Tribute Games’ love letter to Metal Slug hits all the right notes, but plays them in the wrong order.
Tribute Games has the distinction of being a studio that employs some of the core team behind the digital release, Scott Pilgrim VS The World. That game was one of the best modern 2D Beat Em Up games that also happened to be one of the best film-to-game adaptions made. By sticking the Scott Pilgrim IP in a blender with River City Ransom, they were able to create a delicious and addictive cocktail of gaming that made tens of thousands of players very happy.
So imagine the glistening gleam in many a gamer’s eye when Tribute Games decided to take to Kickstarter to raise money for a new sidescrolling shoot em up in the spirit of Metal Slug called Mercenary Kings. Tribute was able to get the money they needed and marched straight to Steam Early Access, enabling them to generate more revenue while offering an Alpha version of the title. So did the wait, and the extra money for Tribute result in a fantastic, shiny gem?
Would you settle for a smudgy diamond?
Mercenary Kings starts the player in a base camp where it quickly becomes clear that this is your hub between fights. Here you have access to all the things you’ll need on your journey to destroying the bad guys. Medical supplies, gun-crafting, mods and more are all centrally located at your base camp. The gun crafting is likely the most interesting draw for the majority of players, and who can blame them? The idea of slapping together a ramshackle instrument of death in a videogame certainly isn’t a new idea, but it’s always a fun one. Mercenary Kings makes an honest attempt to hold true to that creed but it stumbles out of the gate by adding some unsatisfying layers that you need to dig through before getting to the goods.
Primarily, Mercenary Kings does a remarkably horrible job of handling basic level and mission structure. The first mission found Hondo (my character’s name) having to travel to a POW camp to rescue a key hostage. One well earned “Mission Accomplished” screen later Hondo found himself back at base camp. His next mission found him tasked with eliminating some snipers at the … POW camp. Well, Hondo is a team player, so he trekked back to the very place he just visited and took out the snipers as told. Imagine his surprise then, when he was told by command that there were still some vital missions that needed to be conducted in the area.
Why not pack all the goals into one level, or just create a large interconnected world to navigate with the ability to return to base camp at any time or using a special item? Adding to the frustration is the fact that the levels themselves aren’t exactly marvels of size and have very little in the way of secrets. So revisiting the same short stretch of any one singular level, listening to the same repetitious soundtrack quickly becomes a rote and tired exercise. For better or worse you’re going to need to embark on those missions in order to get the cash and the parts that you need to build bigger and better guns.
So necessity instills a compulsion to hop in the chopper and shoot more bad guys but at the cost of a sense of agency. So then it becomes the duty of the gun crafting as a mechanic to pull you into dedicating time to the game. Fortunately this fares a better chance of a giving you what you’re after, but it’s a long haul to get there. Most of the good parts that result in the highest levels of carnage are only unlocked after about a dozen missions or so; and this is operating under the assumption that you like slogging through the same level four to five times to get a gun that finally lets you kill most bad guys in one or two shots. That much of a crawl might be too much for most.
Where Mercenary Kings fares well is with its vibrant art and action. The characters and environs are some of the best examples of pixel graphics created for a sidescrolling game. Tribute has even done a remarkable job of making the little pixelated characters look fluid and lifelike. Bullets fly in a satisfying old school way and the up close knife kills are always a kick if you’re brave enough to pull them off.
There’s also a decent amount of enemy variety to keep things from getting too boring or predictable in that regard, and Tribute does a fine job of offering more than palette swaps. Boss fights are also varied enough to hold player interest, but navigating the levels to activate the boss encounters is almost always a giant pain in the neck. All in all challenge is a steady arc in the game and you never feel like the difficulty curve hits a cliff face on you and when balanced with the better parts of the gameplay in the right way, the game becomes a blast.
These brief shining moments are just that however. Brief.
The BitPulse Perspective
So did all the extra money and incubation time turn Mercenary Kings produce a better game? The extra money raised in Steam’s Early Access should have produced some more tangible results than what is on display right now. Levels have to be recycled over and over in order to pad out the gameplay experience.
Mercenary Kings might be worth its $19.99 price tag if you’re in it just for the crafting. Clearly this is the biggest mechanic that has received the most attention. While it is a novel idea to drop into a shooter, it’s not enough to carry you through the entire title.
Another odd caveat of the crafting is that it make gameplay a bit more stop and go than most 2D shoot em ups. Without other substitutes of hallmark design to fill the gaps it gets tough to rationalize where all the time and money went.
Still Tribute seems set on providing the title, so some of these things might improve as further updates are released for the game. At the very least the game did deliver on the majority of its promises regardless of how the finished product came together. There are lots of levels, there are lots of guns, there are lots of upgrades and characters. It’s just kind of a shame that it’s all recycled so much.
Mercenary Kings is available now on PC and PS4