By: Mike Chen
Despite being in the age of near-lifelike graphics and animation, there’s still a charm to games that use cartoonish sprites. Sometimes these are a function of budget, but most of the time, these are conscious style choices to echo retro game design. Mercenary Kings falls into the latter category, though it brings in several modern game elements for a mash-up of both old and new.
Since this is a throwback shooter, you’d think controls would be simple and efficient. While basic interaction through the face buttons (shoot, jump, roll, melee) are fine, inventory management (R1) is clunky. It wouldn’t be so bad if it either, A) defaulted back to your gun immediately, or B) didn’t transpire in real time. But because of those two issues, you’re left vulnerable. I get that the developers wanted retro difficulty levels, but this has nothing to do with level design or resource management, and it can lead to cheap deaths.
Ancillary info is available through other buttons. The touchpad brings up the map and is also used for scrolling through finger motions (the right analog works as well). R2 brings up a list of quick communication that you can use with your partners.
Mercenary Kings is obviously a throwback to 8- and 16-bit style games, and the game’s aesthetics are designed lovingly in pixelart. Animation is sprite based, and in general characters are bold and bright (though the amount of pixelated manga-style cleavage is kind of overdone). The color palette is definitely broader than an authentic NES/SNES/Genesis title, making this look like an enhanced throwback. Similarly, the soundtrack plays chiptunes while modern samples are used to support the songs.
In short, it’s a blend of old and new, with it being 75 percent throwback and 25 percent modernized. However, none of the modernizations take away from the retro style, and nice touches (such as the enthusiastic voiceovers) are reminiscent of arcade classics like Bad Dudes. The only area where it falls short is the map, which is halfway between ugly and incomprehensible. And since enemies can attack while you’re studying the map, that’s a major drawback.
In a mash-up summary, Mercenary Kings offers Metal Slug-style shooting with Bionic Commando-style levels and a Borderlands-esque weapon/equipment mod system. As a mercenary, you and up to three other players (either local or online) fight a variety of bad guys like old-school shooters, though some enemies look like they’re out of Mega Man. Gameplay is as much about exploration as combat, but there’s no parkour or bionic arm for traversal (though zip lines are located throughout the environments).
Aiming is a bit of an issue, since there’s no diagonal shooting. This can be extremely limiting, particularly when enemies can fire off at all sorts of angles. With enemy respawns, this constricts just how fluidly you can fight off waves. In particular, if you’re playing solo, you’re going to be in trouble a lot. Guns and gun mods open up the world to tweaks like size of bullets, fire speed, spread, etc. but you’ll have to fight through the rough patch of the early levels to get there.
By intention, there is a reload cooldown time once you empty a clip. This factors into your strategy and makes for some frantic moments. The game is designed for multiple people working together, and these types of limitations encourage drop-in play. Strangers can be matched with your play session, ensuring that you’ll always have people to join your squad (assuming the servers are filled).
That’s the essential gameplay experience, and with 100-plus levels, there’s plenty to do. However, that presents one of the game’s biggest problems: an overall lack of focus. There’s plenty of variety in missions, but much of it feels like grinding to acquire materials and objects for weapons upgrade. Unlike Borderlands, the narrative isn’t strong enough to get you from A to B, and the longevity of the game really depends on how much you enjoy the core concept.
While cool in concept and with plenty of enjoyable old-school shout outs, repetition and some questionable control decisions muddy the Mercenary Kings experience. However, for those that love retro shooting with modern options, as well as a robust multiplayer experience, there are nearly limitless gameplay hours here.