Starting off life as a Kickstarter title from developer Tribute Games, known for its downloadable beat ’em up Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Mercenary Kings brings a fun side-scrolling shoot ’em up with plenty of missions and great co-op action to the PlayStation 4.
The storyline doesn’t take itself seriously, which fits in with the game’s art-style and humorous dialog. Players are sent to Mandragora Island to stop the evil military organization called CLAW. Upon arrival your team is massacred, but using an experimental science through the Mandragora plant players are brought back to life, and set off to take control of the island and defeat CLAW.
For those who remember old school shoot ’em up Metal Slug will instantly recognize the resemblance between the two, though the differences quickly become apparent. Graphically, Mercenary Kings is represented in a 16-Bit style with jagged edges and catchy arcade music. Each character has their own unique sprite animations and the studio didn’t hold back on the sheer quality and variety of enemy and environmental animations. Each level and character is full of small details that Tribute Games has masterfully crafted.
The concept is quite simple: shoot and collect everything. Players are able to crouch, run, jump, and roll to dodge enemy attacks, as well as shoot straight ahead and upwards in order to take out aerial threats. The fact that you’re not able to blast away in any direction, forces you to stop and wait for enemies to appear in your firing line, which can be a little frustrating when enemies can shoot at you from any direction, thus forcing you to jump right into the danger zones to dispatch them.
The game sports a variety of missions, from rescuing hostages to capturing giant mech robots or simply gathering a number of items. With over a hundred missions there’s a lot of content to get through and, despite the repetition of locations, the range of customization options means that there’s various ways to play through each level.
The meat of the game comes from its weapon customization. Players are able to craft guns in six different categories. If you want to have an assault rifle with a sub-machine gun magazine and a sniper scope, for example, you can; each category changes the stats of your weapons from the ammunition clip, to the damage and the range that players can shoot before bullets start to scatter. Players can even change their ammunition type adding elemental stats and making their bullets bounce off walls. But it isn’t just simple gun customization options.
Tribute Games went out of its way to create some interesting combinations. As players progress they will discover that some unusual gun parts start to appear, from toilets to the bodies of cats and dragon skulls. At one point, we had a dragon skull for a muzzle and a toilet flusher for the scope, while carrying out fire and ice damage simultaneously. Suffice to say nobody, will have the same set of weapons.
In order to unlock more parts and customize their guns, players will have to collect loot that is dropped by enemies and found in cargo chests. When the required amount of components is found players will then need the money necessary to buy the parts to build their ultimate gun. Money is earned from completing missions, and each quest provides a set amount of money for completion, though players who accomplish the secondary objectives and secret objectives can earn extra loot and cash. After a while, old loot becomes less important as stronger weapon upgrades require rare loot. It would have been nice to be able to exchange our loot for other loot or even for money, but instead you’re forced to replay some missions to get the loot you want.
After each mission, players return to their camp. The camp itself is populated with a gunsmith that upgrades your guns, and a shop, where players are able to buy ration packs and grenades. The camp is populated with more personalities that allow you to customize your living quarters and change the color scheme of your character along with your character’s name. There’s also the opportunity to check out the game’s bestiary and enemy weaknesses.
The game supports both local and online co-op up to four players, so friends can loot and customize together, but playing in co-op is a double-edged sword; when loot is picked up all players will receive it, but it is important to know that each of the three lives players have per-mission is shared between players and the money collected at the end of the mission is split between players, thus making it harder to upgrade weapons and buy items.
Overall, Mercenary Kings does a great job of recreating the arcade feel of classic shoot ’em ups while mixing in modern-day mechanics to give a fresh feel. With phenomenal sprite animations, witty humor and addictive customization options over hundreds of levels, not to mention the addition of local and online co-op, it’s a no brainier for fans of shoot ‘em ups.