Mercenary Kings Review: Lovingly Rendered Ultraviolence
The comparison to Metal Slug isn’t entirely accurate, though. Mercenary Kings also pulls inspiration from the grind-focused monster slaughterhouse known as Monster Hunter. Where Metal Slug is all about simple, sweet arcade action, Mercenary Kings goes into a little more depth. Levels are more open, and you must navigate your way around instead of just going left to right. The inventory is a little more complicated, as you can bring two secondary items with you (as well as your radio and gun). Weapons have to be reloaded, and this reloading uses an active timing bar similar to Gears of War. Enemies drop materials, which are used to customize and craft things for your character. You can freely replay any mission to get more money or materials for expanding your arsenal, and even “story” missions can be replayed multiple times to fight bosses or get sweet loot.
In a way, this is Mercenary Kings’ greatest strength and its largest flaw. Rather than focusing solely on skill, like Metal Slug, there is a persistent aspect to Mercenary Kings that encourages continual play. While only the most dedicated and obsessed of players may play Metal Slug over and over again, Mercenary Kings has no such issues. Levels are learned and explored faster on each playthrough, as missions share level layouts; if a mission uses a particular map, you can guarantee boxes and enemies will be in the exact same spots (except for the small changes necessary for the mission’s completion). This emphasis on non-linearity, persistence, and mission-based structure means that Mercenary Kings is the perfect game to sit down with for a few minutes and play. Unlike other run-and-gun games, you don’t have to lay down a significant time investment for each play session. It’s the perfect game to take with you on a netbook when traveling around on business.
The addition of persistence and replaying old areas under new objectives also leads to Mercenary Kings’ potentially most frustrating aspect: grind. If you care to expand your customization options beyond the few choices garnered by playing the game normally — which you don’t necessarily have to do, as Mercenary Kings can be beaten with the starting pistol — Mercenary Kings is a very, very grind-heavy game. You need money, you need materials, and you need lots of each. Unless you stick with your exact choices all the way through, you will inevitably need to grind missions in order to get the materials you need. And even if you choose not to go back for some grinding, you will find yourself going through the motions in the same levels, with slightly shifted objectives, because level layouts are reused regularly. While the level non-linearity is greatly appreciated, some greater variety in available maps would’ve been welcomed. However, you do get a new selection of levels each time you “advance in rank,” so you’ll have new places to explore every 10-15 levels.
Likewise, the customization system that creates this need to grind is a “wide but shallow” situation. You are given the ability to craft a gun much like you would in Blacklight Retribution: select parts such as receiver, barrel, and magazine, and slap them together. While this make for interesting looking guns, and some guns are truly unique in both appearance and function, there’s far more in the way of small stat changes than dramatic differences. You aren’t likely to notice huge differences between the Patrol Rifle barrel and the Recon Rifle barrel, for example. It’s a problem reminiscent of what goes on in Borderlands — tons of tiny stat changes that don’t have a big affect on the actual game. Despite this, though, I found myself trying out all sorts of different weapon combinations, so while it could definitely be deeper, it’s not outright terrible.
While grinding through these areas, I found myself wishing for a little more impact on the world. Repeating areas in games isn’t that bad if those areas change or give you greater choice. For example, if I could eventually clear an area by beating it enough times — thus putting an occupation force from my mercenary detachment there to gather resources — I would’ve been perfectly fine with the grind. If I could capture some of the CLAW forces and add them to my company — in a manner reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker — I would be ecstatic in playing the old areas. The issue isn’t that there’s repetitiveness, but more that your actions don’t feel meaningful enough. It’d be great if missions and areas inflicted greater changes on your play, and likewise, you had a larger impact on those areas.
Of course, if you play Mercenary Kings in co-op, this won’t bother you too much. Nothing will, actually; every flaw of Mercenary Kings slips from notice when playing co-op. It’s exceedingly easy to grind in a four-player group, as any resources picked up by one person go to everyone, so you can split up and take different farming areas. Enemies obviously go down a lot faster, as do bosses, and exploration to find that end boss is a lot faster. The joy of fanning out as a group and quickly annihilating everything in your path is so great it may as well be tangible, and sitting down with your friends to do a few missions together is the definition of a good time. If you need proof, just watch how Mitch and James enjoy Mercenary Kings in their Indie Gems video.
Mercenary Kings is a game that has its fair share of flaws. Customization isn’t deep enough, your impact on the world isn’t large enough, and the variety of levels isn’t wide enough. However, if you are fine with the grind, you’ll find a game with plenty of charm, wit, and character. Co-op is a blast, the visual style is the most fluid and detailed you’ll get short of Metal Slug, and the core concept of “shoot dudes a lot” is executed extremely well. It’s also going to continue improving, as it’s still in Early Access; the developers have shown that they intend to add quite a bit more — although no significant changes to the overall structure of the game seem to be planned — as evidenced by this post showing their design notebook. Just be sure you’re okay with the long-term time investment in both playing and waiting for new features.
- Incredible pixel animation and art
- Fun run-and-gun action
- Interesting gun part customization
- Enjoyable co-op
- Grind heavy
- Slight stiffness to combat
- Shallow customization options
Final Score: 75/100
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