Mercenary Kings is a Paul Robertson game all right. While its gameplay most readily invites comparison to Metal Slug, its closest visual cousin is Robertson’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Game. Mercenary Kings’ chunky pixels showcase his love of manga’s grotesque side: dead enemies’ heads swell and explode, foes noiselessly roar before evaporating in showers of claret. On paper, a 2D platform-shooter that riffs on ’80s action cinema may not allow the Australian animator to indulge his influences, but that doesn’t stop him having a bloody good go.
Tribute Games was set up by members of the team behind Scott Pilgrim, so it’s little surprise to see many of its older game’s traits reappear in Mercenary Kings. Both share an unusual jump, with a little delay before takeoff while a character bends their knees. Both give a poor first impression by starting too slowly. And both update old-fashioned templates with newer systems.
Some of Mercenary Kings’ inclusions work better than others. Borderlands-style weapon customisation is a fine fit, and the perk-like Mods are smartly balanced, with many buffs also presenting a trade-off. And while you can only carry two types of item into battle, you can call in alternatives with mid-mission airdrops. Gears Of War’s active reload is a pointless addition to this genre, though – the event bar that hovers overhead distracts your focus, slows this game’s pace as opposed to punctuating it, and even obscures the action. Elsewhere, a bladesmith sells increasingly wacky melee weapons, a chef cooks up single-mission health boosts, and you can buy banners and ornaments to decorate your tent.
It’s all understandable to a point – there’s only so much you can do with two-directional running and four-way gunning – but fatigue still soon sets in, despite the hundred-plus missions on offer. Early ones are exercises in endurance rather than skill, as you scour multitiered levels for materials or hostages, hindered by a confusing map. Things improve later on, but there are far more missions than stages, and you’re retreading old ground by the halfway mark. At least familiarity means you’re less likely to fall for dirty trial-and-error tricks.
If only Tribute had focused more on what Mercenary Kings does well. Robertson’s work is as eye-catching as ever, the crunchy chiptune soundtrack is marvellous, and the action is engrossing enough to make you briefly forget the bloat that surrounds it. But as a whole, Mercenary Kings is a case study in the perils of Early Access. The need to provide a steady flow of content to early buyers has birthed a glut of superfluous systems and a swollen set of missions – the wrong sort of substance to accompany Robertson’s style.