[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
Back in my teens, I listened a lot to my friends and colleagues (bear in mind that I worked at one of the earliest online game retailers) discussing their experience with the classic Metal Slug games, which they assured me were just the best shoot-em-up games ever. SNK as an organisation were already on the ropes at that point and the release of the Neo Geo Pocket did little to convince the public to invest, although I was at least able to get my first taste of Metal Slug – on a portable console no less.
Fast forward to 2018 and I am sitting here having spent a reasonable amount of time with another game, Mercenary Kings Reloaded, which certainly seems to share some of its DNA with that classic Neo Geo port of Metal Slug. Tribute Games Mercenary Kings offers much more of what the modern gamer expects however, and I have to admit to being surprised at some of the RPG and crafting features that it includes as a way to differentiate itself from the average shoot-em-up.
Believe it or not, playing Mercenary Kings actually reminds me mostly of games like Monster Hunter, which is almost entirely because of the grind mechanic that becomes so prominent as you familiarise yourself with the game. Broadly speaking, whilst Mercenary Kings features a reasonably detailed (albeit simplistic) story, you won’t care much for it after the initial opening sequence. Instead, you’ll simply want to get into the missions as quickly as you can, but it won’t be long before you realise that there aren’t actually that many individual levels.
Instead, missions are structured by difficulty level and then objective, which results in a huge range of possible options for replayability. These objectives might be straightforward – rescue hostages, kill snipers or collect raw materials for example – but the rock hard gameplay ensures that it never is. The classic gameplay demands that players pay attention, understand enemy patterns and then work hard to stay alive. This would probably have felt harsh in a procedural world or across a series of games that changed dramatically, so the fact that it features only a handful of levels is actually a good thing.
Aside from the fact that you’ll replay levels over and over again, the grinding angle is mostly because of the crafting features that play a large part in the game. As players slaughter enemies, discover hidden areas, break crates and hunt the local wildlife (mostly cute bunnies) he or she will rapidly gain a myriad of crafting components to bring back home. Meat makes meals that offer a single mission bonus, whilst metal, carbon fibre or whatever else you pick up could lead to new armour or weapon components that result in outlandish combos.
There is little doubt that this is probably the most interesting reason to keep playing Mercenary Kings. Crafting ridiculous weapons is very much the order of the day and rather fantastically, it feels as if nothing is off limits. You can, for example, include components like toilets or trumpets to enhance your weapon in order to gain specific benefits, or if you prefer, you can simply strap a sniper rifle scope onto a huge pistol with an extended magazine. Either way, the results can be incredible and you will want to discover them.
Mercenary Kings also features a really interesting local co-operative mode that uses a split screen to give each player full autonomy of movement, as well as a fully featured online mode. The approach to co op movement is indicative of how different the game actually is from the likes of Metal Slug, even if it looks quite similar at first. You see, Mercenary Kings is not a bullet hell, scrolling shooter like some, which gives it a much more tactical feel. The mission objectives underpin this approach as well and sometimes you’ll only explore perhaps half a level before completing them.
I should also mention that Mercenary Kings features some excellent boss fights, which really do conjure up a feeling of old school tactical gameplay. Mega Man springs to mind here, because whilst these bosses can be absolutely brutally difficult, they become a lot more straightforward to beat once you recognise the three or four basic patterns of movement and attack that each one of them will display. There is a price for death in Mercenary Kings, but thankfully it is not as punitive as it is in games like Dark Souls, for example.
Ultimately, I think I would have found Mercenary Kings Reloaded really quite boring if I had played it solely in front of my television. As a mobile prospect however, it is much more interesting because when playing on a train or something, you’ll rarely have time to encounter the same level over and over again. You might have just enough time to advance your collection of Tungsten however, which could just about enable you to create that grenade launcher that you’ve been working towards, and so it goes on. Because most people will either love it or hate it, you should at least:
About Matt S.
Matt is a 34 year old gamer from the north of England. He has worked in the games industry for 18 years and loves consoles dating right back to the NES, as well as PC and handheld gaming in almost all forms. He has a soft spot for Nintendo, for deep strategy and for board and card games both digital and physical. Need to get in contact with Matt? Use the contact page or reach him on Twitter.