This past week, Colin and Ben both picked up Mercenary Kings for PS4. The side-scrolling shooter launched free on PSN Plus, and PS4 freebies are rare enough that both Scanners took the time to check it out. They didn’t walk away happy.
At its core, there are two curses afflicting Mercenary Kings- overreaching, and bad design. With pixel art done by bit-graphics god Paul Robertson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Fez) and a nostalgic yet unrepresented genre like the run and gun sidescroller, this crowdfunded shoot ‘em up should have been bound for glory. But that wasn’t enough for the ex-Ubisoft team of indies called Tribute Games. Due perhaps to pressure from how well the Kickstarter went, or simple ambition, the game tries to be so much more than just a modern Metal Slug… and at every turn it falls short.
It’s a classic case of quantity vs. quality. There’s no shortage of content in Mercenary Kings- there are a hundred missions to go on, countless ways to combine and customize gun parts, and decent enough enemy variety. None of these things are tuned to help the game, however. The missions are all so limp and underdesigned that at best they’re barely worth playing- and they’re massively repetitive, with uninventive goals. You can attach a shotgun barrel to a machine gun with a sniper rifle stock… but of the myriad combinations of components the vast majority are straight up inferior to your default gun. This would be more acceptable if you could switch on the fly, but you can’t- you get one gun for your mission. You also just get one knife, even though there are tons of those to build too- but those are even more straightforward. They’re either better than what you have, or they aren’t: there are very few sidegrades.
The enemy placement is dull, there are no powerups to speak of, grinding for parts for new gear isn’t fun… it’s just a great concept handled incredibly clumsily. This is the true tragedy of a Kickstarter, I’m afraid- you can tell how good the pitch is, but you can’t tell how well the team will handle it. This one’s just a mess.
As far as first impressions go, you can’t get much better than Mercenary Kings. As Empress, I blazed through enemy territory, cutting down swaths of wood gremlins and shield-toting grunts with my ever-faithful handgun. I returned to a ragtag band of soldiers-for-hire after every mission, equipping myself with medical supplies while convincing an Australian knife expert to equip me with a pizza cutter. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon brought to life, albeit with more violence and gruesome head explosions. How could this be anything less than a delight?
But Mercenary Kings shed its appealing skin as soon as I got to the first boss. This machete-wielding mech proved to be a worthy opponent, and I felt like I had him on the ropes… until he turned tail and ran into the pitch-black background. Shrugging it off, I tracked down his new location, only to get one or two shots in before he disappeared again. This went on for an excruciating ten minutes, by which time I was almost tempted to acquaint my fragile LCD screen with my controller.
This episode made me stop and ask whether I was actually enjoying myself during the last few hours I spent with the game. I was shooting robotic slugs, talking shop with a spec-ops agent who loved our communal latrine, and storming Vietnam-esque jungles while a delicious chiptune soundtrack thumped away. Surely “fun” had occurred at some point?
In truth, the act of playing Mercenary Kings is rather miserable. I could get beyond the odd delay between hitting the X button and jumping (After the first few minutes, my brain just compensated), but the first set of missions wanted me to return to the same level for several hours, saddled with searching every nook and cranny to accomplish monotonous objectives like “Rescue X amount of soldiers!” or “Mine X number of resources from respawning enemies!” The map is entirely useless because it never even hints at your objectives, the tutorials are woefully inadequate, the 16-bit action somehow freezes up on the powerful PS4, and hunting for bosses that cowardly flee is the antithesis of a good time.
I tried loving Mercenary Kings with every fiber of my body, but over the course of a few hours, my passion morphed into a fiery hatred. Tribute crafted an irresistible world and nailed the presentation, which makes it all the more painful when the game itself is as enjoyable as a carton of rotten eggs. You’ve had your chance, Kings; time to move out of my PS4.