Tribute Games could not have picked a better name for their company. Their latest effort, Mercenary Kings, is the second title from the relatively young developer, with their first effort being Wizorb, an enjoyable Arkanoid/Breakout clone with the added twist of RPG elements. Mercenary Kings, on the other hand, pays tribute to classic run and gun shooters such as Metal Slug and Contra. And much like Wizorb, Mercenary Kings also does its best to make the old new again, by adding a considerable amount of depth through the careful use of design elements from other genres.
The actual game design of Mercenary Kings shares quite a lot with the Monster Hunter series. However, if you haven’t played the Monster Hunter games, I would say a Borderlands comparison might do as well. But you don’t really collect guns in Mercenary Kings, so much as build them. It’s still very much a “loot” focused game, but the loot is crafting materials, rather than the weapons themselves.
There are quite a few different guns that can be made in Mercenary Kings, and you can mix and match parts from the standard versions of each gun to create all sorts of fun combinations. The handle of a pistol, body of a shotgun, barrel of a sniper rifle, and magazine of a sub-machine gun? You can make it happen. It’s like a firearms-themed version of Greek mythological creatures. Of course, that weapon might not work very well, but it is an option, and experimenting with weapon builds can be a lot of fun. Later in the game, you’ll even be able to build new types of ammo, and add elemental properties to your weapons.
Mercenary Kings borrows liberally from a large number of sources. There are the human enemies and the hostage rescue mechanic that heavily recall the Metal Slug series of games, robotic enemies that are clearly influenced by Mega Man X titles, and gameplay elements that also feel like a Mega Man game. The “active reload” mechanic taken from Gears of War is also worth mentioning.
As much fun as Mercenary Kings has with its influences, they pale in comparison to the number of classic video game references, and other assorted nods to pop culture, that can be found throughout the game. I won’t spoil any of the gun descriptions for you, other than to say that when I found a weapon that managed to simultaneously reference both a cult horror movie and a largely forgotten action game developed by Blizzard, I was highly amused. Tribute Games, indeed.
The presentation is also quite fitting for a game that feels very much like a love letter to the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming consoles. The retro music pulls you back to a time when most game soundtracks were about melody over atmosphere, and the pixel art designs add a great deal of charm and character.
Each portion of Mercenary Kings is broken up into a series of ranks, and each rank contains a number of missions. Usually, the missions in each rank only use two or three of the game’s levels, but the objectives are different, and you’ll be visiting different areas of each level depending on that particular mission. Enemy type and placement can also change, especially when a new rank takes you back to an older level. There can definitely be a little bit of an “I’ve done this before” feeling to some of the missions, but that can be a good thing later on, when a mission may give you only 15 minutes to find eight hostages.
Yes, each mission has a timer associated with it, which honestly will be a turn-off for some players. Thankfully, I didn’t mind it at all, due to some smart decisions by the developer. The timer is actually a fairly important part of the game design. It keeps you moving, and prevents you from exploring sections of the level that aren’t part of your mission, which keeps them fresh for later. It also allows you to play the game in short bursts, while being aware of the maximum amount of time that each session will take you. And most importantly, no failed mission is ever wasted time. You get to keep all of the crafting materials that you collected, regardless of the mission’s success or failure.
Although I will defend the mission timer, there were several minor flaws and frustrating design choices that kept me from enjoying the game as much as I could have. Aside from a bit of audio or video skipping here and there, my main issue with the game revolved around multiplayer, which allows you to play the campaign online or locally with up to three other players.
All players play on the same level at the same time, but when playing online it can be really easy to get too far behind or ahead of other players, which can quickly leave you lost and missing the point of playing multiplayer in the first place. There are no on-screen directional indicators as to where your friends might be. Each player does appear on the map screen, but there’s no mini-map, and looking at the map screen happens in real time, whether in single or multiplayer. You might get an idea of where your friends are, but they’ll also probably be moving further and further away from you while you’re attempting to locate them. Add in the fact that certain equipment loads can cause players to move much faster or much slower, and you’ll have to work harder than you should need to, in order to keep everyone together.
Perhaps the layout of the levels is why on-screen indicators were not included. Entering a door in Mercenary Kings frequently teleports you to another part of the level, so it would be pretty confusing to see a friend enter a door a bit to the right of you, and then, all of a sudden, appear down and to the left. But even considering that fact, I really feel that just pointing you towards the last door each friend entered would have helped a lot.
Despite all this, the game is still a lot of fun to play with friends, and splitting up can actually be quite beneficial in some missions. This is especially true when it comes to material gathering or multiple hostage rescues. And since I’m sure you’re wondering, yes, one player finding and collecting a material automatically gives the same thing to every player.
Beyond the multiplayer, there are a couple of other little design quirks that range from possibly annoying, to potentially rage inducing. Perhaps the worst of which is the fact that bosses will sometimes leave in the middle of a fight, seemingly at random, forcing you to track them down again to continue the fight. Occasionally, they’ll even leave right as you’re about to start fighting them. At first I assumed that this was happening because I wasn’t beating them quickly enough or had lost too much health, but a couple of times I noticed it happening after fighting a boss for literally about 10 to 15 seconds.
While the idea of bosses that can relocate isn’t bad in and of itself, some transparency as to how this particular game mechanic works would have done a lot to help the situation. It’s a somewhat disappointing aspect of an otherwise highly enjoyable experience. Thankfully though, the bosses don’t seem to regain health, so when you find them again, at least you’ll be able to resume the fight right where you left off. Some missions also feature bosses that never relocate, which is nice to see.
Going into this title, I expected to get a four-player shooter with some crafting and exploration elements thrown in for variety. And yes, that could be a basic description of the game, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Mercenary Kings is more than the sum of its perfectly pilfered parts. Despite all the influences, it’s a very unique title that combines elements from several specific games and genres to create an experience of its own.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed my visit to the world of Mercenary Kings, and I’d be happy to return there someday.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us.
Despite some questionable design decisions, there's a good time to be had with Mercenary Kings. Loads of content, great presentation values, and an addictive mission structure will keep you coming back for more.