Mercenary Kings Review: Lovingly Rendered Ultraviolence
There’s a lot to love in Mercenary Kings, but a lot to be annoyed by as well.
On one side, there’s a beautiful art style, involved crafting system, entertaining cooperative play, and interesting bosses. On the other, there’s plodding grind, stiff movement, and lack of depth. Mercenary Kings is a game where the good outweighs the bad, and while it comes out ahead by virtue of the sheer joy and polish of pixelated murder, it’s not quite as fun as it could be.
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4 (Unreleased)
Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Released: July 22, 2013 (Early Access)
Mercenary Kings stars the titular mercenary company as they fight against the sinister forces of CLAW. There are more details to the plot, but this is not a game for sitting around and talking. This is a game about shooting, knifing, and exploding enemies. As such, all of the writing is totally forgettable; if you can remember what CLAW stands for, or what they have that Mercenary Kings wants, beyond the first section, you are probably paying too much attention.
Tribute knew that their plot was patently ridiculous and forgettable, so they went the smart route: all of the dialogue is incredibly dumb. Every character speaks as if they are in a 1980s or ’90s action flick like Commando. While this would be annoying in other games, it’s charming here, thanks in part to Paul Robertson’s action movie-inspired art. Mercenary Kings is a game that is self-aware of its plot flaws, and instead of trying to hide them, embraces the dumb wholeheartedly. (Something we really like here at Game Front.)
Of course, this wouldn’t really work without the beautiful pixel art. As always, Robertson’s work is stunning: characters have fluid, exaggerated animations, every element of a scene is finely detailed, and death animations are suitably dramatic and overblown. The character designs are simple, but they belie an understanding of pop culture action media that is impressive in its scope. The art is cartoony, but the bright colors, clean lines, and strong character compositions evoke those scenes of ridiculous destruction many of us are so fond of.
If there’s one complaint to be had here, it’s that not all objects conform to the standard “foreground, background” style of animation. Some objects look like you can pick them up, while others don’t. It’s a tad confusing, but not terribly so.
When mixed with the shooting, it’s easy to understand why Mercenary Kings has garnered a reputation as an “indie developer Metal Slug.” Your goals change in each level, but the core of the experience remains the same: run around and shoot dudes in a detailed, pixelated world. While not quite as focused on predictable, always-entertaining levels as its inspiration, Mercenary Kings nails the feeling of churning through hundreds of bad guys and watching their heads pop. Perhaps the one flaw — and it’s a bit of a small one, though instantly noticeable — is that the movement isn’t as fluid as it should be. While animations flow smoothly, jumping and running doesn’t, thanks to small pauses whenever actions are taken. It slightly disrupts the pace of the game and lends a feeling of “stuttering” to some character actions, but if you aren’t a major player of games like Metal Slug or Contra, you likely won’t notice it.