Mercenary Kings

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Tribute Games for PC, Mac, PS4, Vita, and Ouya, originally released in 2014.
In Mercenary Kings, you take on the role of one of the titular Mercenary Kings, a skilled group of guns for hire, as you face off against an evil corporation known as the Cybernetic Loyal Active Weapon clan, or CLAW for short. These CLAW baddies stole an experimental chemical called the Mandrake Formula, which can be used to replicate cells and strengthen soldiers, and even give them new abilities.

During the course of stealing this formula, CLAW managed to wipe out most of your brothers and sisters in arms, while also seizing control of an island and its secret Laboratory Base, thus qualifying themselves for an all-expenses-paid trip to beatdown town. As you might expect, the agents of CLAW intend to put this formula to nefarious use, and it is up to you to infiltrate their newly-acquired facilities and put a stop to their plans.

Despite its Metal Slug-inspired appearance, this is not a straightforward action game, but rather a somewhat nonlinear adventure. You will be shooting everything you see (for the most part) and watching some sexy pixel explosions, but you’ll be spending an equal amount of time exploring the open environments and gathering materials to build new weapons and customize your arsenal. And despite this RPG-style progression system, the game is not a deep character-driven adventure either. There is an overarching narrative and cutscenes that play after major events, but the story takes a backseat to the open gameplay and robust customization tools.

Missions are doled out a few at a time and they may be completed in any order, and even replayed if you’re on the hunt for a desired material. As you complete each mission, you earn rank points, which in turn opens up new missions. There are 10 ranks with about 10 missions each, for a total of 100, although you are free to skip over several of the missions. The final mission in each rank is generally the toughest, and completing it opens the next set of missions.

Missions come in several varieties. For instance, gathering missions have you looking for specific materials, rendezvous missions have you meeting up with an important contact, and kill missions have you killing one or more enemies. There are a few other varieties, but they all essentially boil down to finding or killing something.

This structure can lead to some repetition, particularly given that there are far more missions than there are environments. Each environment is broken into with multiple areas that can be accessed in any order, allowing you to explore them at will. This allows for some variety between missions where you head toward a specific goal versus missions where you run around and explore the entire level. The enemies you encounter sometimes change depending on the mission and its rank, occasionally mixing in a few more powerful enemies or adding things like bomb dropping helicopters over a previously open area.

However, this does not disguise the fact that you are indeed returning to the same areas time and again. Those ladders you climbed on your first run are still there, and so is the sniper on the ledge, and that doorway leads to a chest with a first aid kit. Adding to this, there are many missions where you will be stepping over every inch of the level, particularly if you’re attempting to complete the optional secondary objectives, which generally require that you find a specific number of materials or kill a certain number of enemies. Granted, a major impetus behind the gameplay is the gathering of materials to craft new and better weapons (more on this in a bit), but in a game with 100 missions, this leads to a lot of repeated gameplay.

You have a variable height 1.5x jump, but there is a momentary delay when pressing the JUMP button. Mechanically, this is to allow the soldier to bend his knees prior to initiating a jump, but it does stilt the action somewhat until you become accustomed to it, as it runs contrary to most action games. You can also perform a forward roll to get through narrow passages, and you have the ability to duck, which is also how you pick up materials dropped from chests and killed enemies. You have a melee weapon in the form of a knife that you can extend to the left or right, and you also have a gun that you can fire in 4 directions.

At any time, you may enter a menu that allows you to view a map of the area and review your mission objectives. However, the game does not pause when entering menus, so you will need to find a safe area to hide out while doing this. All of the game’s missions are timed, and the timer keeps running as well, meaning that there is no way to actually pause the game. In multiplayer missions, this prevents any one player from stopping the game for the others, but it is a bit unreasonable to assume that players might not need to stop the game for a bit (like when your house/baby is crying/on fire), particularly during gathering missions which can run upwards of 20 minutes.

At the start of your adventure, you don’t have much in the way of firepower… just a basic handgun. But this is more than sufficient to make your way through the early missions, particularly given that you have three lives (although you lose some of your mission completion money if you die) and a number of health restoratives at your disposal. Completing the mission will return you to base camp with your lives and health replenished.

All of the weapons have infinite ammo, but they must be reloaded when the magazine is emptied, or they can be manually reloaded at will. Taking a page from Gears of War, a reloading indicator rewards the player with more powerful projectiles when tapped with the right timing. Clicking the RELOAD button in the green area grants you a bit of extra damage per reloaded bullet; yellow gives you the standard power, but it’s still faster than waiting for the auto reload; and any other spot on the bar causes your gun to jam for a moment and temporarily removes your ability to fire. The reload speed and indicator sizes vary by weapon, so you’ll get different results when using a handgun versus a shotgun or a machine gun. Strangely, the reload indicator may only be activated by pressing the RELOAD button, and not the FIRE button, which is somewhat counterintuitive since the indicator appears automatically when you fire your last bullet.

While the ultimate goal of the game is to run and gun your way through the missions, the crafting system is the real foundation of your continued progress. Materials may be gathered during missions by finding chests and killing enemies. These materials may be used to craft weapons and build mods.

Rather than just offering a few canned weapon options, Mercenary Kings allows you to build weapons piece by piece, with each component affecting the assembled weapon’s stats. Weapons fall into a number of categories, including handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, sniper rifles, etc., but you can mix and match any compatible component. Gun barrels affect your weapon’s range, magazines impact your ammo capacity and reload speed, sights and stocks increase accuracy, and ammunition comes in a number of useful varieties. Each weapon component also has an assigned weight, so loading up on heavier components may increase your damage output while slowing your movement speed and making you less agile.

Ammunition is only compatible with certain weapon types, but it can greatly impact your abilities, ranging from bullets that spread out to cover a wide area, bouncing projectiles, oversized projectiles, and even homing missiles. You can even add elemental affinities to your attacks, causing extra damage with fire, ice, or electricity to those enemies that are weak against it. In RPG style, numbers appear over the heads of attacked enemies to show how much damage you are dealing, and ammo types can affect enemies in different ways. For instance, equipping penetrating or caustic projectiles will allow you to do damage against shielded enemies, even when they are blocking your attacks. On the other hand, a fire-infused shotgun spray is great against large numbers of weaker enemies. The game offers a number of save slots where you may store any particularly effective weapon configurations for future use.

Gathered materials can also be used to construct better body armor to increase your life bar, forge better knives that do more damage and give you greater range, and build mods which act as passive buffs. Mods can do some pretty basic stuff like granting you extra health with each restorative, but many of the mods come with a tradeoff. So, you might be able to increase your movement speed while sacrificing some defense, or increase the rate of item drops while reducing the number of rare items. Up to two mods may be equipped at any given time, and they may be switched out between missions. Knives and guns can also be switched or customized between missions.

There are several inventory items that may be purchased outright without requiring crafting. These include medkits and rations for health restoration, grenades for dealing extra damage, riot shields for blocking projectiles, C4 for blowing up certain walls, and stun grenades which allow you to bring back captives alive during capture missions. Here again, each item has a certain amount of weight and you are limited to the number of each you can carry. You must balance your agility with the ability to carry potentially useful items, but you are allowed a one-time call for a supply drop mid-mission, which will give you a health pack that completely restores your health.

You will occasionally find items within the level, usually health restoratives, but sometimes grenades or C4. If your backpack is full, you won’t be able to pick them up, but you have the option of dropping items from your pack if you like. Fortunately, materials have no weight, so you can feel free to grab up all the metal, wood, complex components, canisters, and animal meat that you find. There’s even a hunting area to the right of your base camp that lets you run around and slaughter bunnies, piggies, and other cute creatures for harvesting purposes, granting a few materials that don’t appear during the proper missions.

Ranking up not only opens new levels, but also opens up new weapons and mods for crafting, which in turn gives you a new set of materials to hunt. This is the basic gameplay loop. You kill enemies and gather materials during missions, which allows you to craft more powerful weapons, which lets you take on tougher missions with better materials, which allows you to craft even more powerful weapons.

The game has a number of bosses, many of whom drop rare items when killed. The bosses only come in a couple of varieties, which makes it easy to recognize their patterns, although they may have different attacks depending on the mission. For instance, you will regularly face off against a bipedal mech, but it may have various elemental affinities each time. There is also a cutesy robot hamster controlled by dog with eyepatch, and one of its attacks allows it to launch missiles out its butt. Some missions have a designated area where the boss will appear, while others have you exploring the environment in an attempt to seek the boss out. The map has areas marked with a skull and crossbones, indicating areas where a boss may appear. You can also buy a mod that shows you exactly where the boss will show up.

Character animations are charming and full of extra details, thanks to the work of Paul Robertson. Bosses have loads of animations, and there are lots of little touches like muzzle flashes showing on characters, cute idle animations, and spent shell casings bouncing across the ground. There are also a number of over-the-top death animations for enemies, including heads that swell and explode, mechanical contraptions that burst into an array of gears and scrap, and soldiers that are literally ripped in half in ludicrous bloody sprays. There is a bit of humor to be found as well, and references to other games, such as the Metal Gear Solid-style codec screens, and lines like “This whole operation reminds me of ‘The Alien Wars’”, referencing Contra 3.

Players can go it alone, or take up to 4 mercs into local co-op for maximum destruction. The game is played out in splitscreen, allowing the mercs to team up or spread out to complete multiple objectives simultaneously. While the number of playable characters is limited, there are several color schemes for each, and new palettes open up as you complete missions.

Mercenary Kings was developed by Tribute Games, a Canadian studio headed by Jonathan Lavigne, whose previous 2D credits include Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, Ninja Senki, and the GBA versions of TMNT, Open Season, Kong, and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

Art for the game was created by Jonathan “Persona” Kim and Stéphane Boutin, with animation by Paul Robertson, all of whom worked on the visuals for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. Paul Robertson’s animation credits also include Fez, Scribblenauts Unlimited, Wizorb, Shantae: Risky's Revenge, Contra 4, Sigma Star Saga, and a number of other 2D games.

Tribute Games is responsible for the quirky Arkanoid-meets-RPG title Wizorb, which has players bashing blocks to restore a besieged village to its former glory. Gameplay is fairly typical of other Arkanoid-style games, except that you’re killing enemies, breaking open treasure chests, and using spells instead of just breaking blocks. Destroyed blocks drop coins and gems that can be spent in shops to purchase powerups, potions that restore your magic meter, and keys that can be used to break open locked doors.

You don’t have complete control over your bouncing orb, but the spell system allows you break blocks and kill enemies with fireballs, push the orb with wind, temporarily control the orb, change the orb’s starting position, and even charge the orb to send it bashing through multiple blocks in succession. But you must be careful of curses which can shrink your wand, reduce your gold or magic, or cause the orb to speed up or cease doing damage temporarily.

The game also features boss battles where you take on big monsters and their minions by bashing the orb into them or hitting them with fireball spells. But bosses have special attacks that can destroy your wand, leaving you to watch helplessly as your orb falls off the bottom of the screen. Fortunately, you can stock up on lives by earning or purchasing them in the levels leading up to the boss, and you’ll want to take advantage of bonus rooms that come filled with gold, potions, and extra lives.