Mercenary Kings is one of those games that makes you wonder about the publisher’s choice of platforms. The original decision to publish on PC makes sense given the game’s indie nature, but the jump to a next-gen console was arguably less easy to predict. While Sony have a reputation for welcoming indie publishers onto their platforms, Mercenary Kings feels more like a handheld or mobile title than something the PlayStation 4 needs.
That being said, its arrival on PS4 isn’t unwelcome. A side-scrolling shooter at heart, Mercenary Kings mixes some fairly deep item-crafting and character progression with the much more simple art-form of making things go boom, and the result is a heady concoction of customisable slaughter and fast-paced score attacking.
You play the part of either a male or female commando, the last remaining survivors of the titular Kings, a mercenary band augmented with the Mandrake serum to aid them in the private war against Claw – a Hydra-style megalomaniacal army led by an insane warlord general. With the rest if your team wiped out, you’re transported to Camp Crown and patched up with the help of a variety of specialists.
From there you’re given simple missions that send you out into the jungle to complete objectives such as gathering specific materials, killing a certain type of enemy, destroying a target or rescuing hostages, some of whom will join your camp and offer their services afterwards. You’ll rush around a multi-levelled environment, dodging bullets and putting a gory end to anyone who stands in your way, ducking, rolling and leaping about the lush 8-bit world.
Mercenary Kings is fun, and it wants you to embrace that – but it’s also bastard hard at times. Before long you’ve cleared the first few tiers of available missions and you’re getting so many enemy types thrown your way that it’s hard to cope, even with your own augmentations, body mods and upgrades. You can improve your soldier by visiting certain NPCs in Camp Crown, who will upgrade your gear, sell you supplies, or craft new guns and knives from materials you gather in the field.
If Mercenary Kings has a nemesis, it’s repetition. The action may be thick and fast, but it’s not long before the mission objectives and the game world become horribly familiar, and if played for too long Mercenary Kings can start to feel like a pointless grind. Potential tedium can be averted by the local and online multiplayer element, which allows three others to join you in the fight (though an odd bug that allows random players to join an invite only game is upsetting). As you can imagine, this mode is bonkers. The drop-in, drop-out nature and the frantic pace combine for a truly enjoyable frag-fest and, though it can be tricky at times to follow what’s happening on-screen, it’s totally worth it.
Sometimes the length of a given stage can seem at odds with the innate madness of it all. Rather than five-minute blasts, some levels can take up to twenty minutes, involving a lot of backtracking and running around like a chicken with its head removed looking for hostages, materials or periodically spawning kill targets. Enemies you’ve just killed respawn behind you, sometimes instantly, and there are certain times when Mercenary Kings can feel like a bit of a slog.
Sadly, it’s also not without its bugs, which should be completely ironed out in the next-gen version of such a simple and un-demanding game. They are minor, resulting in small issues like stuttering sound on the title screen, but really shouldn’t be present at all.
VERDICT: Like any good game in the Metal Slug-style, Mercenary Kings is by turns maddeningly frustrating and wonderfully cathartic. A special brand of distilled mayhem keeps the pace fast and the payback high as Kings rewards you for every foray into its deadly world. But its unwillingness to fully explain its crafting element, the inconsistent mission design and the odd teeny-tiny bug hold it back from perfection. Still, the leaderboard system and simple, gung-ho mechanics ensure that it remains good fun until the over-long campaign eventually out-stays its welcome.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Mercenary Kings is currently free to PS+ members as of April 7th, 2014..