Platform: PC (reviewed, £14.99) | PS4 version incoming
Developer: Tribute Games
Mercenary Kings is amazing, but we already knew that months ago. Tribute's early access blasterpiece was worth buying since last summer and has only become more explosive, more ridiculous and... well, longer, since it first smashed onto our radar. Basically this review is just a formality.
Premise-wise, Mercenary Kings plunges straight into Saturday morning cartoon territory with a great big silly grin on its face. The evil CLAW organisation are up to no good on Mandragora island, so it's up to the best mercenaries in the world (the titular Kings) to kick down the doors, storm their fortresses and shoot henchman by the hundred. A perfect setup for a sidescrolling run & gun action platformer in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, brought to life by the developers behind Scott Pilgrim's superb videogame tie-in. It's as nostalgic, tightly-designed, satisfying and gorgeous as you'd expect from the veteran retronauts at Tribute Games.
However, not content to stop there, Mercenary Kings also channels the persistent progression, upgrades, hunting and exploration of the Monster Hunter series; resulting in a shooter that's truly enormous and great for hours of play. If perhaps a little too grindy for its own good at times.
Fans of sidescrolling shooters will be in their element. Like Metal Slug and its ilk, this is an outrageous romp, throwing you into battle against over a hundred different kinds of enemy. From knife-wielding maniacs to robotic drones, snipers, increasingly ludicrous mechs and enormous bosses, your foes are numerous and nuanced, all requiring different strategies to defeat. Thankfully you've got a selection of ridiculous guns at your disposal - more on those later. Mechanically perfect when it comes to the running, jumping and rolling side of things, Mercenary Kings feels like a forgotten classic from yesteryear, only twice as sharp and packing a nifty active reload feature.
Sprawling intricately-designed sandbox levels seal the deal, often allowing you to reach your objective via multiple routes and rewarding exploration with bonus items. Each massive stage has plenty of interior environments and caverns to optionally delve through for extra rewards and foes to blow up with extreme prejudice.
Visually, Tribute Games have pulled off another coup. Mercenary Kings is a timeless nostalgic stunner, exhibiting the same bold expressive sprite art that made Scott Pilgrim such a looker. Fluid animations and detailed animated backgrounds recall the genre's heyday, tied together with an outstanding chiptune soundtrack.
Most shooters rely on their core gameplay and high score runs for long term appeal, but this is where Mercenary Kings ups the ante considerably. Taking a huge amount of inspiration from Monster Hunter, both in terms of mission structure, progression and a deeply compelling crafting system, it'll lock you in for the long haul.
You'll start out in a home base, from which you can access various vendors and a continually-increasing stock of missions set throughout the massive maps. Objectives range from killing a specific boss to freeing hostages, finding specific items or just crushing everything in sight, granting an inordinate amount of value. It's classic Monster Hunter fare, right down to an optional hunting stage populated by various animals and wildlife to gun down for sport. Once you've completed your goal, the real fun begins as you bring back your earnings and crafting materials scavenged from fallen foes to spend on a whopping amount of gear.
Mercenary Kings' weapon customisation is ridiculous in every sense of the word. Every part of your gun can be switched out with a dizzying array of components, allowing you to create hybrid monstrosities from barrels, receivers, numerous elemental ammo types, scopes and other more hilarious accoutrements if you can afford them. Such as, but in no way limited to, a portable ceramic toilet. There's a piece for every playstyle, and gradually tinkering with your gun's damage, range, capacity and reload speed soon becomes a new obsession. After all, you'll end up with a firearm that's uniquely, totally yours. Though I've moved on to boomsticks new since the beta (an armour-piercing sniper-rifle/magnum/SMG hybrid, if you're interested), I still have a soft spot for my classic 'Trombomatic 3000.'
As you progress through the stages, more vendors join the cause and set up shop at base camp, allowing you to upgrade your armour, create new melee weapons, craft bionic components and even cook up some tasty meals. You'll always feel like you're progressing, both in terms of the storyline and your own increasingly powerful arsenal.
So far so good, but Monster Hunter also has a few unique flaws. A few of which have come along for the ride.
Though boss fights tend to be fantastic fun and extremely challenging in later levels, you'll have to find them first; running around the level against the clock in an exhausting effort to work out where your nemesis is hiding. When you do finally catch up with them, they'll sometimes run and relocate, especially galling when you've also got to capture them as opposed to destroying them outright.
A small issue compared to Mercenary King's biggest inherited weakness, however, which is our old pal repetition. And his weird uncle grind. Whilst the levels are enormous and offer plenty of room to breathe, you'll visit them again... and again... and again... and again... gradually sapping your willpower if you play during long periods. Worse, random item drops mean that saving up for a particular ammo type or weapon component can take an eternity. Monster Hunter has a lot to answer for, and even though it comes with the territory, grinding feels completely alien and unwelcome in an old-school SHMUP.
Thankfully, this grind factor becomes totally meaningless when you've got a few pals at your side. Robust online co-op pales in comparison to riotous splitscreen shenanigans as four players squint at the telly, planning tactics, hunting bosses and generally making a glorious mess of things. Followed by beer and punching. Local multiplayer is the king, so it's only fitting that Mercenary Kings is very much couch co-op royalty.
- Ridiculous, responsive and rambunctious run & gun action
- Compelling and versatile weaponcrafting and progression
- Sharp nostalgic sprite art and excellent chiptune soundtrack
- Expansive freeform levels, varied objectives and massive raw quantity
- Brilliant co-op, best enjoyed in local splitscreen
- Saving up for new components can take an age, annoying random drops
- Stages, while large, can get repetitive over repeat visits
- Undeniably grindy and perhaps a little bloated
The Short Version: Mercenary Kings is a royal retro rumble; an outstanding sidescrolling shooter with the depth and longevity of Monster Hunter. Though unwelcome repetition and grind can set in after long stints, grabbing some mates for local co-op fun with ridiculous customised boomsticks never gets old.