(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)
- The Game Itself
- 4 Stars
- The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
- 4 Stars
- The Audio: Rating the Sound
- 3 Stars
- Replay Factor
- 4.5 Stars
- Bonus Content
- 3 Stars
- Bottom Line
- Highly Recommended
- Street Date:
- April 1st, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- April 3rd, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Tribute Games
- Tribute Games
PS4 version reviewed. Review was done with a mix of single and multiplayer.
From the cold depths of Canada (Montreal) comes indie developer Tribute Games. Made up of ex-Ubisoft developers, much of Tribute Games' staff is responsible for 2010's 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game,' which is one reason to be excited for Tribute Games new PS4 & PC title, 'Mercenary Kings.' But where the 'Scott Pilgrim' game was a cute, challenging beat 'em up backed by a major publisher, 'Mercenary Kings' plows new furrows as a side-scrolling shooter, crowd-funded and then refined through an early access program. Boasting local and online co-op, the shooter has one foot in the retro past, and another solidly in the present, but is that enough to make this PS4 PS Plus title worthy of players' attention?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
When it comes to 'Mercenary Kings,' prepare to be surprised in many ways, and not all of them good. Side-scrolling games like 'Contra' (not unlike beat 'em ups or shmups) were born and bred in the arcades, and maintain a quarter-popping, action-packed, and otherwise shallow experience. These are great games to tackle in a few hours' time, with or without friends. Even classic 'Mega Man' titles are meant to be beat in relatively short order. Though the influence is there, 'Mercenary Kings' is another beast altogether and offers serious depth through its missions, item & ability gathering and crafting, and vast array of unlockable, counter purpose objectives.
The game sports a 33 page digital manual, and while each page only holds a snippet of information, there's no wasted space. Though it's fun to pick up and play the very first time, that is mainly due to the novelty of the experience. There's something of a harsh learning curve after a mission or two, and that curve lasts. Even the game's story set-up, which ends with two playable characters ready to start combating the forces of C.L.A.W. on Mandragora Island, is lengthy if the player is just expecting a simple arcade-style shooter.
Controlling either of the two surviving Mercenary operatives, King or Empress, the player starts with a hunting tutorial before moving on to the first rank of missions. The d-pad controls movement and allows the player to pick up items and aim their gun up, and in mid-air, down (the left analog works as well, but I much preferred the d-pad). The Square button fires the gun, X is jump, Circle is forward roll, Triangle is melee with the knife, and R1 is the ever-important reload.
This is not a game likely do well with a twenty minute demo. The game uses 'Gears of War' style action reloads, and the first hour or so of play is an exercise in constantly reloading six shots. The missions, which range from eliminate, capture, and gather styles, all require some degree of exploring a level, searching for an objective while facing two major constraints. The player has health, health items and in-level restoration areas, but dying during a mission only costs a few reward dollars. The player can loss three lives per mission, but a fourth means failure. Worse though by far, is the constraint of time.
Each mission has a hard time limit, anywhere from 5-30 minutes. The player can fight, die, step into an infirmary to heal, chase down a boss, teleport to a level's beginning, or repeatedly kill the same respawning enemies, it makes no difference, the clock never stops. Suddenly, jamming your weapon on a bad reload, or missing an elevator, or backtracking and having to rekill a level's worth of enemies means wasted time. Early on, failing a 15 minute time limit can feel like a complete waste of time. Annoying, time consuming enemies can easily test the player's resolve.
Make no mistake, a failed mission has merit, and not just practicing being bad at the game. In addition to learning about all the enemy techniques and really learning the level lay-outs (making sense to what the map shows), failing a mission has one other crucial benefit. Though consumable items like Rations (health) and C4 are lost when used and can only be picked up in very limited working quantities (one C4 and a few rations is a maxed out inventory), all of the crafting materials found through the levels and dropped by enemies, stay with the player even through mission failures.
Once you can start crafting your own six-piece guns, knives, and bionic mods, the game changes. You begin to understand how to focus on mission priorities, weighing time against (both secret and announced) side objectives, or other looting opportunities. For me, this meant getting a high-rate of fire weapon with high capacity magazine, which later morphed into a long-range, acidic bullet firing assault rifle.
The variety of weapons and weapon combinations is ludicrous, and equipping newly-crafted gun parts requires that the user pay attention to their overall load weight as heavy firepower makes for a heavier, slower player. When you reach the point where having to chase bosses all around a level is no longer frustrating, the true playground nature of the game becomes clear. And this is just the single player portion of the game.
Boss fights are challenging and nail a nice mix between dynamic and not-too-frustrating, a characteristic which could be applied to the game at large. Though the player can affect the difficulty by getting better weapons, more health, buying power-ups, etc., the game's difficulty is nevertheless restrained. Levels are full of moments where I thought, "If this were 'Mega Man,' that pit would kill me in one hit or the those platforms would disappear. If this were 'Castlevania,' that flying robot would juggle me back and forth five times before knocking me into the preceding area or that boss would just fill the screen until I was good and dead."
One issue for the game is loading times. A 15-20 second load time bookends every mission, pass or fail. Even the attract mode movie requires an annoying load screen (the helicopter on black). In-mission, entering and exiting rooms is fortunately not subjected to this same boggy wait time. I pray a patch will relieve this oversight of an issue along with an option to customize the controls and disable the touchpad map control.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
For the most part, the game's signature character designs mesh well with the sedate, retro environments. Many designs, like with the bosses, serve as proof of the game's elevation visually over any number of pixilated modern sprite games. Rescuing a new NPC for camp is always an opportunity to see another charming design.
On the whole, there's plenty of great environment sets. Unfortunately, the nature of the game, where no many missions are set in the same level or set of levels, can mean that fatigue for a particular level is often just one side mission away. Palette swaps and other small details are used to denote a different capability or strength in a given enemy, which removes those avenues as a way to vary each enemy, and specific enemies appearing dozens of times in related levels hurts more due to the simple visual nature of the levels.
With so many cool NPCs on-hand, it's a wonder that the playable characters seem like an afterthought. The crazy weapon possibilities are great, but better character customization would be welcome.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The game's music is of course chiptune style, which means it could have been really annoying. It isn't, it suits the levels fine, and changes appropriately for boss fights, which can be weird in multiplayer. With some missions being so long in the same level, it's likely that the music was styled more to be in the background than say the music in 'Mega Man 8.'
The PS4 controller emits sound for every reload, and it mimics the many mechanical sounds in the game. Character sounds are kept to a minimum, which again just seems fine and unobtrusive
There are 112 missions, 108 enemies, a zillion weapon combinations, mods to build, knives to forge, proficiencies to earn, meals to cook, ranks to obtain, times to beat, side objectives, secret side objectives and Trophies. This downloadable game has a Platinum Trophy, and it's no joke.
Should a player exhaust all of these aspects, the game's multiplayer mode is available, and there will doubtlessly be many a 'Mercenary Kings' marathon.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Amazingly, 'Mercenary Kings' offers both 4-player online and local drop-in drop-out co-op. The major downside being that the R2 and L2 buttons are wasted as preset voice command buttons. Being a PS Plus title translates to a lot of people playing online and hopping online with invited friends and strangers means something akin to a 'Diablo' or 'Borderlands' as enemies hit points scale-up and loot is equally shared. Players are free to go their separate ways once in a mission chosen by the host, and player ranks can completely differ in a given group. In-camp, players can visit each others' tents for a peek at favorite weapon combinations and other accouterments. Even with four players, there are still just three lives per mission, and they are shared. Once exhausted, the next player to die causes all to fail and potentially rage quit.
In local co-op, whether it's two, three, or four players, the screen is split four ways. It's still playable but it's definitely jarring going from full to one quarter screen.
'Mercenary Kings' may look like a few hours of arcade side-scrolling, but it is in fact much deeper. Early frustrations give way to addiction, and this coming from a player who normally rolls their eyes when faced with each game's crafting system. That enemy that frustrates you with his bullet shield, as precious time ticks away, finds a new reality when you start shooting caustic bullets. Likewise, the boss that hides at the other end of level, is easily tracked with the right mod, and can even be captured with a timely shock bomb. For every problem that 'Mercenary Kings' throws at the player, there is a player-styled solution waiting to be found and executed.
- Online Co-op
- Offline Co-op
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