Mercenary Kings Preview: Gun-Wielding Goodness

Blending elements of Contra, Metal Slug, and awesome 80’s action movies, Mercenary Kings is a 2D action platformer that sees you running, jumping, and shooting enemies while completing objectives and collecting items to craft new weapons.

The brainchild of the creative team that brought you Wizorb and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, Mercenary Kings is currently available on Steam Early Access to those who want to play the game prior to its release. After spending some time playing it and experimenting with its various systems, I’m happy to say that it’s easily one of the better indie games I’ve played this year.

While we’ve seen more 2D sidescrolling platformers than could possibly be counted in the indie gaming community, there’s something distinctly different about Mercenary Kings that makes it feel fresh. Sure, those who play it will take comfort in its retro sensibilities and feel, but there’s also a modernized edge to it that allows it to combine the old and the new into one interesting product.

The gameplay itself remains pretty fast-paced, but isn’t the most forgiving to players who run in haphazardly. Playing as a commando-for-hire with a vendetta, you’ll choose different mission types and see yourself rescuing characters, taking out enemies with different weapons, and flaunting your overall badassery through the use of different items and abiltites. Speed runners will find the game to be to their liking, but you’ll also find that blazing through a level without factoring in tactics and the proper approach to each enemy is a great way to get yourself killed. Health is limited, re-loading occurs often, and different enemies have distinct characteristics and attacks that prevent any one of them from feeling like carbon copies of each other. Plus, different missions types chosen from your hubworld give you different objectives and a time limit within which you have to complete the level. All of this combined really serves to test your reflexes and gets a refreshing amount of adrenaline pumping on each run.

Enemies drop items such as metals, glass, rations, and fabric, all of which can be used in the game’s comprehensive crafting system. Working with the different people in the camp, you’ll be able to craft new weapons, body armor, and bionic abilities that allow you to customize your soldier into whatever fighter you’d like. It’s the crafting in particular that I found to be really interesting, as it is essentially the way you upgrade and progress your character throughout the game. Sure, it’s not a new convention in a video game, but it still seems to fit so well with the game’s other themes and feel.

Online co-op is also available in the game for those who want to gear up with their friends and complete objectives together. I didn’t get a chance to play online this time around, but will be sure to mention my time with it in the official review.

Those who found themselves enamored with the art design of Scott Pilgrim will be happy to see that Mercenary Kings stays true to its gorgeous pixelated roots by giving the game an old-school design using pixels and a wide variety of colors. Character designs are unique and detailed, and animations are delightfully over-the-top, all fitting well with the game’s quirky feel. Add to that a great soundtrack coupling the sound of chip tunes with 80’s power rock, and you’ve got a combination that feels ripped straight out of an arcade.

Mercenary Kings hasn’t officially released yet, and therefore is still missing some key features. Many menu selections aren’t yet available, including help and leaderboards, and there’s not a lot by way of tutorials outside of vague text boxes. For release, I’m hoping to see better tutorials that explain things in a bit more detail in order to help players make the most of their experience.

Still, these are minor complaints to have, as the core game itself is already fantastic. Great replay value is ensured by the game’s sheer amount of systems and abilities, and those who love indie games with retro conventions will feel right at home with Mercenary Kings. No, it’s not quite as tough-as-nails like some of the early NES platformers it borrows ideas from, but once the game is completed and everything is fully fleshed out, Mercenary Kings is likely to stand as one of the more quality indie game experiences to be had on console and PC.

Look for Mercenary Kings on Steam Early Access or on the PlayStation 4 this winter.

For more on Mercenary Kings, hear my thoughts about it on this week’s podcast.

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