My first hour or so with the Mercenary Kings preview was a rough one. I got hit a lot while navigating the twisting environments, ran out of time while trying to find my objective, couldn’t figure out what in the world I was doing with the guns, and overall just managed to screw up pretty much anything I could. I was annoyed and not having any fun, but then things started to click into place. Much like the games that it was inspired by, Mercenary Kings has no intention of explaining itself to you — preferring to teach the player by letting them just play the game. While it may make for some rough moments, once you learn the game’s various mechanics at your own pace you can start to have some fun. If you’ve come here looking for run and gun action, though, you might want to keep moving along.
Just from hearing about the game, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hearing that it was inspired by Metal Slug and Contra, I figured it would be a side-scrolling shooter. Maybe I’d run around and shoot some guys with my shirt off. Maybe there’d be some power-ups thrown around. Maybe big bosses would kill me and make me mad. Regular shooter stuff. I thought the only thing I was going to have to worry about was whether there was something in front of me to shoot, but the game actually has many different paths through it. It can get complicated enough that the game provided a nice little map for me to reference so I could figure out where I needed to go. I only figured that out after I’d gotten myself completely lost in the first level, though.
You won’t be lost in these areas for all that long, as you’ll be in the same three or four levels so many times that you’ll know them from memory. The game is divided into areas like jungles and cities, and within those areas there are three or four maps. Instead of just asking you to get through one end of those maps to the other, you’ll be given objective-based missions like killing so many snipers, rescuing hostages, or finding items. This means that you’ll be playing the same map over and over again with different objectives each time, so by the time you move onto the next area, you’ll be good and sick of the maps you’re currently playing in.
You don’t have to play through every level in an area, thankfully. You gain RP every time you complete an objective, and once you have enough you can move onto the next area. You might not want to do so too early, though, as you’ll want to get as many crafting items from each area as you can get in order to create the gear you’ll need to play through the harder areas. There are lots of item boxes hidden within each map, and you can collect tons of crafting materials just from playing through all the stage objectives. Move on too fast, and you just might not have the firepower to beat the newer, tougher enemies.
The various crafting systems in the game make repeating the same levels over and over easier to tolerate. To make any particular item, you’ll need a handful of different items like steel, wood, leather, acid, meat, and who knows what else. There is a ton of it, and every little thing you pick up is important to building armor, guns, mods, and knives. You’ll use everything over time, so pick up anything the enemies drop. Lead? Pick it up. Odds are good you can build a fish that is also a knife with it. Why you don’t automatically pick these items up when you walk over them is beyond me, though. There’s no reason not to grab everything in your path, so it would have been nice if you only had to walk over an item to grab it instead of having to hit the down button.
The crafting got me more engaged and excited any time I could build an item I wanted, I have to admit. I was looking forward to an armor increase for some time while I looked for that one last piece of fabric I needed, so I was a little more invested in the stages. It got to the point where I didn’t care about the objective, and was more interested in finding the crafting materials I was looking for. It turned the game into a bit of a scavenger hunt, something that bothered me a bit once I picked up on it. I realized that I was playing a shooter so that I could pore over the same old map to find some steel scraps – a weird revelation from a game that was supposedly inspired by Contra and Metal Slug. Shouldn’t I have been more interested in the gunplay?
Your guns are a big worry, but not from you looking for a decent power-up floating across the sky. Instead, your job is to craft parts of guns and then put them together into a great weapon. This is the most complex part of the game’s crafting system (as if you haven’t already spent enough time looking for copper and other crap to build the gun parts to begin with). The gun is separated into several pieces, giving you a base, stock, clip, muzzle, and sight to play around with. Adding new parts to any of these areas will change how the gun fires, how accurate it is, and its damage, but each of the parts is designed for a specific type of gun like a machine gun, magnum, shotgun, or handgun as well. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially since the game doesn’t even try to explain the interplay between these parts.
This is a point where some explanation would have been nice, because certain gun parts have an effect beyond what their stats dictate. As an example, if you stick a machine gun clip onto a magnum thinking it will give you thirty-two magnum-strength shots that are fired at a quick rate, you’ll be wrong. Certain aspects of guns don’t play well with each other, and in the aforementioned case it decreases the magnum damage down to machine gun damage. It’s hard to say which part trumps the other as there wasn’t any indication in the part’s base stats, and the game doesn’t exactly offer you any explanation.
The worst part is that you’ll find that out after you bought the part. From what the game was telling me, the magnum base was going to do 800 damage compared to the paltry 160 I was doing with my current gun. I assumed that meant I could stick the part onto my current gun and go to town, but I only found out how it interacted with all of my current parts when I tried to equip it. Considering it took me some time to find all the crafting materials I’d used to build that gun part, I was pretty mad about having wasted them. I could always use that one part to create a new gun, but I’d already spent so much time building my initial gun that I didn’t want to switch. Wasting that much effort from me was a huge issue, and Tribute Games needs to address this in some way.
I was willing to forgive this issue a bit when I was playing through the action parts of the game. Running through the multi-level environments and fighting soldiers is fun, especially once you start building better equipment for yourself. There was a decent amount of enemy variety to make the return trips through the stages more entertaining, but they also tended to be laid out in the exact same way in every stage, making those repeat trips a little dull after a while. To make those trips more challenging the developers have made the enemies respawn pretty much the instant they’re off screen. It does make the game harder, but it gets old really fast when you have to double back to avoid damage from a creature, only to respawn it in the process (Ninja Gaiden‘s birds, anyone).
The combat with the varied enemies feels a little clunky, if only because of the jumping. Jumping is affected by how long you hold the button, which gives you more control over your jump but also makes it harder to jump quickly. For example, a simple tap of the jump button will have you flipping over enemy fire in Contra, but won’t even get you moving in Mercenary Kings. This meant that I would get shot a lot of times when I tapped the button to jump out of the way, as my character would still be sitting there or only just be starting to jump when the bullet hit me. Also, the difference between ducking and standing can be pretty negligible in the game’s animations, so expect more cheap hits here. A low shot is only slightly lower than a shot at regular height, and it gets to the point where it’s not even worth trying to duck.
I counteracted that issue by building a gun that fired so quickly that I often killed things before they got to me. The nice part about the weird gun crafting system is that you can build something that plays to your strengths. I like to spray bullets over the screen rather than take specific shots, so I built a machine gun with as many high-damage and bleed damage parts as I could get. When you do something like this the gun crafting system can be pretty appealing, and it did add more fun to the game at that point.
You have a decent amount of hit points to get through each stage, and also have med packs to help get you through. Dying means having to go back to the closest medical building in the level and losing some of the reward for beating that level, so you’ll want to keep some med packs on you whenever you can. You can only die three times in any given stage before you fail it, but it just means starting it all over again so it’s not that bad. There is also a time limit in each stage, so if you don’t manage to complete your objectives before that runs out you’ll have to start the level over again as well. Many of the time limits I saw were pretty generous, though, so again, this wasn’t much of an issue.
Don’t expect to pause the action if you get a phone call while you’re playing. In an interesting turn, the game cannot be paused once you enter a stage. Bringing up a menu or map just overlays it on your screen, but the enemies and timer are still active. Most of the stages are short so it’s not always a problem, but if anything comes up that you just have to do, expect to come back to a mission failure screen. I know that there’s online multiplayer and that pausing may be an issue there, but there should be an option to pause when playing by myself. At least in multiplayer my friends could defend my character while I went to the bathroom (In theory. We are talking about people online, here).
Despite the repetitiveness of the stages and some issues with combat, it’s still satisfying to shoot the enemies. The art style adds a lot of flair to their death animations, something I’d come to expect from the folks behind Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The enemies are also very vibrant and animated, giving the game some visual appeal in its combat. The game seems more worried about making its enemies look good than in laying them out in a challenging way, though, as enemies don’t seem all that aware of your presence until you’re already shooting them. It was likely necessary to do so to create a non-linear route, as it would be awful to try charting a path while also getting dogged by enemies with Contra-level skills. Still, it makes the game a little too easy beyond the added difficulty of the clunky jumps.
Mercenary Kings is a game that shows promise, but claiming it is inspired by Contra and Metal Slug isn’t doing it any favors. It isn’t even in the ballpark of such classic side-scrolling shooters, but what it does try to do is carve out its own place. With its crafting, alternate routes, and intricate gun creation, it sets out to do its own thing that is worlds beyond what most games of this genre would try to do. If you’re the type of person who enjoys questing for items and exploring more than fast-paced gunplay, it’ll appeal to you. Just be prepared to play the game with a fair amount of patience in its current state, as the clumsy combat, dull maps, and constant collecting can make it quite a chore to play at times.