Platforms: PC, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Multiplayer: 4-player Co-op
Nostalgia has become an industry within an industry, with games that tap into people’s happy memories of simpler times dominating Kickstarter. Mercenary Kings is just one more game in a long line aiming to capture the spirit of 2D shooters that has risen from Kickstarter, but unlike most of them it does it pretty well, mixing in a couple of more modern elements t create a run and gun shooter that doesn’t get too bogged down by its own inspirations.
It all begins with the graphics. Environments and characters are lovingly crafted out of many pixels to replicate the 16-bit days, but also feature a more modern twist in order to make everything look cleaner and more detailed, along with relatively smooth animation. Each character is successfully imbued with a distinct look and personality through the aesthetics, and while aspects of the art design are a tad generic, mostly in regards to the environments, the finished product looks pretty damn good. It’s the perfect visual homage to the days of 16-bit gaming without feeling the need to replicate it exactly. All of this is backed up by a bouncy soundtrack that fits in nicely with the overall aesthetic.
It’s all tied together with a narrative that was clearly ignored for much of the development, which is a bit of a shame given the lovely graphics on display. You play as one of the titular Kings, a group of guns for hire, and along with the military are battling against some evil Baron and his CLAW forces. And that’s about it . Dialogue and story progression largely takes place Metal Gear Solid style codec sequences with writing that often manages to capture the hammy fun of the old days, but almost equally often just made me sigh, while nothing but the primary missions have any real context given to them. While it’s tempting to say that more effort should have been placed into creating a tighter story, it’s also something of a pointless criticism; Mercenary Kings has as much storyline as it really needs.
Down time between missions and explosions is spent in your base camp where you can select your next mission, tool up on guns and upgrades and chuck some supplies in your backpack, including C4 and health packs. Exactly what you can take on any given mission is limited to just four slots, with two of those taken up by your weapon of choice and a receiver, which can be used mid-mission to call in supply drops or even to locate the boss. The last two slots can be filled with shock grenades, used to capture foes alive, adrenaline shots and more. Sadly Tribute Games missed a prime opportunity to create a base that you could customise a little in order to add your own flavour to it, but instead you can only add a few items to your tent, leaving it as a simple place that’s there merely to serve a function.
As a nostalgia driven, side-scrolling shoot-fest Mercenary Kings adheres to a strict game design in order to replicate the so-called glory days. You can only fire your gun vertically or horizontally, thus careful positioning is key, and enemies follow a very strict pattern of behavior which they never deviate from, presumably because they’re afraid to invoke the wrath of the Programming Gods. Naturally you can jump for some light platforming action and to avoid enemy fire , but your overall speed and ability to leap are somewhat restricted by weight, so you’ll have to keep an eye on how heavy your chosen weapon is and adjust accordingly. Jumping also feels strangely heavy and clumsy, and there’s a slight delay between pushing the button and actually getting airborne, which feels unnecessarily awkward, as does the strange arc that your character follows. Adding a little more complexity is that you can also perform a fast roll to avoid attacks, and reflect bullets with your knife, a handy skill to master, especially toward the latter stages. From this the team at Tribute build a solid set of gameplay mechanics which rely solely on your reflexes, skill and ability to memorize how each enemy type works. It’s a far cry from the bombastic approach of modern military shooters, and therefore a welcome change of pace.
It also demands a relatively methodical approach as simply charging in guns blazing usually results in you eating various types of lead. Naturally the more you play the quicker you’ll get, but generally you trundle along, carefully watching out for any baddies intent on destroying your precious face. Indeed, everything about Mercenary Kings is methodical, trading in the frantic pace of other side-scrolling shooters for what can only be described as plodding along. Even memorizing and tackling enemies is methodical; duck, jump, shoot, repeat.
Shield guys, for example, are simple, for example; they put away their shield to take a single shot, and then cover themselves up, thus you’ve got a small window to get a couple of attacks in, while the pyro wielding baddies fire out blasts of deadly flame every few seconds, so they’re often used to block routes. As the game progresses the enemy types naturally vary, but they always have very simple and easy to understand routine, and Tribute have used this to craft a forgiving learning curve that gradually builds the challenge, slowly introducing different combinations to keep you on your toes. The bad thing about this is that while it ensures everybody can grasp the game with relative ease it takes a while for things to get interesting. Even after a solid five hours of play I was still battling the same enemies with very few new combinations presented.
And that brings me to what is ultimately Mercenary Kings biggest flaw which stems from the style of game it wants to be. There’s a lot of fun to be had blasting apart enemies and plenty of satisfaction to be gained doing so as it’s a purely skill-driven game that constantly seeks to test your reflexes and memory, but it becomes tiring quite quickly. While the difficulty ramps up nicely there’s a heavy sense of repetition, not helped by the fact that you’ll revisit the same levels over and over, battle the same bosses several times and shoot the same dudes again and again. Mission design is uninspired drivel for much of the game, tasking you to do such fun things as gather 10 bundles of fabric or find a person, before it finally gets a bit meatier, but even then it’s still dull. Nor does the gameplay really evolve or change very much throughout the many, many hours it’ll take you to complete every mission the game offers.
To meet the constant criticism that games should be a bit harder and challenge you to think for yourself Mercenary Kings takes great delight in marking only a few of the mission objectives on your map. Many missions tell you where you’re going, but just as many don’t, keeping the goal’s location a mystery, leaving you to wander around the relatively sprawling levels, shooting whatever gets in the way. It’s a design choice liable to enthrall as many people as it annoys, especially since enemies have a habit of respawning almost as soon as you move away.
Boss battles suffer from this design decision as numerous skulls shown on the map indicate where they might be, and you have to venture back and forth to find them, killing every enemy you previously slaughtered again and again. This problem is made all the worse by the fact that I repeatedly spent ten minutes or more travelling from area to area, waiting for the boss to show up. This can be mitigated by using your radio to quickly call a friend at home base who’ll automatically track the boss for you, display the position if your intended prey on the map, but even this isn’t foolproof as bosses have a rather nasty habit of turning around and walking out of the screen as soon as you arrive, instantly travelling to another area. Spending 15-minutes running back and forth without ever getting to actually fight a boss simply doesn’t count as fun in my book.
However, when I finally did find a boss the ensuing battle was usually brilliant. Like the smaller enemies each boss has their own routine that needs to be learned and countered. It’s simple stuff, but highly effective.
While there’s an initial thrill from the lack of map markers, the novelty quickly wears off. There’s only so long you wander around aimlessly doing collect missions in the same levels facing the same bad guys before your sanity begins to slip, especially since the developers don’t change the placement of enemies very much, although credit must be given for their clever and thoughtful positioning. As strange as it sounds, less content would have almost been a benefit to Mercenary Kings. Sure, there are hundreds of missions, but when each grouping takes you a few hours of doing the same thing over and over before you can move on to a slightly different environment it’s hard to retain a sense of passion for the game. After a total of just two hours of playing I was struggling to muster up any desire to keep going. Even the many gun combinations couldn’t keep me interested, although players who enjoy farming and crafting may find a horrifying amount of their life being taken away from them.
Furthermore all missions are also on a time-limit, so you can’t dawdle too much. Yet here we see hints that Mercenary Kings wants to be a hardcore game, but is afraid to fully commit to the idea. There might be a timer, but it’s incredibly generous. In fact it was even mentioned on the game’s Steam forums by a developer that they tried to give absolutely everyone enough time to complete the mission at hand, raising the question of why it was even included? It doesn’t really add anything to the game except for a vague sensation of pressure that’s not needed. As an example I finished a mission with a 20-minute time in just 8-minutes, having completed both the main and secondary objectives, as well as gathering a few extra materials by scouring the map for enemies. This was not a rare occurence, either.
A modern twist comes in the form of heavily customisable weapons. Gather enough resources from fallen enemies and random crates and you can craft a gun by combining a body, barrel, stock, scope, magazine and ammo type, so by the end of the game you might have a bullet-spewing beast that electrocutes foes. Building a dream weapon is a lot of fun but it does take a lot of time to gather the resources required to modify your base weapon, and quite a bit more to build something truly custom as the more interesting parts don’t surface for some time. That time will be worth it for many people, though, especially with some of the more crazy parts available, such as toilet bowls and trumpets and cats. However, one thing I would like to mention is that there’s no way of piecing together a weapon in order to see the final stats before purchasing it, nor anything that allows you to try it out, and thus you can find yourself buying an item only to discover it doesn’t work very well in conjunction with another part, or doesn’t behave as you expected. Still, the possible combinations are vast.
A second modern twist is an active-reload system that pays homage *coughtripsoffcompletely* to Gears of War, where hitting the reload button a second time at just the right moment will speed up the process and provide a slight damage boost. Get it wrong and you’ll be left vulnerable for some time, and possibly questioning the lack of a reload animation.
To get the best our of Mercenary Kings I also strongly recommend hooking up a gamepad, because while it’s certainly playable on a keyboard (the mouse gets ignored) it’s a messy affair, even after reassigning keys.
If you don’t fancy tackling legions of foes on your own then the game does support up to the four player co-op over Teh Magical Internetz. But even better is that it also allows for four player local co-op, so you and your buddies can have the pleasure of falling out in person, which as everyone knows is the greatest thing about gaming.
Mercenary Kings is doing exactly nothing new, but then given that it’s aiming entirely for your precious, vulnerable feelings of nostalgia that’s not actually a bad thing. But to put it bluntly playing Mercenary Kings is a grind; you have to grind for new weapon parts and to unlock new missions. You have to grind away doing the same thing over and over against the same enemies so that you can finally get a cool gun and visit a new location. Some people will love the game for that and for its hefty amount of missions, and others will play for a few hours before switching it off, satisfied with their experience but in no rush to come back to it. Unfortunately, I fall into that second category.
+ Great visual style.
+ Solid gameplay.
+ Plenty of weapon variety.
– Repetitive gameplay.
– Awkward jump.
– Recycles enemies and environments too much.
The Verdict: 3/5 – good.
A fun trip down memory lane that reminds us what was so fun about side-scroller but also one that often reminds you just how much better games have gotten, and why we left certain things behind.