"While it appears to be a simple Metal Slug clone at first glance, players dismissing it as such will be missing out on a deep, fresh indie title that merges the best aspects of old-school side-scrollers with an addictive and satisfying loot-driven mechanic."
Mercenary Kings is a Kickstarter funded 2D shooter developed by Tribute Games, the team that brought us Wizorb, and the animator Paul Robertson who's best know for his work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. While it appears to be a simple Metal Slug clone at first glance, players dismissing it as such will be missing out on a deep, fresh indie title that merges the best aspects of old-school side-scrollers with an addictive and satisfying loot-driven mechanic. Mercenary Kings’ story is fairly simple: you play as a soldier-for-hire whose bullet-ridden body was reconstructed like the Six Million Dollar Man in order to take down the evil CLAW organization. The plot is far from Shakespearean in scope, but is delivered with a healthy dose of humor—mostly derived from the dialog during the Metal Gear Solid-inspired transponder communications with the rest of your team. Some players may prefer to skip through the dialog sections in order to get back to the action, but they will be missing out on some genuinely humorous moments. There are several references to other action franchises throughout and fans of satirical titles like Far Cry: Blood Dragon and the Borderlands series will find plenty of laughs here.
Mercenary Kings’ humor is echoed in its distinct art style. Numerous visual gags in the background, as well as some utterly absurd enemy designs keep the light-hearted tone thoroughly consistent. My co-op partner and I spent plenty of time in the game’s main base pointing out jokes from the background: binary code floating into the sky from our communications dish or the little piece of dookie at the bottom of the base’s latrine go a long way in keeping the experience just plain fun. The same can be said for the quirky enemies, which range from basic olive-drab soldiers with spears to a giant robotic puppy with missile launchers for ears. All of the sprites are beautifully animated and pay homage to genre standouts like Metal Slug, Contra, and the various Mega Man franchises.
"The game’s loot system allows you to upgrade nearly everything about your character’s load-out, including the receiver, stock and gun barrel, your melee weapon, the ammunition you fire and whichever bionic upgrades you decide to use."
The game’s mechanics are generally solid. The controls respond as well as any game I’ve played in the genre, which is important when guiding your avatar through the sheer volume of bullets destined to be sent in your direction. The game’s difficulty can be frustrating—especially as you first begin the game—but once you start collecting loot necessary to upgrade your equipment, missions become much more manageable and far more rewarding. The game’s loot system allows you to upgrade nearly everything about your character’s load-out, including the receiver, stock and gun barrel, your melee weapon, the ammunition you fire and whichever bionic upgrades you decide to use. Enemies drop the materials needed to purchase upgrades. Basic materials such as Wood and Steel serve the bulk of your gunsmithing needs early on, while more elaborate upgrades such as corrosive or incendiary rounds require locating some Sulfuric Acid or Phosphorous, respectively. As you defeat enemies, their loot drops are logged by an NPC at your character’s base, meaning you will never be at a loss as to where to find that critical missing material for your next upgrade. The system is surprisingly deep and consistently rewarding. I never felt like I was being required to use an upgrade that I hadn’t pursued, and I rarely completed a mission without at least one new trinket to show for my efforts. It is this loot system that will drive players to advance through the game’s numerous missions.
"Small issues aside, Mercenary Kings is one of those rare games that offer everything that I didn’t know I wanted."
Mercenary Kings supports both split-screen coop play as well as 4-player online play. And while it can be fun to lay waste to a screen full of enemies during online play, the fact that players pool only three lives no matter how many are playing can lead to some frustrating moments if one member of your team can’t carry their own weight—especially since you only collect in-game currency if you complete your current mission. Because of this, I felt Mercenary Kings works best as a solo or couch coop experience, although the right team playing together online might have a better experience than I did.
As rewarding as Mercenary Kings is, it’s not altogether without drawbacks. The game’s audio could use more variety. It is easy to get weary of the game’s mission music and I was even more annoyed by the frequent exclamations your character emits whenever you properly execute a perfect reload, which was made even worse by the fact that I couldn’t quite make out what the female avatar Empress was saying (“Boom cycle?” “Poo style?” Still not quite sure). This actually caused me to change my play style early on, as I abandoned my set aside my double-barreled shotgun for something that I had to reload less frequently. The game is also not without its technical issues, as I experienced some stuttering and at least one crash that forced me to restart the game. Another small issue the inability to fire on a diagonal plane, which would not have bothered me so much if the enemies hadn’t been shooting at me from above at various degrees. Finally, enemies’ abilities to respawn off-screen can be frustrating, particularly when you have to traverse a zipline over a pit of spikes or some other hazard. This issue was considerably less damning once I realized I could use it to my advantage when collecting materials. Those small issues aside, Mercenary Kings is one of those rare games that offer everything that I didn’t know I wanted. It is a unique, charming, and highly addictive title that I strongly recommend picking up (for free for to PlayStation Plus users during the month of April), particularly for fans of the SNES-era sidescrollers from which it takes so much of its influence.
Review by: Nick Walge | Reviewed on: Playstation 4
Review by: Nick Walge | Reviewed on: Playstation 4