Mercenary Kings is an ambitious sprite based 2-D shooter that attempts to marry the 16-bit style and action of Metal Slug with an intensive RPG element akin to Borderlands. The game certainly fills a niche in the video game market that, to be frank, boggles me to as why this combination hasn’t been conceived earlier. But here it is, a collision of nostalgic run n’ gun and contemporary customization that delivers exceptionally well on both accounts.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
The plot and tone of Mercenary Kings doesn’t take itself too seriously and that’s a great thing. The story is simple and straightforward: Defeat Claw and prevent their diabolical schemes. Each character you encounter is a caricature of certain archetypes, such as a gung-ho, foul-mouthed general or a nerdy, cowardly scientist. They serve their purposes to the plot and to the world precisely, throwing out joke after joke mixed in with silly video game references that’ll have you searching for Easter eggs with a smile on your face.
Graphics-wise, the 16-bit art style of Mercenary Kings looks amazing as you traverse from area to area on Mandragora Island. The background art acts as a perfect backdrop to the incredibly detailed foreground art, both layered to create a vibrant landscapes such as a thick tropical jungle or a sprawling,weathered metropolis. Furthermore, the each object and model, from the Kings to the foreground shrubbery, is rendered beautifully and surprisingly lively as almost everything except the platforms has an idle animation. These all form a visually exquisite world that spurs the drive to explore and eviscerate.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
Mercenary King‘s gameplay is best described as a Metroidvania, a 2-D side scrolling game that focuses on backtracking and full investigative freedom as opposed to a prescribed left-to-right movement. In these segmented worlds, you’ll fight enemies in a straightforward run n’ gun fashion while grinding for materials and rescuing hostages. The developers did a remarkable job at translating the old, adrenaline pumping formula into contemporary platform, both in terms of physical hardware and modern game design techniques. It’s an enjoyable game, full of scouring the zones to defeat giant robot dogs, CLAW villains and homicidal plants.
An unexpected bonus that I discovered while playing was that the game features a surprisingly high challenge in terms of gameplay. Since Mercenary Kings isn’t the standard run n’ gun, it forces you into moments of strategy and patience that make every hit or dodge a life or death situation. It’s a refreshing product of the level design, however, it does have its drawbacks. The stilted pace of combat, while intense at some points, can become tedious at others while you’re over-upgraded for a certain area.
Now comes in the RPG aspect of Mercenary Kings: the customization and upgrade system. Modifications to your character and guns are all based on the idea of swapping out interchangeable parts and mutations, accompanied by a few aesthetic add-ons and temporary skill boosts. First off, I have to emphasize just how much customization there is in this game – it’s Borderlands-esque. Off the bat, on of the PS4 trophies mentions there are in total 300 guns and 100 upgrades to create and customize, all with specific attachments that can be removed or modified. It’s a great system that keeps the game going, making that next grind or loot run an addictive quality to the game. It doesn’t overwhelm or underwhelm, but lets the player feel in control and to do that accurately is a fantastic achievement.
Mercenary Kings does have its fair share of problems, specifically in terms of keeping the gameplay interesting. Even though the different areas themselves are unique, each individual level’s enemy spawns, treasure locations and special zones don’t differ from mission to mission; only their quest objectives are distinct. This turns the wonder of exploration into an eventual repetitive grind. Similarly, the strategy aspect involved in the game is a double-edged sword too as it slows down what should be an explosive gun-blazing shooting spree to a tedious crawl. These elements of the game design can make the mid-game an excruciating experience, fizzling out into a monotonous materials grabber.
The multiplayer component is well thought out, simple and very enjoyable. Playable through offline splitscreen or online co-op, each player character receives an equal amount of the loot and an equal amount of lives. This allows for each player to progress at their own pace but also turns your partners into liabilities without any cooperative mechanics to balance it out. As a separate feature, it’s enjoyable to play with others but to be honest, it’s not much to miss out on.
Mercenary Kings is an ambitious indie title that attempts to revive the sprite-based 2-D shooter with a jolt of heavy customization and modern mechanics. While not particularly story driven, the game presents a narrative that’s lighthearted and enjoyable that is set against a beautifully designed, detailed backdrop. The gameplay itself is a blast while you explore and demolish your way through hordes of enemies, although at a sometimes slow or repetitive pace. I’d highly recommend Mercenary Kings but be warned, it can be a bit of a struggle at some times.
Final Score: 8 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood
Editor-in-Chief at The Pixel Pen Review