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Reviews: Mercenary Kings Review

Mercenary Kings Review

Mercenary Kings -- a fun side-scrolling, old-school shooter -- pays reverence to many corners of gaming's past without being half-baked or derivative. For as much as I love the grittiness of a modern first-person shooter, the frights of a contemporary survival-horror adventure, or getting lost in the sprawling open-world map of a western RPG, I have a soft spot for old-school-inspired games that look dated, yet feel at home in today's gaming landscape, that pay homage to the past while staying relevant in the present. Mercenary Kings is one such game.

SNK's storied Metal Slug franchise is probably Mercenary Kings' single biggest inspiration both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay, though there are shades of Monster Hunter, Contra, Mega Man, and much more here, too. The Monster Hunter association is most important, however, simply because Mercenary Kings isn't just a linear shooter, but a mission-based one rife with tons of loot drops that, in turn, can be used to craft stronger gear.

The loot system is Mercenary Kings' greatest draw, and the focus of its identity. For as fun as it is to play, Mercenary Kings' addictive quality comes from the never-ending need to collect and synthesize. That's not only uncommon in side-scrolling shooters; it's virtually unheard of. Running through its 100+ levels, killing tons of enemies, and gathering what they leave behind is essential if you want to survive, and with a jaw-dropping amount of weapons, components, armor, and much more to create and equip, there's no shortage of reasons to stay engaged. It's a game that's almost impossible to rush through.

Thankfully, getting into the nitty-gritty of Mercenary Kings' impressive equipment system doesn't mean you have to play a subpar, boring, or ill-executed shooter. Quite the opposite, in fact. Running and gunning through various environments -- abandoned caves, sprawling complexes, sewer systems, and more -- is a lot of fun, especially when you begin to learn its nuanced controls. Its active reload-style gunplay -- ripped straight out of the likes of Gears of War -- means that you have to be thoughtful during firefights. You can't reload constantly and expect to have any success. Likewise, enemies tend to do an inordinate amount of damage. All of this creates a sort of digital ballet, a careful dance of crisscrossing bullets, artful rolls and dodges, and tons of pixelated blood.

Speaking of pixelated blood, I adore the way Mercenary Kings looks and sounds. Games using pixel art are a dime a dozen today, but Mercenary Kings has style. Character designs are unique and appealing; your base camp is littered with memorable characters, and the game's bad guys are archetypal, yet charming. There are a ton of enemies to do battle with, too, from gun-and-knife-wielding humans to robots to beasts and more, though there's a fair bit of palette-swapping to be found. As for the soundtrack, let's just say this: it's one of the best gaming soundtracks I've heard in years. Track-in and track-out, I was stunned by Mercenary Kings' attention to audio quality and fidelity. I just wish its long-winded story was more interesting. I found myself skipping every cutscene after only an hour of play, just so I could get back into the action.

[Image: bmuploads2013-06-114166mkscreenshot01sma...10x343.jpg]

While I'm making wishes, I wish Mercenary Kings had tighter controls. For the most part, everything works as you'd expect, but there are certain issues that stand out. Pressing down to shoot from your belly doesn't always work, jumping can be finicky, and occasional split-second freezes interrupted my flow. But part of conquering the 20-plus hour campaign is in overcoming certain perceived deficiencies. It's weird to say, but in this respect, it has that true old-school spirit. It's like playing Castlevania with its crazy midair collision kickback, or Dragon Warrior with its random, out-of-left-field ass-kicking enemies. This is what Mercenary Kings is; figuring out how to work within its rules is part of the fun.

Mercenary Kings' more modern elements come from its rank-based play, sprawling maps, and online components. Stages are unlocked one rank at a time, and groups of stages must be completed to move on to the next group. Missions will take place on many of the same maps -- and I definitely wish there was a greater variety of locations -- but your tasks on each map, and the time you're given to get through each mission, will vary significantly. On one map, you may be given 30 minutes to rescue 16 hostages from every corner of a complex. But you may go back to that same complex with a focus on a particular section of it, with 10 minutes to clear a certain amount of enemies.

If you want to play with your friends, you can absolutely do that, whether locally or online. Mercenary Kings allows for up to four people to play at once. Local play isn't ideal because it cuts the screen up, but online play is a great way to ease Mercenary Kings' grueling difficulty if it starts to cramp your style.

Then again, I played the entire campaign by myself, so it's by no means necessary.

The Verdict

Mercenary Kings is a slick old-school inspired shooter that has one foot in the past, and the other firmly planted in the present. Its high level of difficulty, catchy tunes, and pixelated graphics meld nicely with its emphasis on loot, customization, and online play. While some control issues get in the way, it comes highly recommended to those looking for a fun side-scrolling shooter to play, or folks simply looking for a taste of the games of yore.

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