Mercenary Kings Review: Pixelated Grind
Mercenary Kings was my favorite game from the Sony booth at E3 last year. This is a testament to both how great a first impression the game made and how unplayable some of the biggest PS4 titles were at the show. Still, its quality was something that was reinforced when the game entered Steam Early Access last year. Each mission brings the same catchy tunes that you can’t help but hum along to, the same bullet soaking enemies you’ll find pleasure in shooting over and over again, and the same tiring environments you’ll eventually get bored of.
Both the visuals and gameplay immediately call back to the days of Metal Slug and Contra. That's also true of the platforming and dodging of enemies, at least to a certain extent. To be perfectly honest, though, a better comparison can be made to the likes of Borderlands and even MMOs. You’ll spend less time in bullet hell and more time questing and looting, gathering items to upgrade your character’s armor and weapons. In theory, it’s an excellent design; completing difficult levels doesn’t give off any tangible rewards, but crafting that incredibly awesome weapon from those items you’ve found on a quest is something you can look back on and be proud of.
It almost makes the game’s grind fully worthwhile. While your quests thankfully evolve from “gather x amount of this item and y amount of that item” to something a bit meatier, the gameplay doesn’t quite keep up. As everything around it changes, whether it’s the enemies, weapons, or goals, two things remain constant: the repeated levels and the repeated mechanics. It’s as if Mercenary Kings isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, changing its mind back and forth from platforming 2D shooter to side-scrolling dungeon grinder. It’s a testament to its strong gameplay that it remains enjoyable despite the fact that there are games on the market that do both better.
Continuing the trend of “I’m not really sure what I want to be doing” is the narrative. You’re a mercenary that’s a part of a resistance group in battle with The Claw. You’ll have to pardon me for not knowing more about the story, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s not wholly important. Sure, there are cutscenes filled with dialogue in a Metal Gear Solid-esque fashion of talking faces, but the combination of lack of voice acting and their placement in the game (after the high of a mission) contribute to a presumed afterthought. Considering the game’s strong presentation, it’s mind blogging that this is how the story is treated. I care more about the items I’m picking up on the ground than the characters I’m interacting with.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen in a video game. If you can find me a large group of people who honestly cared about the narrative of Borderlands, I’ll eat one of my hats. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you’re out there, but the majority of people focused on the shooting and looting. Its sequel, Borderlands 2, fixed this issue by including more lore, story, and including a cast of characters worth getting attached to. None of that is present in Mercenary Kings, making its half-hearted focus completely wasted. When you’ve already lost me to the game’s grindy nature, reading text on my screen is the last thing I want to do.
The issue is only magnified due to the game’s schizophrenic nature, which I’ve already talked about. If the resources that were spent writing dialogue were spent, say, creating new levels, then the game’s replayability would sky rocket. Instead, I’m often found sighing with disgust when I have to walk through the same locale again and again, greeting the same enemies in the same placement with the same bullets.
It’s a shame that it had to be like this, Mercenary Kings. Your demo at E3 was one of the best things I played all week. The initial time I spent with you in Steam Early Access was a treat. Somewhere, deep inside of you, past all of the excess fat, is a delicious and rare piece of Prime Rib. There are moments of pure bliss, encounters that will require nimble rolls and quick trigger fingers, and plenty of looting and crafting to be done. But I can’t help but wonder what could have been.