Pixelated carnage reigns in Mercenary Kings

Jon Mercer
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A screenshot from the video game "Mercenary Kings." Submitted photo

Mercenary Kings

Steam, PS4

NOTE: This review is based on an “Early Access” build, released for the purpose of beta testing prior to final release.

Another week, another indie released — a Kickstarter funded PC title.

I apologize, it’s been a slow summer, and my laptop lacks the power to take on a full-blooded PC game. I’ve got a couple major titles up for review in the coming weeks, so you’ll have to allow me this.

“Mercenary Kings” is the brainchild of Tribute Games; an independent game developer based out of Montreal, and founded by former employees of Ubisoft Montreal. With 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game” and the delightfully quirky “Wizorb” under its belt, Tribute is aiming at classic action games of the 8- and 16-bit eras.

While the build I was playing on is missing out on a rather large chunk of its missions, items and various other elements, one thing is abundantly clear about its eventual release this fall: pixilated carnage reigns in “Mercenary Kings.”

Gaming simplicity

As a Soldier of Fortune in the employ of the titular Mercenary Kings outfit, players are thrown into a war against the forces of the evil CLAW organization. Battles are waged via missions that feel lifted out of “World of Warcraft”— rendezvous with so-and-so, kill 10 of this sort, collect 7 of this item.

These missions are applied, though, to a side-scrolling shooter in the vein of “Contra” or “Mega Man.”

The gameplay is simplicity itself, running, jumping, shooting, melee attacks and evasive rolls all completely customizable on a keyboard or mapped out beautifully to a plug-and-play Xbox 360 controller (or a PS3 controller in my case, thanks to some gamepad emulation and skullduggery on my part).

In fact, the game is so easy to just pick up and play, that minutes after downloading a copy via Steam, I had inadvertently played for more than three hours and made my wife quite upset that I’d forgotten to switch over the laundry. I particularly enjoyed the implementation of an active reload mechanic that is stripped directly out of “Gears of War”; all guns must be reloaded (though they do all reload automatically if a magazine is exhausted), and timing it perfectly with the on-screen gauge awards a damage bonus on the next clip. Mess up, and reloading time is nearly doubled.

The game’s biggest wrinkle, however, comes in the form of its “Monster Hunter”-inspired loot system. Killing baddies results in seemingly useless scraps of raw materials. However, in combinations, these materials can be used to build new pieces of armour, forge new melee weapons (I’ve thus far traded my trench knife in for a broken bottle and a pizza cutter), or craft new pieces of gun machinery to be slapped together to create the game’s massive roster of firearms.

Things start out rather stock, with pistols and shotguns. However, as gamers ascend through the mission rankings, they’ll be slapping pieces of trombones together with miniguns and freeze rays to create their own personal implements of destruction. The combinations are equally as staggering as the results are devastating. After two days of playing, I was filling the screen with rapid firing sprays of corrosive green doom.

The general wackiness of the setting and weapons is echoed in “Mercenary Kings’” visual design. Paul Robertson’s artistic direction is “Metal Slug” by the way of “Scott Pilgrim,” darkly funny and vividly animated.

In fact, the game looks about on par with what the Neo Geo was pumping out in the ’90s. If that doesn’t get your retro heart purring, you probably weren’t a serious gamer back then. The music is catchy enough to not be annoying, but I’ve yet to hear a track that sticks with me more than five seconds after the game is turned off.

Backtracking

If I have one spot of umbrage with “Mercenary Kings,” it would be the egregious amount of backtracking. Maps are played and replayed to the point of annoyance, especially if you are the sort of gamer who HAS to go back for the parts necessary to upgrade just a little further. If you feel that nagging need to grind and get better gear, the time spent in each level doubles, even triples. By the time a series of missions has been completed, you’ll be BEGGING for a change of scenery.

Minor griping aside, there’s quite a bit of retro styled fun to be had with “Mercenary Kings.” Early adopters save 25 per cent off of the total price, and get 60 missions, and quite a few weapons and bits of loot to collect, and with Tribute Games promising close to double that content with the final release, I’m very much looking forward to playing it more.

In fact, why should I even go to bed? It just seems easier to log in and play for another few minu … hours.

Platform: PC, PS4 (PC version reviewed)

Developer: Tribute Games

Publisher: Tribute Games

Release Date: July 22, 2013 (Early Release Build)

Rated: M for Mature.

Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: Ubisoft Montreal, CLAW organization

Geographic location: Montreal

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