Mercenary Kings

Mercenary Kings' cartoony militarism and beautiful pixel artwork conjure up memories of SNK's Metal Slug series, but the similarities mostly end with the eyes. There's a deep and fairly complex homage to Monster Hunter under the hood, and it's packed with materials to gather, gear to craft, and baddies to capture...so long as you're prepared to spend some hours learning its ways and don't mind plenty of frustration and repetition along the way.

Developer Tribute manages to create and maintain an aesthetic all its own in this debut. You'll see the same areas too often in Mercenary Kings, but the amazing details in its pixel artwork invite at least a few return visits. Character sprites are big and bold on screen, rife with expressive animation (the way a grunt's head expands into a bloody pop when you land a headshot is transfixing). Cute and huntable wildlife bound around the borders. That mid-century military vibe means that you'll be seeing and crafting a whole lot of guns, and they all look cool while providing plenty of functional variation as well. The soundtrack is filled with fitting and bouncy underscores to the action, too.

There are also plenty of stubborn and punishing catches to counterpoint Mercenary Kings' art design that will hook some players and incense others. As in its inspiration, you'll take on typically brief missions across a small handful of environments that are used repeatedly. You collect materials from felled enemies, craft new guns from the spoils and engage in a "hunt" game's signature offering - capturing bosses you face instead of defeating them by weakening them before using a stun item. This is a game about preparation as much as action; going into a mission with the proper explosive or regenerative array is key, and limited space in your character's backpack means you must choose wisely. The going can get tough, but as long as you're picking up materials you come across and otherwise pay attention, nothing's insurmountable.

This probably sounds familiar to someone already invested in a game like this, though they'll be the most disappointed to hear that Mercenary Kings' beautiful art and underlying core are often better in concept than theory.

My single biggest gripe with Mercenary Kings is how severely it fumbles the flow of a capture. Bosses will appear at one of several "boss points" labelled on your map, and after you fight them a while they'll instantly retreat to another point, leaving you to two-step to the next stage of the fight. This is a little frustrating because using the map to get around some of the later areas is confusing, and it can be extremely frustrating because the rhyme or reason bosses have for coming and going from battle was completely lost on me. Often, I'd track a boss only to have it pack and leave immediately, before a single shot had transpired in either direction. Having to potentially walk across the map just because the boss decided to split is annoying to begin with; when you then consider every mission is performed against a timer, it becomes a critical issue. It wasn't common to lose out on a mission purely because a boss decided to play peek-a-boo with me for an entire mission, but it wasn't completely uncommon, either. The way bosses respond to danger and make a final stand for survival feels a lot more authentic and sensical in other games of this kind.

Trekking through Mercenary Kings can feel without end sometimes; the feel of your movements attempts to mimic the deliberate feel of Monster Hunter's or Dark Souls' use of animation priority, but the net effect is that everything feels slow and sticky.

Most non-capture missions don't go far beyond "kill this" or "collect enough of this material" kinds of dispatches. Mercenary Kings tries to combat this by keeping the emphasis on the long haul, but it doesn't pan out. It becomes less about what your directives are and more about putting your loot to work unlocking unorthodox weapon types or vanity items for your character and home base, but the uneven and repetitive gameplay don't quite serve that loop and keep things interesting. Having a handful of areas to return to and master over time is another key component of these sorts of action RPGs, but there's not much to adapt to here. There's little in the way of unique features for each environment, and palette swapping enemies and tactical scenarios becomes commonplace all too early.

Mercenary Kings' heart is always in the right place, but it never goes far enough to develop into something lasting you'd want to spend hours delving into. I get the sense that theme will drive players off, and some of its depth will go undiscovered because of that.

These sorts of games are typically better with others, and Mercenary Kings lets you make a group of four, online or off. It works alright, but the featureless multiplayer experience makes the whole thing pretty underwhelming. Voice chat is supported, but if my matches were any indication, not a whole lot of PS4 users are taking advantage at the moment. You can call out canned warnings about imminent grenades or loot, say, but there's no other option to directly communicate. Typically, this meant everyone sort of wandering off and doing their own thing with no attempt at keeping in touch with the team. Spreading out can ease the issue of bosses retreating around the map too much, since it's likely at least one of the four will be near a given spawn point. But in just about every other way, multiplayer in the wild felt totally disconnected and unnecessary. I spent the vast majority of my playtime solo and was totally fine, but in a genre where multiplayer is a major draw, it feels a little hollow.

There's a fair bit to like about Mercenary Kings, but it's tough to ignore the fact that a lot of its competition is more stable and substantial (including more exciting ways to play with others). While its 8-bit action RPG fusion fulfills a baseline addictive quality, frequent missteps and repetitiousness pushed me too far away to ever get hooked.