The problem with writing a review for Mercenary Kings is that you are too busy playing Mercenary Kings to write a review for Mercenary Kings. This retro-inspired side scroller shoot-em-up is about as addictive as it gets, but all things that are addictive aren’t necessarily good. So what is the formula that makes up Mercenary Kings’ habit forming style, and is it really something that we should keep reaching for again and again?
If you aren’t a fan of retro styled indies, run for the hills my friends. Mercenary Kings has retro styled indie in spades and it isn’t letting up anytime soon. The controls follow the basic formulas of the side scrolling games of yore, meaning that you have your movement, jumping, shooting, and melee. This deceptively simple mechanic hides a deep evolution and complexity within the weapon building and upgrade system, and to a lesser degree, the combat in Mercenary Kings.
Combat is built upon the fundamentals of games like Metal Slug and Contra. Enemies are shooting at you, you are shooting back. If you get close enough, lunge out with your knife (or plunger, if you’ve unlocked and built that weapon) to do some damage in the close range. Boss battles follow a formula of learning a specific pattern and attacking when there were vulnerabilities in that pattern. It is extremely fun to engage in, but enemy variety leaves a little to be desired and can make you feel a bit tired of the simplistic and retro battle style after some time. I never got inherently sick of the consistent run-and-gun style of fighting, it was quite a bit of fun overall, but in many cases I wished the game would throw me a bit more of a curve ball.
Before selecting and deploying a mission, you are free to wander within your base, which allows you to build new weapons, bionic upgrades, and more. The weapon building system gives you massive control over your individual play style. Heavier guns may deal a ton of damage, but will make your movement and jumping very sluggish. Lighter guns will allow you to be nimble, and that upgrade for a huge clip could mean the difference between surviving or taking a bullet during a reload. The combinations are nearly limitless and each person will latch onto something slightly different. Mods take a similar tack, allowing you to only equip a limited amount at any time. Will you go for the parachute that slows falls? How about the increase in rare items that decreases overall item drops? These combinations will uniquely define each player’s experience.
The difficulty of Mercenary Kings generously starts off easy and increases throughout the mission tiers. It gets quite difficult as the game goes on, but things learned and upgrades earned previously should help anyone get ready for the harder tiered missions. Even upon failing a mission, you are allowed to keep any items that you may have collected, so failure is rewarded and is not a complete waste of time. Each mission comes with different objectives, and I was glad to see enough of a variance that kept every subsequent level fresh and interesting. Collection missions gave way to rescue missions, which paved the way for elimination missions, and so on. Being able to select any mission from your currently unlocked tier or lower meant that I complete them in any order an was not locked into a rigid structure of “level 1, level 2…” etc.
The story is pretty nondescript and can be overlooked without missing out on much. There are many nods to other classic action games, most notably the Metal Gear series, which are entertaining, but the continuing lines of text meant that I wasn’t playing the game, so I found myself skimming through them rather than thoroughly reading the more that I played. It’s a basic story of “dead commando gets brought back to life, equipped with a super body, and told to go defeat the terrifying army that just decimated his entire team of super commandos”. There’s a captured scientist and a new team of people supporting you, most likely a traitor in your midst if you want to get really complicated with it, etc. but this game isn’t about the story at all. It’s about the fun and frantic gameplay, and the one thing that really makes Mercenary Kings shine.
The bread and butter of Mercenary Kings, and the aspect that truly sets it apart from other retro, side scrolling shoot-em-up games is its four player co-op system. Up to four players can gather together and take part in each of the missions, either via couch co-op or online play.
Some All missions are simply more fun with more people, and while I was not able to find an in game method for voice chat, the PS4’s party chat system works wonders for keeping in contact with your squad. Talking to the person next to you is also fairly effective for couch co-op players. The glaring flaw with the multiplayer is that there is no crossover with the online co-op and couch co-op. If my wife and I are playing together, it is a strictly offline game. If I jump online, it will boot her from the game to allow network players on. This seems like a basic enough feature that should have made it into the final game, and is one of my only major flaws with this title.
For free on PlayStation Plus, Mercenary Kings is an unbeatable deal. A great cooperative retro action title with plenty of challenge and reward. With the huge variety of customization, you can truly make the experience your own, while experiencing it with others. Even when this game leaves the Instant Game Collection, it will be well worth paying for. The few gaping flaws of not mixing the online and couch co-ops, and the lack of enemy variety throwing any real curve balls later in the game can be mostly overlooked by the sheer amount of fun you will have teaming up with a group of friends with independent builds and play styles to take on a particularly challenging mission. Whether you fail or not, Mercenary Kings succeeds at being a great experience on the PS4.
Review copy provided by PlayStation Plus member benefits. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.