What do you get when Metal Slug has a baby with Monster Hunter? The answer is Mercenary Kings, the platforming, SNES throwback, shooter from Tribute games. After a widely successful Kickstarter campaign and an eternity of Early Access, Mercenary Kings is finally here. Consumers can bask in all of its nuevo-retro glory, filled to the brim with jaw dropping pixelart and abundant gun crafting.
Mercenary Kings is the closest thing we are going to get to a GI Joe game. The thinly lined plot focuses around a group of renegades who assemble to take down the evil CLAW corporation. The team slowly assembles over the course of the game, and gradually becomes more than a thorn in CLAW’s side. The majority of the story is dished out between missions, through conversations delivered via Metal Gear Solid style codec. Every character is charming and well animated, bringing to life the Mercenary Kings camp with witty dialogue. Even though the game feels light hearted, it is serious business when dealing with CLAW and their ultimate goal of world domination.
Mechanically Mercenary Kings plays similar to Metal Slug. Your character can can shoot in four directions as well as jump, duck, and roll. Not being able to shoot in eight directions is frustrating when you are used to being able to hit things at an angle, but this fades with time. The jumping is pressure sensitive, giving you some more control over the character however something seems off with the jump. There is a slight delay where the character bends their knees which makes the platforming feel quite sluggish. The game is definitely a shooter first and a platformer second as player movement is quite clunky. Keep in mind that the weight of your gun affects character movement. Melee attacks keep things away from your face, and are governed by what knife is equipped. Ammo is unlimited, and Tribute has implemented a Gears of War active reload system the gives a slight powerup when you hit it on the sweet spot.
With the technical jargon behind us, the mission structure in Mercenary Kings is quite simple. Prepare your gear in camp, grab a mission from the commander, and get your chopper pilot to take you to the zone. Mission objectives vary from sabotaging enemy assets and exterminating an area, to hostage rescue and enemy capture. Don’t get me wrong, Mercenary Kings has no room for stealth and missions devolve down to ‘kill everything in your path.’ Each mission has a main objective that nets you cash upon completion, but there are also bonus objectives and secret missions that get you some nice goods. Missions are timed and take anywhere from five to twenty minutes, and it is up to you whether or not you want to go out of your way to hit the bonus objectives before the time runs out and the mission is failed.
At first some of the missions feel unfair and overly difficult, but with a solid co-op crew and previous knowledge of the map there is little challenge for most of the game. Mistakes will cost you, and note that the team shares three lives for each mission. It is in your best interests to stay healthy, and try to save downed teammates with a limited-use adrenaline shot. Mission difficulty does not scale with the number of players, so there is no reason to fail an early mission when your King squad is rolling four deep.
Completing missions nets you cash, materials, and rank points. Rank points grant access to more challenging missions, and so the Mercenary Kings positive feedback loop is engaged, ala Monster Hunter. The more important feature is the loot that you find throughout the map. These materials are meaningless alone, but when combined they become the backbone of the Mercenary Kings. Materials can be combined into new guns, weapons, armor, knives, and mods (think perks). This is the most addictive system in the game and is where you will spend half of your time. This also means that every material dropped from an enemy, chest, or animal is the next piece in the puzzle to your BFG-9000. Don’t worry, an item picked up by a teammate goes to all players in the session, so there is no fighting for materials.
Building your dream weapon takes time, as the more rare materials only come from bosses. Guns can be outfitted with six different parts and are separated into five different categories: pistol, shotgun, submachine, assault, sniper, and magnum. The number of combinations are immense, and your frankenstein creation will ultimately change the way you tackle enemies. Another level of customization comes with the ammo types, giving you even more room to play with your gun builds. Sometimes you just need a sniper rifle that shoots bouncing incendiary shotgun shells that goes “meow” every time you squeeze the trigger. There isn’t a ‘perfect’ build, and there is definitely a balance to each of the weapons as a large clip takes ages to load whereas a small clip can take less than a second. Ideally your co-op team can take roles and have each player craft a gun that compliments the other players on the team.
It’s crazy to think that there are over 100 missions in Mercenary Kings, but each of them are not unique. A set of missions will require you to go through the same environment multiple times, and even though you are accomplishing different goals it gets tedious after a while. The enemy variety is sorely lacking, with only a trickle of new faces while moving through the ranks. Patterns are quickly memorized and even palette swaps from the old TMNT foot clan days can’t spice things up. I’ll argue that learning a map is very important in accomplishing bonus objectives in a certain amount of time, but I do wish that Tribute changed things up at an accelerated pace.
Things would get boring quick if the game wasn’t so gosh darn gorgeous. Paul Roberston (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Wizorb) bleeds from every pixel in Mercenary Kings and each character has their own personality shine through their design and animation. He has nailed down the 16-bit balloon style head pop when a bullet pierces through an enemy’s skull. There is nothing quite like this style mixed with this substance. The soundtrack is magnetic and makes the repetition tolerable with its grungy guitars layered over the chiptunes. There is something awesome about saving hostages and feeling like a badass with the perfect soundtrack leading you through each level.
Co-Op teams join together in the main camp both locally and online, with the option to have your game open to the public, friends, or invite only. Since there is no difficulty scaling and no rank matching/balancing, there is no stopping a highly ranked player from clearing an entire map and leaving his/her team in the dust. A huge gap in equipment will make things boring for both parties, so it is in your best interests to find a good group of friends to play with and stick with them. Mission objectives can be tackled simultaneously by a coordinated group, where multiple hostages can be saved at once and materials on all corners of the map can be scavenged. Local co-op doesn’t deter from the experience and having a couple friends on the couch is an awesome way to experience the game. In true retro fashion, each player is given a quadrant of the screen. If there are less than four players, the map is displayed on the other split screens which makes it super convenient for all. After playing co-op the game feels a little boring solo since you get used to having all types of bullets flying everywhere.
Mercenary Kings is a game full of content, ready for a group of friends to discover and conquer. Bear in mind that things get repetitive, but there is nothing like rolling through an enemy encampment with a solid team bearing the most insane weapon combinations. If you love this type of shooter, and can deal with the mission structure of Monster Hunter then you’re going to have a good time. The draw to find more materials and craft better guns will drive you to keep playing. The wonderful aesthetic and strong sense of progression will keep you playing for dozens of hours. Mercenary Kings is a decent solo game, but throw a couple teammates into the mix and it becomes an excellent co-op experience.