Welcome to “At a Glance” where first impressions mean everything! Ladies, gentlemen and laser firing dog robots, I present to you; Mercenary Kings.
The last few years we have seen a massive influx in high quality indie games and developers come about as an alternative to the more expensive and time consuming AAA market. We have gotten fantastic titles in so many different genres, and a sense of freedom for independent artists to create whatever they want. From this we have seen a lot of developers looking back to the classic days of gaming for inspiration. From this we have gotten titles like Guccamelee aping classic Metroid-Vania titles (Symphony of the Night, Super Metroid) or the massive amount of platformers like Fez and Super Meat Boy harking back to the classic SNES days(Super Mario World). While all these titles are their own games, its clear as day they take inspiration from these games, and just shows how much these older titles were loved by the developers. Today’s game in particular takes a lot of inspiration from the classic action run and gun series, Metal Slug. So does today’s game in question introduce enough new gameplay aspects and still pull of the charm of the old school run and gun titles, or does it fail to understand what made these titles to great? Well that’s where I come in folks.
The story for Mercenary Kings isn’t what you would call a grand complicated emotional journey, but it gets the job done. The Kings are a group of tough soldiers who were hired to take down a evil cooperation known as C.L.A.W., lead by a insane evil general known as Commander Baron, who has began splicing human and Mandrake (yes the plant) cells together in order to create a army of super soldiers. In an attempt to stop C.L.A.W with their efforts, the members of the Kings are killed, all but two. These two (King and Empress) are brought back to life with the Mandrake cells. Now it’s up to the remaining Kings to take down C.L.A.W and save the world. While the plot of the game isn’t it’s strong point, it’s certainly not bad, and the interactions between the large cast can be quite funny at times. These conversations usually take place over Metal Gear Solid-style codec calls before and after missions, and are a cute way to bridge the gap between story and game play.
The game play of Mercenary Kings is that of a classic run and gun action title, but adds enough new elements to keep you on your toes. The game is broken up into different levels, each with their own separate objective and side objectives. These range from rescuing crew members, gathering supplies, taking down certain enemies and boss battles. Before heading out on these missions you can do a bunch of stuff at the hub world, the camp. Here you can visit the many members of the Kings, each with their own way of helping you out. You can buy items to help you in the field like grenades and health items, you can upgrade your mandrake cells for better item drops or health increases and you can make and upgrade knives and guns.
One of the biggest elements of Mercenary Kings is the crafting of guns and knives. Knives are bought from the camp and must be made from different materials you find during missions. These materials drop from certain enemies or chests, and it’s chance based, so every time you kill a sniper it doesn’t mean you are going to get leather, so expect to be grinding for the materials you actually need. You then head back to camp with your materials and money and purchase new knives depending on what you can make. Guns on the other hand are a little more in depth. You purchase different elements of a gun, including the receiver, barrel, magazine, sight, stock and ammunition. This crafting is very cool, as there are so many possibilities – you can have a gun that shoots like a shotgun but shoots fire, or a missile launcher that shoots kittens (no, I am being serious). The gun crafting goes very in depth, and you will have a lot of trial and error until you find out what is effective and whatnot, as the game never tells you things like caustic ammo melts enemies shields.
The missions of the game is where you will be taking part in the combat of the game, which is slow and steady. The movement of your character feels heavy, which is backed up by the fact that you can only shoot in straight lines. A nice touch to help out with the sluggish movement is the active reload system, meaning if you press B at the right time, the gun reloads faster. Now with this slow movement speed, the levels become a lot more tactical, meaning you really have to take your time traversing the areas, as enemies are placed in set locations, and will re-spawn if leave you that area. While all this is fine and good, it becomes increasingly more difficult due to the fact that every level is timed. The careful slow trek through a level full of enemies becomes ridiculously difficult when timed, and really just adds a useless level of stress to the whole matter. These levels are massive, splitting into separate layers accessed through doors, so exploration is heavily required, but is not enjoyable due to the time limit.
The boss battles on the other hand are a different matter altogether. While the boss fights are cool to watch and are all memorable, such as robotic laser dogs or massive robots, they have certain design flaws that are extremely annoying. The bosses patterns and attacks themselves are fine, but every now and again they will run away mid battle to another area of the map – sometimes it won’t even be mid fight, sometimes you will just arrive to the battle and they will leave. Everytime the boss flees it means you have to dredge through the entire level again to the next point, taking more damage from enemies on the way. Not only this but each level is timed, so you can imagine how frustrating this becomes when you are walking across the map killing the same enemies over and over again trying to track down the boss for the fifth time. It may not seem like a big deal, but it makes the boss battles a hassle.
Visually Mercenary Kings is an expertly achieved love letter to the highly detailed pixel art of the Metal Slug series, with so much detail and character in every sprite’s movement. The enemy and NPC variety is fantastic, with every solider you meet having their own character and style to them, my favorite being each separate member of the hub camp. The game’s look comes from it’s amazing pixel art, all done by the extremely talented Paul Robertson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game). On the other hand you have the soundtrack, which while not bad, just doesn’t have enough tracks to remain memorable. The songs themselves all fit into the levels nicely, but do get very repetitive after a while, as you will be replaying levels a lot, just with different tasks per mission.
Mercenary Kings for me is certainly a game that while lovingly looks back to run and gun action titles, doesn’t always remember what made them so fun. The game looks, sounds and plays really well, but its the little kinks in the armor that stop it from being perfect. Things like the boss fights random running away or the arbitrary time limit just affect the game deep down on a design level, and bring down the enjoyment considerably. But really with all this nitpicking, I am still so happy that a game like this can exist in this industry these days, I mean 3 years ago would you be able to say you were playing a new action run and gun Metal Slug inspired game? I didn’t think so. Even if the game has it’s problems, the good out-weighs most of the bad, and you end up with a really fun action run and gun title, which if you can find 3 other friends, is even better.
You can purchase Mercenary Kings on Steam and PS4.
For more info you can check out the official site!