You are a member of an elite mercenary squad, the Kings, hired to take down an evil organization called Claw after they kidnapped the chief engineer of a new genetic project poised to change the world. The Mandrake Project uses the genetic material of small sentient plant-like creatures called Mandragora to greatly enhance the biologic makeup of humans. After the Kings arrive on the island, they are quick slaughtered by Claw with only two barely managing to survive. Being barely brought back from the brink of death thanks to the Mandrake Formula, it is time for them and their two new allies to have another crack at the Claw and rescue the engineer!
The storytelling sequences are handled in series of well-drawn, still-image cut scenes that convey the essence of the story very well. Also, in between missions, you will get humorous interactions between the characters further elaborating on the story and carrying it forward. These conversations are portrayed in almost the exact same way as the Metal Gear Solid series which is sure the appeal to the MGS fans out there. It is a great way to visually imply espionage, and it is utilized very well here thanks to the well-animated facial expressions of the characters you will encounter.
In this game, the story is not the main focus, but what they have done is certainly welcome. It is never overbearing, it takes itself lightly and it stays mostly in the background allowing you to focus on the gameplay while you are in the field. The storytelling side of the game generally only takes place in between missions.
Old-School Arcade Beats
Mercenary Kings is a game looking to draw on the nostalgia of old-school arcade fans, and the music encapsulates that idea perfectly. It is fast-paced and would really feel right at home on any of those classic run-and-gun games like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. This is a timeless style of video game music simply because it still works like a charm and hasn’t needed to change much over the years. In this game, I never found myself tiring of the tunes even after playing on the same stage for nearly four hours across the various mission in both single-player and online multiplayer. It keeps you engaged and wanting to keep on going.
Still, it would have been rather nice to see the developers go out of their way to innovate on the music rather than simply playing it safe. A good example of this is a JRPG I recently reviewed called The Longest 5 Minutes where the RPG scenes set in the past employ a classic, synth style soundtrack whereas the more cinematic present utilizes a live orchestra. I’m not saying that Mercenary Kings needed to do exactly that, but something along those lines certainly would have helped to set the game apart. As it is, the music won’t be something you will remember after moving on to another game, but it definitely does the job it sets out to do well enough.
Sound Effects and Voices
As you might expect, this game focuses on the macho side of things, and the voices don’t disappoint. If you can imagine how Macho Man Randy Savage sounds, then you can picture how the narrator sounds when he succinctly says “Mission Complete” or “Mission Failure”. Also, as you are running and gunning, your gunfire lets off with a satisfying pop, and human enemies let out humorous screams as they fall one after another.
Visuals and Performance
There is a surprising level of detail to be found in the visual design of Mercenary Kings. The characters have expressive and delightfully exaggerated facial animations while talking to each other in the MGS-style post-mission scenes. The environments are lush and full of small details which help to flesh out the world and give it life. Fauna has overgrown the walls on the jungle stage, and in an area where there is a barb wire fence in the foreground, the background has the silhouette of a building topped with barb wire. The stage design is very cohesive and uses atmospheric perspective to great effect. The background ends up feeling fairly deep despite this being a 2D side-scrolling game.
There are a fair number of unique enemies to encounter ranging from regular animals to be hunted to large bosses such as a man in a giant mech suit. These characters all look great and have some fun animations to go along with them; for example, killing a human opponent with a headshot results in their heads ballooning out and popping in a glorious explosion of blood. Obviously, this is done in such an over-the-top manner that it just comes off as funny instead of gruesome.
Mostly Stable Experience
I found this game to be mostly stable. Even with a lot of chaos going on with four players, I never experienced any frame drops and the resolution appears to be stable. When playing online, there was usually no lag, but it did happen on occasion. Also, at one point while I was in the HUB town, the game crash and closed the software. I am unsure at this point what caused it, but it is worth mentioning.
Decent HD Rumble Use
There is some good use of HD rumble in this title. It feels nice but could have been used to give physical notice to when certain actions should be taken. For example, there is a soft rumble during the entire reloading sequence. It remains constant which feels nice, but it could have been taken a step further. For example, when the bar is on the while side of the meter, the rumble would be very soft. While it is on the yellow part, it gets a little harder, and then there would be a noticeably harder vibration when the rumble is on the green spot. This is how HD rumble was used for picking locks in Skyrim, and it made the HD rumble feature my absolute favorite addition to the game. Had it been used similarly here, it would have been a feature that enhanced the experience. Instead, it just feels like a gimmick here. That’s not a bad thing by any means as it is always nice to see these features used, but it could have been utilized better.
At its core, this is a classic, side-scrolling, arcade, run-and-gun game, and it doesn’t shy away from those roots. The action is fast paced as you run around aiming up, down, left or right while shooting down throngs of enemies charging at you. As you roam the map, you will quickly notice that enemy positions are generally set which allows you to learn the stages well and predict what is approaching at any time. Just be aware that the instant you leave the screen where an enemy was which you just killed, the enemy will respawn. This can be especially annoying when you had just taken down a tough opponent then have to fight them again as you backtrack.
Large and Open Levels
The levels are all very large and open ended. Depending on what mission you are doing, you will have a different starting point and might not even need to go to certain other areas on the map. Other times, you will find that you need to traverse the entire stage to complete your objectives. Your missions are always set on a timer which encourages players to stay on track, but it is possible for you to wander off into a part of the stage you don’t need to be on. That isn’t a problem though thanks to the handy map which you can toggle at any time by simply pressing the minus button.
Each level has numerous missions for you to play which can be very time consuming to play through all of them. As mentioned before, the enemy locations are generally set regardless of which mission you are doing, so it runs the risk of getting repetitive after you have played through the same stage so many times. When you are talking to the colonel to get a mission, you will see that they are separated by your military rank. Each rank represents a different stage, and there are a total of 16 stages including some extras. It just takes a while to unlock them. What makes it very enjoyable to go through multiple times is the ability to play with other people thanks to both local and online multiplayer. I spent just under four hours playing through all of missions of the first level of the game.
Excellent Local and Online Multiplayer
You are able to load up to four profiles for local multiplayer when you are in the home menu of the game, and this works absolutely fantastically. You also have the option to play this title with split Joycon, so don’t worry if you lack a second full controller. This game is perfectly suited for multiplayer. Being able to team up with your friends is always an enjoyable experience, and it is fun being able to run through the stages slaughtering people together. Additionally, if you are doing missions which have goals on distant parts of the map, you can coordinate your actions to complete the missions in the fastest times possible. Unfortunately, there are no leader boards in this game, but it does at least keep track of your completion times for each stage.
Online Multiplayer Has Some Balancing Issues
When you don’t have someone nearby and want to be able to play with other people, it isn’t a problem in Mercenary Kings because it offers some fairly decent online multiplayer. All you need to do is talk to a specific character in the HUB town, and you can choose whether to play online with friends or in a public room. The game runs fairly well online with a little occasional lag but not enough to harm the experience. However, there was one problem I found with the online experience in this time.
If you want to play in a public room, it is not possible to choose to be the host. Most of the time, you will just be dropped into another person’s world. If you want to play through your campaign online with other people, then you will be at the mercy of the pairing system regarding whether you will be the host or not. By the same token, when you are put into another player’s world, you will not have a choice regarding the stages played, and you can be taken to any stage in general. This presents a few problems.
There is a careful balancing system set in place with this title regarding the kinds of rewards you get for completing stages. When you start the game, you will be receiving around 500 gold as your rewards, but by the end you will be receiving in the upwards of 30,000 gold. When you play online there is no way to choose to play with other people at a similar level as you in the game, and you could literally end up anywhere depending on the host. I had just started the game and hopped online only to be taken to one of the last stages in the game. I was completely under leveled but ended up getting a reward that kind of broke the early experience. It is nice to have the option to do this for players wanting to skip the early grind, but there will be many players turned off by not being able to just play with other low level players. You can drop out any time you want, so you aren’t forced to play through the stage once it starts. Then again, do you really want to be the person who drops out and leaves the others hanging?
Another issue that stems from being unable to choose to play with other players at a similar point in the game as you is that you might be the host at the start of the game, and you simply don’t have the option to play on higher-level stages. You choose to play a low-level area to progress in your campaign, but you have people on your team who are a much higher level than you. You go into the stage but are simply unable to do anything because the high-level people are just running through it like it is nothing. This just hurts the experience for a beginner who wants to experience the game and not be rushed through it by veterans. By that same line of thought, not every veteran is going to want to be paired up with low-level players and have to run through the early levels which they have already played to death. It is possible to exit that world and try again until you get put with a team containing other people at your level, but you could waste a lot of time doing that since it is basically the luck of the draw.
There is one bright side from the online being so open-ended; you never have to wait long before being matched up with other people. I generally found a room to play in within one minute each time I searched. I was pretty impressed by that considering that this is a fairly recently released indie title. Also, I’m not saying that the online is bad. Quite the contrary. The online is really fun, and I enjoyed greatly being able to play with other players. In fact, the majority of the time I spent with this title was online, and most of its replay value stems from the online and local multiplayer aspect of it. The problem is in the balancing and lack of pairing options.
Getting Stronger In Mercenary Kings
I mentioned before that you might be paired up with players at a higher “level” than you, but you do not gain experience and level up in the traditional way in this game. To get stronger here, you will need to collect materials from fallen enemies such as leather and steel. Then, in the HUB town, you can talk to NPCs to use your materials and money to fashion new weapons and abilities.
The weapon crafting system is surprisingly deep. There are six parts of your gun which you can customize: the receiver, barrel, magazine, sight, stock and ammunition. Within each of these categories, there are dozens of different options to choose from, and you will unlock many more as you progress through the game. Each part will change the appearance and stats of your gun, and the ammunition can give you special elemental effects. When you play online with other people, you will probably never come across another player using the exact same gun as you because there are just so many options.
Something else you can build are mods which sort of act like passive abilities. These mods generally come with a positive effect and a negative one. For example, the Gunner mod is excellent for players just using regular ammunition. It increases your magazine size and gives you the chance of shooting two bullets at once while only using one from your magazine, but it decreases elemental damage by 50%. If you aren’t using any elemental ammunition, then you have nothing to worry about! You can equip two mods at once, so players have the ability to mix and match them as they please.
Time just flies by when you are playing this game. There are a ton of missions for each level, and since each mission can take you anywhere from 2-20 minutes to complete, you will spend a lot of time with this game. Especially when you are soloing it. Add in the hectic multiplayer, and you are looking at a ton of replay value with this one. The bad side about that is you will be playing the same levels over and over again as you play through the campaign unlocking them, so the game starts to feel a little repetitive at periodic times throughout your play through.
Mercenary Kings will be getting a limited physical release courtesy of Limited Run Games. It is currently unknown when this will be available, but you will be able to buy it from one of these outlets. Just be aware that none of them currently have it listed. I will update this review to let you know once the release date has been announced.
Great Visual Design
16 Large and Open-Ended Stages
Online Play Works Well and is Generally Enjoyable
Mix and Match Hundreds of Gun Parts
Online Pairing Can Be Unbalanced
Missions Can Get Repetitive