Mercenary Kings—a 2D action-platformer with heavy 16-bit influences—has finally seen its full release after employing the help of eager Kickstarter backers in 2012. The project purported to challenge players with punishing gameplay, satisfy collectors with its vast array of materials and customization, and dazzle onlookers with its masterfully-crafted pixel art animation (Paul Robertson, you lovely boy you). All appealing things, to be sure, but what truly had me interested (aside from the stellar team of individuals at Tribute who had previously worked on Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: the Game) was the internet’s collective, and strikingly apt, description of the game: it’s Metal Slug meets Monster Hunter. Hoo boy, am I on board with that.
Mercenary Kings kicks off with one of the coolest video game openings I’ve ever seen, by the way. From the very beginning, it’s obvious that the experience was tailor-made for anyone who enjoys the action-oriented arcade games of old, appealing to geeks all across the spectrum with a style that borrows elements from all points in the timeline of gaming history, as well as a number of surprising nods to anime. But simply looking at images, or even gameplay, is a weirdly misleading experience when it comes to Mercenary Kings, honestly. By all accounts the game looks like an average, albeit lovely, SNES-inspired, level-based romp through a number of military-themed environments. And that happens, for suresies. But here is where the “Monster Hunter structuring” truly makes its influence.
Rather than progressing from level to level as you’d expect, the title Kings are offered a number of missions to clear, each of which takes place in a pre-built level. These encompass hostage rescuing, material collection, and boss dispatching – fairly vanilla stuff that doesn’t alter gameplay all that much, save bosses that retreat to different areas of any given map after enough time has passed. Once back at base, players can use materials dropped from enemies or found in the environment to craft guns and melee weapons, build biomods that enhance their characters, and stock up on usable items. From there, it’s usually back to the missions. And before long, the levels become well-trodden, and enemy types become familiar; progressively more powerful equipment is made, and more mission and maps are unlocked. Players will find themselves battling bosses over and over, memorising their patterns, in an attempt to obtain the drops necessary to craft even better equipment, which will then be used to repeat the same cycle of mission clearing and boss fighting.
As you can see, there is some inherent repetitiveness to this deliberate design choice, which is either going to be a strength or weakness depending on the player’s gaming preferences. Personally, I generally enjoy the setup. Granted, it does at times feel that the game’s content is perhaps stretched a little thin, though I don’t necessarily feel that a tighter, focused design is always better; Mercenary Kings forgoes a classical level-based structure for the accomplishment that comes with finally crafting a new gun, or the anticipation from finding rare items. It does tread thin ice, but the game never breaks it or falls into chilling, overtly-grindy waters. This is all reliant on compelling gameplay and an interesting world of course, on which Mercenary Kings delivers.
Though they take some getting used to when coming into the game with a retro mindset, the control and game feel are quite excellent. Each jump has a slight delay, and characters move with a gravity that seems unfitting of the genre, but enemies and environments are carefully crafted around these limitations. What appears frustrating at first soon gives way to an appreciated depth, and once moving, shooting, rolling, active reloading, and stabbing have all been mastered, clearing missions is incredibly fun and rewarding. Combined with RPG elements that make the player feel progressively stronger with each upgrade, the game strikes a good balance between skill and advancement. And the game can be pretty tough when it wants to be, so both play an important role.
In fact, aside from structuring and a potentially frustrating opening hour, there are very little issues. The level design is generally good, though there are some stretches that seem to exist for the sole purpose of being annoying. Same goes for the bosses: they’re incredibly fun and interesting most of the time (there are, like, three goddamn dog tanks!), though two in particular feel like they waste too much of the player’s time. Aside from that though, everything works and the seemingly disparate components come together perfectly. The art is wonderful, the animation is absolutely top-notch, the world is charming and humorous, and the chiptune music is catchy and works as an acceptable throwback. It also boasts four player co-op, and that’s usually fun.
Again, the biggest factor here is whether or not you have a fondness for the particular era the setup is inspired by, and how much you enjoy “replaying” levels through the varying missions. For fans of both, Mercenary Kings is an excellent recommendation that’s easily worth over 24 hours of playtime.