Our Review of Mercenary Kings (PS4)

Last week we presented the top coop games of 2016 and as noted It’s been another dry year for cooperative titles.  (Seriously, The Division took the top spot for us and that game had problems.)  With that in mind we’ve started to reach back into the archives of games we missed of previous years to get our fix.  So, while we wait on 2017’s appetizing promises of Cuphead or Destiny 2 (all hail the mighty Xur!), let’s catch up with an indie darling from 2014, Mercenary Kings.

A game that launched as a Kickstarter in 2013 and finally reached retail status in 2014, it is easy to have overlooked Mercenary Kings.  Its cover is a weird amalgamation of Ikari Warriors and, we think, River City Ransom and its gameplay looked very much like Contra meets Mega Man at a time people weren’t really demanding either.  Plus, Broforce, which also featured 2 player side scrolling shooting in a mostly jungle aesthetic, stole most of the gaming headlines at the time leaving little room for Merc Kings.  Point is, don’t feel bad if you missed this one so far.

Up to 4 players can pick one of two characters (the tough as nails King or the scantily clad with ridiculous body physics Empress) and shoot their way across 100 different levels.  The game hits the right notes.  It’s drop in and out multiplayer; you effectively gather loot to power up your gun; there’s an active reload lifted straight from Gears of War; levels are bite-sized lasting typically 15-20 minutes.  On paper the game sounds great for cooperative gamers.

Make no mistake, this game can be brutal.

That’s not to say it’s perfect.  Levels mostly reuse the same maps over and over so 100 levels will translate into considerably fewer actual areas.  The revive system for coop is wonky requiring players to keep a stash of expensive adrenaline shots in one of their two equipment slots normally reserved for precious C4 that unlocks parts of the map or health items.  Controls are stiff which is problematic for a game with as much as platforming as this – a simple ledge grab option would go a long way here.  Finally, a la Metroid enemies respawn rapidly making navigating maps when lost an unpleasant chore as you’re constantly gunning down the same soldiers or animals.

We feel like we should also comment about the poorly design female characters in this game, well really the main one, Empress.  We know games all too frequently objectify men and women (but way, WAY more often women) but in a game as solid as the rest of Merc Kings, the decisions the devs made here are unfortunate.  Wildly over proportioned and under-clothed, Empress looks like a Dead or Alive character translated to this retro shooter.  She strangely starts every level stripping off her overcoat before entering the fray in basically nothing while King instead just ties on a cool bandana.  It’s most noticeable though during loading screens as characters fly and in out of combat zones where gravity seems laser focused on her chest while barely rustles King’s hair.  We actually reached to Tribute for comment to which they apologized saying “their animator gets carried away at times.”  It’s distractingly bad in an otherwise enjoyable game.

Wut?

What works

Well it’s got the right formula for everything we’d want in a coop game.  Penalty free drop in and out multiplayer, hours of gameplay, and a loot grinding system that’s actually worth it.

What doesn’t work

The game feels dated out of the gate with its retro design and underwhelms as you traverse the same levels countless times with different objectives.  It’s also really challenging to simply look past the decisions they make to portray a female character here.

Overall: Good but Skippable

Normally we’d say this is a must play but we were disappointed by the care-free response we received when we contacted them about their character design decisions.  Sometimes we can look past flaws of a mechanically good game, but it’s hard to be supportive when devs express apathy to an issue that’s been holding games back for some time now.

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