Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the video game tie-in to the movie of the same name, was one of the biggest surprises of last generation. Not only did it follow the comic instead of the movie, but it was a tie-in product that was great and in many ways, ended up better than the movie its release was supposed to simply supplement. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World had a few problems, but for a first effort, Tribute Games knocked it out of the park.
Can the studio make lightning strike twice with Mercenary Kings, another entry in the studio's catalog of retro games with a modern feel? As April's PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection release for the PlayStation 4, is Mercenary Kings worth downloading and playing?
A Familiar Art Style
The first thing you're going to notice about this game right off the bat is the sprite work of Paul Robertson. Known for short films such as Kings of Power 4 Billion and Pirate Baby's Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006, Paul Robertson is a master in the field of pixel art and animation and his style is very distinctive. Mercenary Kings isn't his first foray into games, as he was the artist in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?, among a few others.
Without a doubt, the art of Paul Robertson is the high point of Mercenary Kings. Characters are well-animated, colorful, and without a doubt visually memorable. Everything from your compatriots to your enemies is dripping with that familiar Paul Robertson art style and it only takes one look at the trailer to see how amazing this art style is. If you're a fan of pixel art, this game could very well be your Mona Lisa.
It's a shame that can't be said about the rest of the game, however.
Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None
Mercenary Kings is a cross between Metal Slug, Monster Hunter and Borderlands. Yes, that's a weird combination. No, it doesn't necessarily work but for the right gamer, you'll be hooked. It's just the percentage of “right gamers” is going to be very, very low. Let's break down the basic elements of Mercenary Kings to give you a better idea of how this combination works.
The comparison to Metal Slug is obvious in the basics as both games feature 2-D run n' gun action. You'll take control of either King or Empress (both play the same) as you shoot, jump and roll through level after level. However, while Metal Slug was a linear affair in how you traversed the maps, maps in Mercenary Kings are rather large and end once a set objective is completed, such as rescuing all hostages or killing a boss. In Mercenary Kings, you'll always have one gun, one knife and up to 4 sub-items, such as health packs or grenades, that you select before each mission. Picking the proper loadout before a mission is important but you can always figure out what you need by carefully examining the mission text.
The comparison to Borderlands is found in the array of weapons you have at your disposal thanks to the game's in-depth crafting system. While tons of unique weapons can be made (such as a toilet gun and a fish knife), it's also possible to mix and match the different weapon parts to create your own individualized guns. Different ammunition types are available as well so it's possible to create a toilet gun that shoots flaming bullets or a trombone gun that spews acid. The crafting system is varied and interesting and the weapons quickly progress from normal weapons to ridiculous, light-hearted weapons of death.
However, to make any of these weapons you'll need the appropriate items and it's here that the comparisons to Monster Hunter can be made. Items can be found from chests and defeated enemies, with enemies having both common and rare drops and, as you can guess, it takes quite a bit of grinding to get the rare drops, especially from the bosses. Luckily, missions can be replayed as many times as you want if you're looking for a particular crafting item but after your 15th try at getting a particular item you might not be feeling all that lucky. While your character can be equipped with mods that increase the chance of finding rare materials, it didn't seem to help all that much.
To top it off, the game channels a little bit of Gears of War with the Active Reload system. When you reload, a bar appears above your character's head and reloading while the slider is in the green gives your shots extra damage. It's a fun mechanic and works well in the game and, quite honestly, we're surprised more games don't copy the Active Reload system from Gears of War.
On paper, these ideas should work, but unfortunately Mercenary Kings makes one too many small flaws and the whole process breaks down.
And The Problems Begin
The first thing you're likely to notice about Mercenary Kings is that the controls just feel off, for lack of a better word, mainly due to how the game handles jumping. In most games, pressing the “Jump” key results in your character instantly jumping. In Mercenary Kings, however, there is a small delay between when you press the button and when your character actually jumps. This is caused by your character crouching down before he/she jumps. You get used to it after awhile but it's strange that the developers opted to include this mechanic. It wouldn't be so bad if some of the levels require a moderate amount of platforming finesse.
The second thing you'll notice is the game's time limit. Each mission has a time limit and at first, you'll be completing missions with tons of time left on the clock. A little further into the game, you'll come to realize that the time limit is constraining and you'll be battling the clock just as much as the enemies. The time limit feels unnecessary and the game doesn't feel better for having included it.
The third thing you're likely to notice, at about the two hour mark, is the amount of repetition found in the game. At first, you'll think it's great that you're able to choose from a few different missions at a time, thinking that the game is giving you choice and variety; then you realize that all of the missions take place at different points on mostly the same map and are populated by the same enemies. While the map itself and the enemies change when you increase in rank and unlock a new set of missions, by the time you move out of the forest and into the city a heavy layer of fatigue will have already set in. By the time I reached Rank 2, I was already nearing heavy levels of boredom with the game, as it just seemed to drag on and on. The gathering missions are the worst.
In no particular order after, you may notice these other flaws:
- Enemies that almost instantly respawn when you leave the screen. This is a giant pain in the ass, as enemies respawn far too quickly and backtracking ends up being an even bigger chore than it should be.
- Bosses that run away after a set amount of time, at which point you must explore the level again in order to fight them again. Luckily, they don't regenerate their health but it's still a pain to find them. It's a shame this mechanic was attached to them because the bosses themselves are big, colorful and a lot of fun to fight otherwise.
- An awful, awful map system.
- In order to craft weapons, you're going to need to grind a lot of materials. This means replaying levels over and over again. While I personally didn't mind this (I love Monster Hunter), I know many gamers hate this as they feel its an outdated game mechanic.
- The game frequently crashes, and the music and sound effects frequently skip. Also, the music itself is kind of awful and you'll be hearing the same track plenty of times as you play the same levels.
The Silver Lining
Even with all the negatives listed above, Mercenary Kings comes alive when played with friends. The game features both local and online co-operative play for up to four players, though make sure you have a big television for local four player co-op play.
In co-op, players are free to explore the map either alone in opposite directions or together as a group with all found minerals or completed objectives share among the group. The large maps that are so redundant and repetitive in single player come into their own in multiplayer, as you have four different players exploring four different corners of the map while sharing items. Suddenly, the grind from collecting items isn't so bad when you're getting them 4x as fast and the time limit doesn't seem so restrictive when you're completing objectives 4x as quick.
Even with just one other person at your side, the flaws in this game become a lot more manageable. While the game can be fun in single player if you have the right mindset for it and can overlook its flaws, if you have three other friends it becomes a blast.
The PlayStation 4 Advantage
In this case, it's unclear if there actually is a PlayStation 4 advantage with Mercenary Kings. For starters, the game just doesn't seem like a natural fit for the DualShock 4. Inventory management feels awkward and the map, which uses the touchpad to scroll, is far too sensitive. We've seen other games like Blacklight: Retribution and Awesomenauts Assemble, that were once PC exclusive themselves, take to the DualShock 4 naturally so we know it can be done.
The load times are also a bit long, considering the power of the PlayStation 4 and the fact the game itself isn't that much of a resource hog. There is a lengthy load when the game starts and in-between each mission is another five to ten second load. When you see other 2D games like SteamWorld Dig and Rayman Legends ship with minimal to no loading time, I'm left scratching my head as to why Mercenary Kings takes so long to load.
Mercenary Kings is the very definition of cult classic. A certain segment of gamers is going to love the game, and that segment is gamers who can't get enough of games like Monster Hunter (which is a small number of gamers in every region but Japan); however, for everyone else, the game just isn't going to click. That's okay – not every game is going to resonate with every gamer. What isn't okay is the number of questionable choices and bugs the game has.
Was it really necessary to make bosses run away? Do enemies really need to respawn so quickly? Is there any reason weapons take so many materials to craft outside of forcing the player to grind (or forcing players into multiplayer)? Why are the loading times so long and the crashes so frequent?
At the end of the day, Mercenary Kings needed a bit more time in the oven. It feels like the game was rushed just to be a part of the PlayStation Plus IGC program and certain aspects of the game feel like they could have been tightened up prior to release.
We can't stress this enough: If you're someone who has put hundreds of hours into Monster Hunter and love grinding, you'll love Mercenary Kings if you can overlook the flaws, especially if you bring a few friends. If you love the template this game borrows from, go ahead and add an extra two points to the score and pick it up. The game is worth downloading while it's free for the month of April but after that? The $19.99 price tag is a hard one to swallow if you're on the fence, especially with a game this polarizing.
Final Score: 6/10
Article by - Joshua Phillips
Insert Date: 4/10/2013