Mercenary Kings is about as close to a new Metal Slug game as we’re going to get. However, with that being said, I don’t think it’s fair to entirely write this off as a mere spin on the much loved series. Where Metal Slug wins when it comes to frantic action, Mercenary Kings goes a few steps further as far as gameplay depth is concerned. The game originally launched on the PC and PlayStation 4 a number of years back, but this new Reloaded Edition comes with several improvements and additional content. The premise of the game is as flat as they come. In fact, you could disregard the story entirely and you wouldn’t have missed out on much by the time you reach the end-game.
Players take on the role of the titular Mercenary Kings, a group of tough-as-nails soldiers that are tasked with bringing down the dastardly devious organisation known as CLAW. CLAW remain resourceful and formidable throughout, something that’s made abundantly apparent on each new screen that you stumble upon. Much like Metal Slug, this game is a 2D side scrolling run-and-gun platform adventure, with a few added twists. It’s far from what I would describe as a walk in the park, because despite being fairly skilled at titles such as this, I found myself taking a beating more times than I cared to count. This is where picking your weaponry becomes of vital importance. You can indeed choose between a band of characters, but the only choice that really matters is your loadout.
Your loadout is something you can further bolster by crafting additional firepower via looting. That’s right, Mercenary Kings comes with a looting system, and it’s surprisingly well suited. Unfortunately, this rests upon combat that just doesn’t make the reward worth the grind. Mercenary Kings doesn’t leave the player idly sat on their hands. There’s plenty of weapons to select from and heaps of varying enemies to tackle head-on. Looting can be achieved in a range of different ways, be it uncovering chests, farming from the dead, or simply by just playing a mission. Materials gathered will go towards crafting the aforementioned gear, which varies from weaponry to armor. Weapon upgrades work as expected, which is to say that you can mix and match components to create different guns with unique attributes.
Armor can also be upgraded and modified to aid your chosen character. Armor modifications will give you certain perks, such as swifter health recharge and added luck, which makes it easier to find more materials. You can also buy materials if you want to circumvent some of the grind, but this doesn’t totally alleviate it. Gameplay typically consists of clearing the screen of enemies and making your way to your objective point, rinse and repeat. The controls are fluid and the game handles exactly how it should, with a solid difficulty curve for players to rest upon. One big criticism is that the mission structure doesn’t really change from the get-go. Mercenary Kings roughly lasts for 10 – 12 hours in total, with an added co-op mode to boot. However, most of your missions will consist of the same format.
Missions can be selected from your designated headquarters, a place that’s home to many of the game’s NPCs. Here you can select from a group of missions and gather health kits before whizzing off in a helicopter, ready to take on your pre-selected objective. The NPCs in HQ do vary as far as player aid goes, but there’s nothing particularly interesting other than some initial exploration. The missions you can choose from often prove to be repetitive. You’ll be sent on assignments that include killing several snipers, neutralizing a set number of enemies, capturing a POI, and other bland objectives that do nothing more than pad out the need to loot. What hurts the game the most is that the actual combat is a clunky mess. Clunky to the point that it soon becomes more trouble than it’s worth, literally.
Players can only shoot in four directions, up, down, left, and right. What’s especially irritating is that many of the enemies are shielded in such a way that you can only do damage to their heads. Take the drill-digger, for example, who is totally shielded from the neck down. The only logical way to dispose of this foe is to jump and shoot, but this very rarely connects as well as intended. I found my bullets going ever so slightly over their tiny heads, pushing me to swiftly find the right jump height to correctly execute a successful shot. This needs to be achieved several times before they die, and in that time they will constantly be charging at you. Something as simple as this should be fun, but because of how much guess work is involved, it barely even feels rewarding.
The same can be said about other enemy variants, including a large mechanical snail that will cocoon itself for 100 percent protection. The only way to damage this foe is to get close enough to entice it out of its shell, exposing its weak point. The problem here once again falls to the clunky controls, seeing as the snail will also let off a projectile attack immediately after it emerges from its shell, forcing you to jump, dodge, and shoot before it retracts, which hardly ever works as it should. These are just two enemies out of a large bunch, and some are seemingly impossible to take down without the expense of half of your health pool. It doesn’t help matters that enemies will respawn the moment you leave the screen and come back. Sure, this is great for farming loot, but far from as desirable when you just want to get from A to B.
Character movement is also very slow paced, which makes trekking back to your last failed attempt feel like an eternity. Mercifully the game supports four player co-op (local and online), which is absolutely the best way to play. This almost entirely shifts the dynamics of the game, swapping the sluggish solo play for something much more tactical and strategic. Those that don’t like to talk to other players to plan out their attacks, will be glad to know that the game comes with some text-commands that can be accessed via the trigger button. These phrases help coordination, but it would have been great to be able to input our own commands to make more sense of each situation. Still, the options on offer are decent enough to see each mission through.
Boss encounters are also quite hit and miss. Many of them tend to tower over you, which is fine, but when you factor in that they take one hell of a beating before they die and can regularly retreat to other parts of the map, it gets tedious, fast. The game does get much more bearable as you climb deeper into the experience and begin unlocking new, more powerful tools, but it takes a while to truly see this difference. Mercenary Kings is a game that’s going to take some persevering with, especially for fans of Metal Slug that favor quick movement and fluid play. Still, with that being said, the game is worth being patient for. I found myself having an absolute blast several hours into the adventure, which is in direct contrast with how I was feeling during the initial phases of the game.
The aim of the game, regardless as to the mission type, typically has you moving from screen to screen while clearing out any foes that stand in your way. Each level is usually large in size, with multiple branching paths going off in all four directions. The game does a good job at keeping the story in focus via the use of radio conversations that are not too dissimilar to the Metal Gear Solid series. That isn’t the only inspiration that the Mercenary Kings utilizes, as there’s some Gears of War reloading mechanics thrown in too. Whenever you reload, a bar will appear on the screen, challenging you to button prompt when a moving cursor gets in the green zone of the bar. Missing this will take longer for your character to reload. I quite liked the level design, which is something that varies greatly. There’s a lot of detail packed in this adventure, but after ten hours or so of play, the visuals do become a bit stale to say the least. Still, there’s no denying that the developers put in a good effort on this front.
Mercenary Kings will no doubt appeal to those that are fond of the Metal Slug series. However, the gameplay doesn’t prove to be quite as frantic or energetic. This is a game that’s better when playing with others, and the added crafting and looting system certainly helps it to stand out. That being said, players will be enduring some poor design choices and irritating combat mechanics throughout the entirety of play.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.