the game constantly and unwantedly rubs it in your face. Nearly every mission is plagued with dialogue that not only goes on for too long, but feels like it was written by a 13 year old. Sure, there’s a couple clever lines here and there, but after only a few hours of playing I resorted to mashing the X button just to get on with the game. In a title that’s all about shooting guns, Mercenary Kings gets in the way of itself by trying too hard with its story. It’s just not good.
Once you get past all the eye-rolling dialogue, you’ll eventually get into the core of the game. Mercenary Kings is mission based so you’ll always get the choice of what level to go to while you’re at the Kings’ home base. You can upgrade and craft new weapons, buy items, and change outfits all while at your base. This is also the spot where you can set up online play or co-op if you don’t feel like going at it alone. Once you’re all set, pick a mission and go!
Running through the levels feels like classic arcade action in a lot of ways. Save for a few annoying sections, the platforming is fairly simple and never gets in the way of shooting Baron’s troops, robots, mechs, and some other crazy enemies. While the destruction and chaos never reaches the levels of games like Contra or Metal Slug, it makes the experience a lot more manageable, especially if you’re playing the game alone. Ducking under enemy fire, jumping over a dashing enemy, and getting to blow their head off is always a fun and rewarding experience. At least until they respawn almost instantly. Mercenary Kings suffers from the Mega Man effect where as soon as the screen moves on to where an enemy is triggered to attack, he’ll most likely be there, whether you killed them previously or not. Sometimes this is beneficial in collecting items, but more often than not it leaves the player open for a lot of cheap attacks throughout every level. In a way, it feels retro and maybe that’s what the developers were going for. I just found it annoying.
Missions are split up into multiple categories, each with their own objectives. Gathering missions will have the player searching the map for specific items, extermination missions require you to clear out all the enemies in a certain area of the map, neutralize missions have you gunning for specific enemies and there’s a few more missions that are just variations of these. When you start the game, it seems to be filled with variety but as you progress you’ll start noticing just how similar and repetitive the missions become. The whole game really comes down to killing certain enemies, or getting to a specific location on the map. Towards the end, this became really frustrating when the game doesn't provide direction to your destination. So you could be running through an area for 20 minutes without any indicator of how close you are to your goal. Combine this frustration with the fact there is no “Restart Mission” option and you can be in for a sour experience on some runs. With over 50 optional mission leftover, Mercenary Kings took me nearly 11 hours to complete and half of that felt like a grind.
Mercenary Kings boasts a nice multiplayer experience that easily helps counter the repetition brought on by the missions themselves. You can play couch co-op with up to 4 players. Hanging out with your buddies while wiping an area clear is a blast because you’re never limited by what the other players are doing. Because the game is split-screen, each player can go their own way without having to wait, making missions that require a lot a legwork more manageable. You can also play online with up to 4 people and play the game the same way. The only downside to multiplayer is that everyone shares lives, meaning if one player dies 3 times, the next player who dies once is out for good. It’s another strange design flaw that just seems to hurt the overall playability, but as long as you have some revive items, your team should make it out alive.
One of the most enticing features of Mercenary Kings is the ability to craft your weapons and upgrade your character. The game is filled with hundreds of collectibles that can be found throughout each level or collected from the cold dead hands of your fallen victims. Certain enemies will only carry particular items so if you get really deep into the crafting, you could easily spend hours farming out the right stuff to get the perfect gear for you. Every weapon has 6 parts you can customize including ammunition type. As you progress further in the game, you’ll unlock an enormous amount of options that will have you scouring each level trying to collect everything possible just to adjust the reload time of a gun to fit your needs. This RPG-like element of the game is actually one of my favorite things about Mercenary Kings. Even if the gameplay and mission design never really evolved, there was always a clear progression and unlockable power to crafting a new gun. I mean, at one time I had a gun made out of a trombone that had a scattershot of incendiary ammo. That was amazing.
Visually, the game looks fantastic. Once again, Paul Robertson and the team that brought you Scott Pilgrim vs. The World back in 2010, created a game that is simply a joy to look at. While it gives the illusion of being a 16-bit game from the SNES days, Mercenary Kings is better looking than anything you’d see in the 90s, and even current pixel art games. That’s because the animation work makes all this art move in very entertaining ways. I said it before, but shooting an enemy and watching his head explode in gorgeous pixel art never gets old. No matter where you look in this game, you’ll have something to admire. Just wanting to see what the next boss looked like was enough to keep me trucking through the game and that’s no small feat.
Sadly, for a game that doesn’t seem to really push the power of the PlayStation 4, I had a few problems with how Mercenary Kings ran. When I first started the game, it crashed multiple times and booted me back out to the home screen. A patch was later included that seemed to fix this problem. However, occasionally the game would freeze for a second or 2 before stuttering back up to speed. This continued to happen throughout my playthrough and actually caused me to die a few times, sending me back to the start of a mission. Hopefully another patch is in the works to fix this problem.
Mercenary Kings is an interesting mash-up of retro love and multiple genres but doesn’t have enough variety to sustain the amount of content it has. Nearly every aspect of the game that got something right is countered by something it got wrong. There’s definitely fun to be had with Mercenary Kings, especially with friends, but it goes to show that you can’t just throw together a bunch of cool ideas to make a great game.