The 2D genre has been seeing a lot of unique takes lately and last year Mercenary Kings made waves on both the consoles and a Steam release. Combining several different mechanics the game delivered an interesting taste at adding depth to the shoot-em-up, but this taste left me wanted more than what the game delivered.
The story is that the group called the Mercenary Kings has been called in to free an island from an evil group called CLAW, who is looking to use a super solider formula to take over the world. After a failed attack, the Kings are left with two field agents who must mount an offensive to take back the island.
The first thing you’ll notice is the 2D art style which is very reminiscent of the Metal Slug series, with characters and backgrounds having a great detail to them. The gameplay’s foundation is a 2D shoot-em-up — You’ll run around shooting random enemies while making your way through the level.
But where Mercenary Kings goes a different way is in its progression model and how the game feels more like playing a 2D Monster Hunter. From your home base you’ll choose a mission to go on, with them grouped by difficulty. Each area of the game is full of enemies, items and a variety of obstacles to keep you from completing the mission.
Missions range from killing specific enemies, finding resources, saving people and more. Beat enough missions in a difficulty group will unlock the next group which will feature new enemy types and resources to find. The resources is where character improvements come into play, as crates and enemies will drop items that can be used back at the home base.
Your “gun” is really made up of a bunch of different parts that you can build and mix and match. So you could have a sniper rifle receiver, with a machine gun magazine and a shotgun barrel firing acid bullets. You’ll use both items and money you earn for missions to craft these parts with the game breaking down your machination’s stats to let you know how it will work in the field.
The levels themselves are really just sprawling maps that the missions will fit into.
Eventually you’ll fight bosses who can appear at specific points in the level with these massive things having the possibility to drop rare items.
Bosses hearken back to the old days of the genre, challenging the player to avoid attacks while being able to get a few in. If you take too long to kill a boss, they will escape to another point in the level and you’ll be forced to track it down.
Massive bosses, the potential for insane weapons, all wrapped up with an impressive 2D art style makes Mercenary Kings sound like a win. But with the game being pulled between the simplistic shooting and the overarching Meta progression, things didn’t quite work out that well.
The main problem with Mercenary Kings is that it plays its hand immediately and then doesn’t really go anywhere. The levels themselves lack any real personality despite the strong 2D aesthetic and your only purpose for going through them is to rush to whatever mission you have to do.
Exploring them, I was hoping to find unique missions, special enemies and super rare items, something to give me a reason to actually go through these places. Regular enemy types were very basic in their attack pattern and design and the only times I was hit was when I got so bored that I started rushing through.
The basic enemy attack pattern also carries through to the bosses which despite their variety were all about basic pattern recognition. Don’t expect to find the outlandish fights that you would see in a Metal Slug game or the complex battles of a Monster Hunter game.
The weapon crafting which was the highpoint of the game also peters out as once you find the base type of weapon you’ll like; you will keep using that type as opposed to anything else. I would have liked more variety with the weapons and maybe some more options for customization like creating new special weapons.
The developers also made a mistake in terms of crafting armor which is your only means of increasing your health permanently.
In order to improve armor, the game has a linear progression of armor upgrades tied to different resources. Unlike with weapons that just unlock new weapon upgrades through progressing in the game.
What happened to me was that I missed the items needed for upgrading and I ran into an issue where I had more than enough materials for the higher upgrades, but not enough for the one I was stuck at. Forcing me to either grind lower mission for resources or not get any more health upgrades.
By the time I completed the first three difficulty groups of missions, I found myself getting bored with Mercenary Kings. And when a 2D shoot-em-up becomes boring, something is definitely wrong there. Later difficulty missions do add in new enemies and bosses, but they still continued the pattern of basic attacks and were quickly killed by my overpowered gun.
It wasn’t until I reached the last quarter of the mission list that things started to get interesting. New enemy types showed up, bosses with different patterns appeared and the gun parts got more diverse. But the only reason I stuck it out at that point was that I just skipped all the optional missions to blaze through to each new difficulty set. Another major gameplay killer is telling the player that “the real game begins at X,” and Mercenary Kings does take a bit too long to get going.
I should also bring up the fact that the controls and camera were a little clunky. You can only fire in the cardinal directions and attempting to duck while moving just causes the character to keep walking. While you can use the right analog stick to adjust the camera, I ran into parts where the camera would not move and I had to move through a transition blind.
Another issue is that the command to do the dodge roll is both tied to double pressing either left or right, or by pressing B. The problem is that it was so finicky that I was having it go off when I was just pushing in a direction just to move out of the way of something and instead rolled to my doom.
The game’s committed jumping schemes also cause some problems with the defense part of an action game.
Your jump height doesn’t seem to be high enough for dodging over the majority of enemy attacks and the game seems to want to make you use the dodge roll maneuver.
However the timing and margin for error seemed very small as I had cases where I rolled and went through an attacking enemy and other times where I collided mid roll and took damage.
Mercenary Kings has a lot of great ideas going for it but instead of expanding these different mechanics, the game just dabbles in them. Growing the design with more diverse challenges and a greater degree of customization could make things very exciting. Mercenary Kings tries to be both old school and modern at the same time and I feel that it got stretched too far in different directions because of it.