Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Run 'n' Gun Games #7

Mercenary Kings (2013)
By: Tribute Games Genre: Run 'n' Gun Players: 1-4 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: PC
Also Available For: PlayStation 4

It was over three years ago now that I first heard about Canadian indie developer, Tribute Games, which was founded by a trio of ex-Ubisoft developers. The game that caught my eye was actually their debut release - Wizorb - a slightly RPG-ish take on the bat 'n' ball genre. As unlikely a combination as that might sound, the result was undoubtedly the finest such game I've played to date, surpassing even the great Arkanoid for sheer awesomeness. As you might therefore imagine, I've been awaiting their next game with a great deal of interest, and now... it's here! Yes that's right, after these long years of waiting and hoping, Tribute's second game has finally arrived and, rather than being a Wizorb sequel or spin-off, it's an entirely new game too!

In case you couldn't already guess from the title, Mercenary Kings, is a run 'n' gunner starring 'the most skilled team of warriors-for-hire on Earth' who are called into action when the 'fearsome forces of CLAW', led by a dastardly-sounding fellow called Baron, seize a secret Laboratory Base on Mandragora Island with the chief intention of developing the 'Mandrake Project'. Your base of operations for the resulting campaign is Camp Crown and it's here, after a brief training mission, that you begin the game. First you need to choose which of the two 'Super Infantry Experts' you want to play as - the laconic King (male), or the jiggly-boobed Empress (female, as you were probably hoping) - but Camp Crown is home to a good few other members of your team as well.

The most important ones include Colonel Tasker (see him to choose from the list of missions), Ironside (Bladed Weapon Expert), Lawless (Firearms Expert), Golden Gate (Supply & Storage Expert), and Dr. Bluebell (Science Advisor & Medical Personnel), but there are numerous others hanging around too, and you can talk to them all or employ their services as necessary. Their relevance with regards to the latter becomes more apparent as you spend some time playing the game but before that you need to select a mission. These are several types of these including rescue, neutralise, gathering, rendezvous, and infiltration, and they're grouped into ten ranks - you start as a lowly Private, eventually working towards achieving the rank of General. Which will take a looong time.

Upon choosing a mission you get a short briefing screen detailing your objective (or objectives - there are usually more than one), time limit, and cash reward (you are a mercenary, don't forget!) before getting choppered in. The stages are primarily located either in and around rather Vietnam-like jungles, through underground passages, within various military/industrial installations, or, more usually, all of these. There are several different locations but each of them hosts numerous missions so before long they all become very familiar meaning the emphasis is much more on the mission objectives (usually shooting stuff up) rather than exploring! This is actually a relief in a way as the often-strict time-limits don't really give you the opportunity for casually nosing about the place.

Indeed, the locations often seem dauntingly complex to start with and the first time you encounter one you'll probably get lost and run out of time like I did - oof! For example, you can generally move left or right from your starting point but you'll also very quickly have the option of climbing higher or venturing underground by way of staggered platforms and many ladders, or entering doorways which lead to new locations or other parts of the stage, and even then the paths often branch in all directions too! This means it's fairly easy to make your way around via a multitude or routes and there are a good few secrets to discover too. Of primary concern, however, should be the enemies and these are considerable in type as well as in number.

Most of the enemies are split into two groups - human and robot. The former predictably consists of many different kinds of soldier, most armed with knives or various types of guns, and who can be found standing or laying all over the place hoping to cap King or Empress. Some of them take cover between shots while others have shields, either made of metal or even people (hostages), and later human enemies include ones with flamethrowers or electrical thingies. The robotic contingent is largely made up of several different flying drones and sentry guns but there are a few weirder ones such as snails and crawlers (spidery things). As well as all this, some of the larger enemies and most of the bosses are a combination of both types of enemy - robotic/mechanical devices piloted by humans - and these are unsurprisingly the strongest adversaries.

Sounds like you could benefit from some formidable armaments then, especially considering that most of the enemies respawn the moment they leave the screen. Happily, this is an area in which Mercenary Kings excels to a most unexpected degree! You start the game with a knife and a reasonable enough sidearm which can take out early enemies within a handful of shots but it soon becomes necessary to upgrade. This isn't done by collecting power-ups though. Here you need to build your weapon upgrades, with the help of Lawless of course, who can give you a quite bewildering amount of choice. First of all there are several types of guns including assault rifles, handguns, machine guns, magnums, shotguns, sniper rifles, and sub-machine guns.

Each type of gun has a number of basic 'frames' which can then be modified with many different parts such as stocks, barrels, mags, and sights to create your very own custom hand-cannon! There are several types of ammo, too, such as armour-piercing, fragmenting, and homing, and some weapons are based on one of four elements (fire, ice, acid, electricity) with some enemies being more or less resistant to one type than another. This all makes for a huge range of weaponry, but there's a catch - most of the modding options are not available to start with. One way to unlock them is to collect the materials to make them. The enemies, you see, often drop items upon their demise such as fabric, leather, wood, silicon, glass, even bone, and numerous kinds of metal.

Collecting these bits and pieces can often be essential, certainly if you want to build weapons, but even with all right materials, these things still aren't free of charge. That's where the money from your missions comes in. This can not only be used to buy gun upgrades but there are also tonnes of other things you can acquire from your fellow Kings. Ironside, for example, can offer you dozens of knives and other bladed weapons, Golden Gate can provide you with supplies like health packs, grenades, adrenaline shots, etc, and Dr. Bluebell can even build you 'mods' which allow you to influence various minor aspects of the gameplay (e.g. makes all enemies drop materials) or trade off one character attribute in favour of another (e.g. faster movement but less armour). Beware though - the more weight your character carries, the slower he/she will move.

As you may well be thinking at this point, playing Mercenary Kings is not an entirely straightforward affair, especially considering it's 'just' a run 'n' gunner - not usually among the most cerebral of genres at the best of times! There's even more to it than I've detailed here, actually, but I'd be going on for pages and pages if I tried to cover everything - eeep! The first thing that struck me about it, however, was the fantastic presentation. It was evident immediately that the wonderful pixel art and chiptunes I encountered when playing Wizorb are back, and better than ever too. An animated title screen and decent intro greet you upon loading the game but the in-game graphics really are superb.

Amusingly, I read over on the fine Steam Community pages someone criticising the visuals, comparing them unfavourably with an NES title, but this is of course complete nonsense and written by what I can only assume is a PS4-licking modern game fan. This may be a 2D game but the visual style is effing awesome! The level of detail is far superior to anything the NES or even the SNES would be capable of (not that NES games are ugly, obviously). The background and foreground graphics look lush and vibrant and feature superb colouring, and the attractive sprites are even more detailed. There's also lovely attention to detail with things like sunbeams coming through the trees, cute little creatures running around (you can even shoot these poor little things for their meat or pelts), and some great lighting (like flashes from your gunfire).

The animation is all silky-smooth as well - Kings and enemies alike have lots of different facial expressions, and combat/fire fights can get quite bloody - a headshot often causes an enemy's noggin to swell up then explode if you're lucky! Splendidly, the audio is nearly as impressive as the visuals, featuring great effects, some good speech here and there, and lots of catchy chiptunes including 'incidental' music as well as more rousing mission themes. My first impressions of the gameplay, however, were that it was overly complex and too tough. For example, control of King and Empress is smooth and responsive and they're pretty versatile but there are a lot of buttons to memorise.

As well as being able to move and shoot in four directions, our heroes also have buttons to jump, shoot, perform rolls, stab, reload their gun, cycle through their backpack items (gun, radio, ration packs, explosives, etc), call up a menu, a map, and radio team members for help. It might not sound overly demanding but it can get mighty confusing to start with, especially in the heat of battle. I still press the wrong button occasionally, costing myself some valuable energy or even a life! Luckily your energy meter can be refilled partially with ration packs, fully with medkits, and can also be recharged (painstakingly slowly!) by entering any medical building. After a while though, you should be dashing around like a seasoned pro, jumping between ladders, shooting enemies beneath you, deflecting bullets with your knife, and performing all manner of time-saving tricks.

Even with these many helpful skills mastered, however, Baron and 'his CLAW miscreants' won't be bested overnight. The latest (final?) release features over 100 missions and some later maps can get huge, not to mention very tough! Does the size and relative complexity of the game count against it though? After all, the actual gameplay is more or less the same from start to finish - run, jump, shoot, repeat, over and over. Well, with the immense size and challenge in mind, this is a game that might start dragging a bit after a while - if you're one of those gamers that plays intensively from the moment of purchase to the moment of completion. If you're like me and prefer to drop in and out, doing a few missions here and there though, this is a game that will last you months.

Having said that, even if you do go on a hardcore blasting marathon of the type I know many gamers insist on these days, there's so much to see and do here that I can't imagine Mercenary Kings ever being anything but supremely entertaining anyway. On top of all the stuff mentioned already, four player games are supported here (online or otherwise) and, being a modern game, there are of course 'achievements' too. As mentioned, it's a slightly overwhelming game to begin with but having now spent a good couple of weeks playing it whenever the opportunity presented itself, I can safely say I can't remember the last time I had so much fun with a game, especially an example of this usually entertaining-but-frustrating genre.

In fact, despite earning consistent comparisons with the mighty Metal Slug, this isn't really a pure run 'n' gun game at all - it has much stronger platforming aspects than most examples and even some dashings of RPG-lite, much like its predecessor. This combined with the wonderful visual style, superb music, great sense of humour, long challenge, and close to flawless design, result in the best, most endlessly entertaining 'new' game I've played in a long time. It also means that Wizorb wasn't just a flukey one-off or isolated flash of brilliance - Tribute Games have succeeded in redefining two genres and are now officially one of my favourite developers, indie or otherwise. Bring on the next release is about all I can say! Don't leave it so long next time though lads. Please?

RKS Score: 9/10

Special Note: Many thanks to those splendid fellows at Tribute for the review copy of their extraordinarily spiffy title! Please add an option to deactivate the timer though, just for me?! ;)



  1. Awesome write-up. My son and I have been playing this a lot on our PS4 of late. He's better than I am, but we're having a blast with it all the same!

  2. Thanks! It ended up being a bit longer than I had intended (the review, not the game) but, as I said, there's so much to the game! My new favourite run 'n' gun game!

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