Good to be a king!
This month’s free PS Plus game on the PlayStation 4 may not give your system a workout, but you’d be foolish to write it off too soon.Coming from the creative minds behind the Scott Pilgrim vs The World game, Mercenary Kings showcases the same flair for the eye catching, being awash with an army of lovingly created cartoon sprites.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for a well animated 2D battle then this’ll be gaming catnip for you. As the first bars of the simplified score buzz out of the speakers, it’s almost enough to convince yourself that Metal Slug is still in vogue.
Many recent titles have played on the gaming community’s fondness for dewy eyed reminiscence though, often at the expense of any meaningful underlying mechanics.
However, Mercenary Kings is more than just a vacuous nostalgia trip. It manages to plumb into everything that was great - and a few instances of what was bad - with some of the staples of 2D action, and in between infuse just enough originality to keep things fresh.
It may sound like a nice variety, but in practice they play out with a fair amount of similarity. Neutralize and Capture, for example, require you to take on a mini-boss figure, the only difference between the two being that in the latter, once your foe is on the brink of destruction, you toss a Shock Bomb to effectively freeze them. As you’d expect from a 2D blast-a-thon, the onus is always on shooting as many gun-wielding caricatures in the face as possible; that repetition is arguably one of Mercenary King’s greatest issues, but also one of its greatest assets.
The onus is always on shooting as many gun-wielding caricatures in the face as possible
Tribute have created a limited selection of pleasing death animations that seems to lure you back to see them just one more time; the gory head explosion being the messy cherry on the cake. The cartoon soldiers and ‘Nam overtones mix in with absurd creatures and strange contraptions rather fittingly; you’re never quite sure what the next level of enemies will hold in store. The early stages are chock full of mindless goons running with fixed bayonets, but as you rank up and unlock new missions, more inventive combatants block your path.
It’s these paths themselves that represent the key flaw with Mercenary Kings. The level design is fairly solid, with a healthy array of ladders and lifts, boxes and doors leading to buildings, but the reuse of maps often undermines that - arguably perfunctory - landscaping.
If you build it...Yet, I found myself forgiving Kings even this treadmill of killing and re-killing the same enemies against the same backdrops because of the ace it holds up its sleeve: crafting. You can make a very real case for the need to keep a level of familiarity and sections that can be mastered in light of the experimentation the game asks of you.
Crafting revolves around enemies dropping items (which can also be found in the odd crate littered throughout the levels), which can then be taken to a member of your team at base camp to be turned into something useful. Gun parts, bio mods, knives, food and even kit to deck your tents out in a snazzy fashion can all be fashioned. It’s here that the real depth lies.
There are five parts to any one gun, and all can be bought individually. You could pop a Spec Ops Rifle barrel onto a Razorback receiver, slap a Karabiner mag into it and maybe an M40 sight on top, with a Black Thorne stock to aid accuracy. Then comes the choice of ammo, which relies on compatibility, so a less powerful weapon which can fire incendiary rounds is one to ponder over.
If it sounds a bit dry and po-faced, it really isn’t, there’s a nice injection of quirky humour, laced with references throughout, and that includes the weaponry. The listing of the Firestarter as “a prodigy of a machine gun” or the flusher, which is a toilet-based weapon, are just two of many charming little asides designed to make you smirk.
The humour's necessary too, as without that and the more elaborate gun designs it could be seen as a dull grind; it arguably still enters that territory, but then, if you were averse to such things, you wouldn't be touching this game with an M40 barrel.
There really is a vast array of different parts to pore over, and once you begin building your unique creation, the familiarity of a map starts to represent not just unnecessary game padding but the creation of a hunting ground for you to try your new wares in. Once you’ve worked out the timing of a particular section, to go back through it with a new weapon and note minor differences in speed and power - finding your rhythm - is strangely addictive.
Reload!And that’s before you take into account the slick reloading mechanic. To perform a timely reload, you must perform a second button press when a timer bar passes in a yellow field. Hit the green sliver within the yellow and however many bullets you reloaded will be given a damage boost. If you fail, however, and mistime it, then the gun will jam momentarily. Each weapon creation not only has a different reloading speed, but also a different ratio of colours in the timer bar.
The upgrade path may seem obvious when looking at mere stats, but the reload system has a huge bearing. I started with a Bolt45 before switching to a Jager - a Luger by another name. It was better in almost every department, but the window for reloading and getting bonus damage was tighter. After an hour with the Bolt45 I could reload blind, being attuned to the timing, but my chances of hitting the same green zone with the Jager without a cursory glance were low. Much weapon jamming later, I switched back to the piece I found easier to get into a shooting and reloading cycle with.
Then there are the bio mods which can be fitted to your body. These offer stat boosts or special abilities, but often come with a counterbalance which lessens your skill in another area, such as the Sprinter mod that sees your speed go up, but also the damage you take. You can’t just base your choices on what’s the most appealing gun and mod though, as you have to take into account their weight. Load yourself down too much and your movement will slow, reducing speed and mid-air control.
So you can see how the cycle of collection, crafting and experimentation begins; like the bastard son of Metal Slug and Monster Hunter, how you retread the same ground becomes as important as the act of having to do so. With no experience points, the act of finding the parts to make a powerful weapon, and considering which type will match your playing style, becomes all important. To some the process will be grinding and quickly border on the tedious; to others a solid upgrade path.
Difficulty wise, it’s really a case of finding your stride with the right weapon and mods to suit the occasion. Once you’ve worked out the old school animation phases of the mini-bosses and built yourself a decent piece, you shouldn’t be reloading levels too often as the difficulty curve is fairly steady. If you are stuck, there’s always the option to tackle levels in co-op.
In single-player - even though there are a couple of time attack missions - you’re rarely rushed thanks to the largely generous time limits, so buddying up adds an element of hectic fun and speediness to proceedings. The quick chat system has all the options you’ll need to signal someone, say sorry and let them know that loot’s theirs, but if you're rolling as a team the emphasis becomes about creating your own bullet storm.
It's a great way to tackle the tricker opponents, but it can get a bit busy on screen - and feels very unrefined with randoms - so what you gain in extra firepower you may lose in the taking the odd accidental hit.
- Deep crafting system
- Weapon variety
- Pick-up-and-play appeal
- Ingrained humour
- Overuse of looped music
- Some excessive respawning
Mercenary Kings PS4 ReviewMercenary Kings isn’t a game to show off your shiny new PS4 with, but if you take the time to investigate beneath the lo-fi nostalgia vibe, simplistic combat and visceral appeal you’ll find a raft of mechanics designed to encourage experimentation.
It may feel repetitious at times, but the variety is not found in the environs but in the weaponry. The first ranks are trainer levels, designed to get you used to the cycle of item collection and crafting, understanding that failure in a mission is not real failure as long as you’ve got some loot.
It won’t be for everyone, but the creation of new weapons and poring over stats is the pay-off. The missions themselves become but the playground to try out your fancy new extermination gizmos.
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