Preview - Mercenary Kings [Beta]
In 2011, former Ubisoft employees Jean-Francois Major, Justin Cyr and Jonathan Lavigne (best known for their work on Scott Pilgrim Vs the World) left the company to form their own studio Tribute Games. Tribute’s design philosophy is to create games that are reminiscent of the 8 and 16-bit titles the studio founders enjoyed during their youth but with a modern twist.
This philosophy rings true with the studio’s second outing Mercenary Kings (which was successfully Kickstarted last summer), a 16-bit run-and-gun sidescroller that takes cues from the machismo-driven action films, cartoons, and shoot’em ups made popular in the 80s and 90s.
The prototype version of Mercenary Kings was recently released via Steam’s Early Access program and I had the chance to check it out. I don’t want to spoil too much but I’ll certainly say that if this beta is any indication, there’s going to be a bit more to this game than what appears on its blood-soaked surface.
If you’re a fan of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, you’ll be happy to know the Tribute team has reunited with animator Jonathan Kim, illustrator Stéphane Boutin, and master sprite creator and animation lead Paul Robertson to give Mercenary Kings a very similar visual aesthetic.
I don’t want to overly gush on about the visuals but I will say that as a fan of retro games, I think this animation team has hit another home run! The 16-bit chibiesque characters whether they’re the lowly enemy grunts or the Mercenary Kings themselves, they’re fluently animated and are oozing with a charm and personality that perfectly blend in with the lovely hand-drawn/pixelated backdrops. Granted, there’s plenty of blood and guts in the game as well but the violence is portrayed in such a cartoony and over-the-top fashion it compliments the game’s comedic sensibility.
The animation of the boss fights is especially impressive, proving once again while implementing these retro inspired graphics, the dev team can pull off a few tricks beyond the capabilities of the vintage home consoles, which serve as the inspiration for their work.
This brings me to another thing I very much enjoyed about Mercenary Kings, the assortment of references and homages that the team has worked into the game. Metal Slug, Contra, Metal Gear Solid, Rambo, Bionic Commando, and G.I. Joe are among the properties to get a nice subtle wink and nod. Hell, there’s even mission named after Sewer Shark. And here I thought I was only who remembered Sewer Shark. Is this what it’s like when doves cry?
Chiptune artist Patrice Bourgeault serves as the game’s composer and does a great job of capturing the raw spirit that fuelled the genre Mercenary Kings is lovingly sending up. It should be said there’s only a handful of songs in the game currently but they’re catchy and rockin’ enough that it’s not too much of a problem. Although, my ears are perked up and ready for more.
Speaking of audio, props should also be given to sound designer Jean Chan, who created plenty of old school sound effects (mostly taking queues from the NES era) that mesh beautifully with the game’s visuals. I also thought it was neat how each gun was given its own unique sound, which shows quite a dedicated attention to detail on her part.
Its gameplay can easily be described, as a combination of Metal Slug’s brand of run-and-gun chaos and Mega Man’s obstacle course style of platforming, and it’s certainly a winning one. Mowing down hordes of bad guys as you make your way through tricky platforming sections is plenty of fun. However, there’s much more to the game than that.
At its core, Mercenary Kings has a figurative treasure trove of customization options for players to experiment with. Of course there’s the weapon crafting system, which has been at the forefront of the game’s marketing and for good reason, as it allows players to create a mile-long laundry list of guns, that range from the powerful to the ridiculous to the ridiculously powerful. You can also build an array of useful and wacky melee weapons (knives mostly) but they’re not customizable.
Fantastical tools of death aren’t the only things you can craft however, as you can create various armor, ammo, and mod upgrades as well if you happen to find the right materials by taking out enemies and bosses, or by finding them in crates that are scattered about each level. I guess you can add collect-a-thon to Mercenary Kings’ genre description.
Players shouldn’t expect to become an invincible one-person army after gathering an X amount of materials, as for every advantage a weapon or mod has, there’s a distinct disadvantage to balance things out. For example, one of your gun creations may have a ton of power behind it but its weight may slow down your character and it may greatly reduce the amount of ammo you can shoot per round. Or perhaps you’ll create a lighter gun with a larger magazine, which can increase both your running speed and the amount of ammo you can fire but your bullets will likely deal out less damage as a result. The same rules apply for mods. Equipping a mod to increase your strength will decrease your defense, equipping one to increase your cash flow will jinx you, equipping fire resistance will increase the damage you take from ice shots, and etc.
It’s a surprisingly deep risk/reward system that will require players to experiment with different combinations to find the right balance that fits their preferred play style. Personally, it’s a design choice I’ve grown to appreciate. Creating and trying out the various gun options I’ve managed to amass is the main reason I keep coming back to the game…well it’s the number one reason after wanting to reach 100% completion because I’m one of those people. Well, actually I should be saying 60% in this case.
As I said earlier, this Early Access version is a prototype/beta and not the final product, so there’s some missing content. Forty missions, leader boards and there’s a hunting aspect that’s not too useful at the moment since there’s no option for the chef to prepare the meat you’ve collected.
Not to mention there’s few technical hiccups, which is to be expected of a beta. Bosses getting stuck in walls, trapped in narrow spaces, or being frozen in their place are the main issues I’ve run into. Luckily, these instances only occur in three of the missions and they can be skipped over.
There were reports of several players experiencing multiple crashes (I was fortunate enough to not run into this problem) but as I was writing this, Tribute issued a patch to fix the problem. So the crashes are gone but the bossickles are still chillin’ like the villains they are. Fingers crossed, this will get patched up soon as well.
With this in mind, I’d be hard-pressed if I didn’t take the time to mention the hard work Tribute has been putting in to improve the game. Not only has the team fixed various technical issues over the past week ranging from the mentioned crashes to control issues, but it has also added keyboard configuration, keyboard mapping, additional sprites, additional items, and it has even added a new song with the most recent fix. The developers are putting in a lot of effort to make sure Mercenary Kings will be fully ready for prime time ASAP.
But enough about what’s not in the beta and let’s take one more look at what’s there, shall we? As I said, this beta contains 60 missions, each of which has one primary objective and (in most cases) at least one secondary objective. Objectives range from collecting a certain number of items to saving POWs to killing a set number of enemies and bosses to sabotaging enemy plans.
While there’s 60 different missions, they’re spread out over only a handful of levels but the varying objectives bring enough variety to keep the game fresh, not too mention the levels are surprisingly big and allow for some exploration…just be sure to keep an eye on that timer.
No seriously, you’re going to have to keep a close watch on the timer since the time limits can be a little on the nose, so there’s not a lot of room for goofing off in some cases. Some players may not like this but I would disagree, as the timer gives an already enjoyable action game a nice extra shot of adrenaline. If you’re concerned the timer will prevent you from seeing the levels in their entirety, don’t be. Each mission will require you to travel to and explore different parts of the levels, so everything will be seen.
If there’s a certain mission you just can’t seem to complete, you can always invite a few friends to join your troop (both locally and online) to breeze through it or to just add some extra mayhem to the carnage that’s already happening on screen. So it’s a fun and quite useful feature to have. I also like the decision to go with split-screen for the local co-op (something you don’t see too often in sidescrollers), as it allows the team members to split-up and cover different sections of the level, which can be a very helpful tactic for the gathering missions.
Now comes the tricky part. Since this is only a beta, rather than a completed game, I can’t score it. I will say however, I had plenty of fun with it despite its flaws and put in about 20 hours to complete the provided content. If you’re a fan of games in the vein of Metal Slug and Contra, you may want to give Mercenary Kings a chance, as it has the potential to be a great game.
If you’d rather wait for the game to be completed before putting down your cash, you should know this post will be updated as a proper review (complete with score) when the full game launches at some point this fall. Although, it should also be noted the game’s price will go up from $15 to $20 when the Early Access period is over.
To keep track of the latest updates being made to Mercenary Kings, check out its Steam Community Hub here.
If you’re currently playing it and would like to continue supporting Tribute Games, you may want to check out the new Kickstarter campaign it has launched alongside Off Base Productions for a Mercenary Kings strategy guide, by clicking here.
|Ryan Conway became the Weekend Editor at ScrewAttack after writing for the community news section for 20 months (14 of which he served as head writer). This lover of platformers, beat ‘em ups, and fighting games (and just about any other genre really) currently resides in a small town located in Nova Scotia.|
Yeah, I was just worried because I know several people in my circle of friends who only care about scores and don't even take the time to read reviews. Would hate to give a game a bad rap if it didn't deserve it.
Good point. I went back and forth for a while on what to use as a placeholder. We have a list of numerical values that we are bound to for that section, so it was between 1 or 10. But I should know that people (not you, but in general) tend not to bother reading editor's notes.
I like how you handled it Ryan. Looking forward to the complete review.
I would suggest changing the temp score to like a 5 or something (preferably "?"), someone might come in here and only read the number and think the game is worthless garbage with that 1 ranking.