Review: Mercenary Kings: Reloaded Edition
Every game has its quirks, and their success often depends on how bold those quirks are. Some games get by on being absurdly hard but fair, and others fall on how repetitive they get. But even then you can get people who adore a game despite (or maybe because) of it’s quirks, and that’s where I’ve always been with Mercenary Kings. It’s a divisive game to be sure, owing to some questionable choices about its mission flow and crafting systems. That hasn’t stopped me from putting dozens of hours into it, though, and anyone who can come to it with an understanding of what to expect is sure to find a fantastic game awaiting them.
The dastardly paramilitary group CLAW has seized a remote island that’s home to the mandragora, an odd sort of ambulatory plant with miraculous properties. The Mercenary Kings have been sent in to clear CLAW out, but their first sortie ends with no survivors. The power of the mandragora brings back a few of them though, and starting from nothing these scrappy mercs have to rebuild their foothold on the island and press back against CLAW and their nefarious leader, Baron. Along the way they’ll recruit new allies, battle wild war machines, learn the dark secrets of the island and its inhabitants, and build a wide assortment of the craziest guns this side of Saint’s Row.
That last bit is really the premise the entire game is built around. Mercenary Kings may look like a Metal Slug joint but rather than tight, linear levels and weapon pick-ups, this one features wide-open zones and tons of materials to gather. Weapon crafting is the real star of the show here, allowing you to assemble the action, barrel, scope, magazine, stock, and ammuntion separately and frankenstein it all together into some death-dealing chimera-gun. Sure, you can build obvious sets like pump-action shotguns and .357 revolvers and assault rifles and such. But you can also combine a living poison pistol with a chaingun barrel and stick a 50-round drum on it. Or you can turn that shotgun into a rapid-fire heat-seeking-missile launcher. Or you can just make a gun that looks like a toilet, that’s cool too.
You need materials to craft your chaotic creations, and those can be found in chests throughout levels or on the corpses of your foes. Some have decried a grinding aspect of the game where you need to farm materials before unlocking new weapons, but I never had that experience even before the recent update that made items more accessible. Your materials can also be used to make mods for your character, giving them faster movement speed or softer landings or, as one of the first and easiest to make mods does, guarantee an item drop from every enemy. Several mods give you control over the item drops, and specific missions always have the same items in the same chests, so never did I feel like I had to grind to get my flame-spewing SMGs or guns that are cats holding guns.
Exploring the levels thoroughly will see you flush with materials, but here again is a point some players might get hung up on. Levels in Mercenary Kings are huge by action platformer standards, with plenty of tricky jumps and moving platforms and hidden passages hiding the best goods. Most missions can be finished in five or ten minutes but you can easily spend your entire time limit hunting for more materials. It’s great for folks who love collecting things but anyone looking for a straight shot through the main story risks getting frustrated by the open design. This is very much a game for those who like to stop and explore at their own pace, or learn levels inside and out.
You’ll have plenty of chances to learn them, too, because there are significantly more missions than there are levels. You’ve got ten ranks of missions to work through, each with a dozen or so missions that take place on the same two or three maps. Varied objectives like beating a boss or killing specific enemies or collecting certain materials help change up your routes and strategies, but you’re still going to be seeing a lot of the same maps in your time here. Honestly it’s not great for the game, especially near the midpoint where you get a long string of tough missions on the same terrible temple map. I was able to power through and I’m glad I did because the last few ranks get some much-needed variety but this is one aspect of the game I wouldn’t blame anyone from turning away from.
Still, there’s so much Mercenary Kings does right that it would be a shame to abandon it over anything. You’re never going to run out of wacky guns (and knives) to build, and even if you did there’s a whole side element of decorating your camp tent with trophies. Combat is fun and varied against a wide cast of colorful enemies, and the bosses will all find ways to challenge with their attack patterns and weak points to strike. The story has plenty of twists without getting over-complicated, and is told in clever little scenes between characters after most missions. And let’s not forget the lush art from pixel master Paul Robertson, bringing plenty of life to the legions of mooks you’ll be messily gunning down.
I know Mercenary Kings isn’t for everyone. I know some folks don’t want to hunt bits to cobble guns together from, or don’t want to play the same levels four or five times in a row, or just don’t like the sprawling level design. I get that, but I see so much to love about this game that I hope others can at least see those same parts, especially with the recent update. Even after thirty hours I still enjoy building new guns and setting new time records and scrounging up new parts to play with. There’s absolutely a great game here, but it might be buried under some layers you don’t much care for. Hopefully though, you can dig down to the good bits and find the same charming, engrossing title that I did.