Disclaimer: The writer was provided with a code for the purpose of this review. All thoughts and opinions expressed in the review are the writer’s own and are not influenced by the developer and/or publisher in any way.
A super army is out to take over the world, and a group of special operatives must come together to stop them. This is Mercenary Kings: Reloaded Edition, created by the aptly named development studio Tribute Games as an homage to the classic arcade series Metal Slug. As a fan of the Metal Slug series and someone who grew up spending countless quarters at the NeoGeo arcade machine, I can say with confidence that Mercenary Kings is a worthy spiritual successor to the gruesome, war-focused 2D platform shooter.
Mercenary Kings first debuted on the PS4 back in April of 2014, and was added to Sony’s PlayStation Plus subscription service the same month. At this time, the PS4 was still in its infancy, and PS4 owners were thirsty for fresh games for their brand new system. Flash-forward nearly four years later, and Tribute Games is back with Mercenary Kings: Reloaded Edition for the Nintendo Switch, a re-release of the original Mercenary Kings with bonus content included.
You play a member of a military force called The Mercenary Kings that has been sent to the island of Mandragora to rescue Dr. James Neil, Chief Engineer on the Mandrake Project and current captive of C.L.A.W. (Cyber Loyalist Active Weapons). Through the Mandrake Project, Dr. Neil and his team have created the Mandrake Formula, which has the power of bio-regeneration. C.L.A.W. covets the formula to execute their plan of world domination, and you and your team must make sure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of Byron Baron, the commander of C.L.A.W.
Mercenary Kings: Reloaded takes the gameplay style of Metal Slug and expands upon it. You’re dropped into an open level, given an objective and time limit, and left alone to tackle the mission how you see fit. That’s not to say there are a bevy of options on how to get the job done – that’s usually pretty set. However, you can go around and gather materials first, if you feel you’ll have enough time to still complete the objective before the time limit. Gathering materials is vital to the progression of your character, as you’ll use those materials to customize and build new weapons, upgrade your armor, build mods that give you perks and special abilities, and decorate your campsite.
The campsite acts as the command center, where you’ll do everything from mission planning to customizing your weapons. When you’re ready for action, you talk to your commander and he’ll give you the missions available to you at that time. Some missions will give extra objectives as well as secret objectives to complete, but these are all optional. Once you complete a mission, you earn Rank Points that are used to unlock more missions and increase your Overall Rank (Recruit, Private, Corporal, etc.) Mission objectives range from material gathering missions, neutralizations, hostage rescues, and more.
Missions tend to take, on average, about 10 minutes each, which makes Mercenary Kings: Reloaded a prime fit for Nintendo’s handheld/home console hybrid. If you only have a few minutes to spare, you can still get a mission or two done and make some solid progress.
The controls, for the most part, play well. When jumping, there seems to be a slight input delay, and player movement is a bit on the slower side; this game is by no means a “twitch platformer.” Instead, Mercenary Kings: Reloaded is a bit more strategic in its approach – even your weapon’s weight can slow you down, so you’ll have multiple factors to consider when gearing up for a new mission.
Reloading your gun is an important mechanic on Mercenary Kings: Reloaded. When your clip runs out of ammo, a bar will pop up above your character’s head. You will have a very short time to land a thin marker inside of a small green space. If you do hit green, your ammo reloads, also awarding you a buff to the damage that the next clip does. If you land the marker in the slightly larger yellow space, your ammo will reload with no extra benefits. If you panic and land the marker in the grey area, your gun will jam for a few seconds before reloading your ammo. Otherwise, you can just let the bar run its course and the ammo will reload on its own. It’s a nice risk/reward system that, at first, seems really simple to use, but once you’re involved in hectic firefights or boss battles, it becomes difficult to master.
The weapons range from typical to outlandish – you even have with the ability to use musical instruments like Guitars and Trombones as bases for guns. My favorite weapon is the Pizza Cutter, as there’s something that feels endlessly satisfying slicing enemy troops with a modest spinning disc.
Rushing through the 2D Side-scrolling levels isn’t a wise decision unless you’ve been through the level enough times to know it through-and-through, and you’ll definitely have plenty of chance to get familiar with Mercenary Kings’s levels.
In fact, repetition is this game’s biggest flaw. The level design is very strong, the soundtrack is astonishing, and the 16-bit art style is incredible. However, you have to play through the same level, hear the same song, and look at the same backdrops for an hour or two before you’re allowed into a new area. Because each level is open-ended, this was never something that hampered my personal enjoyment of the game, but some will find it tedious. The levels are handcrafted, so each level does have a well thought out map, but some gamers like their platformers to be more of a straightforward, level-to-level experience.
The story for Mercenary Kings: Reloaded won’t win any awards for its depth or sentiment, but that’s not what it’s aiming for. Instead, the game decides to stay light-hearted and whacky throughout. It’s self-aware without doing that annoying “wink at the camera” trope that many of these games shove into players’ faces. I wouldn’t say parody is the angle Mercenary Kings: Reloaded takes – rather, it reads as if elementary school children in the 90s were playing with G.I. Joe figures, making references to the movies and games they love while still taking things seriously enough to be invested. It works, though I do feel like more originality might have helped those moments of homage shine even better. Undoubtedly, there will be some who won’t care for the tributes, and some who won’t even understand the call-backs at all, but they’re a nice wink for those who grew up in the 80s and 90s.
Playing Mercenary Kings: Reloaded in Docked Mode with a Pro Controller was a terrific experience for the most part. I did come across some odd static that was attached to the music during a cutscene, but the problem wasn’t persistent. Mercenary Kings: Reloaded looked beautiful up on the TV, and it looked and ran just as smoothly in Portable Mode.
My only complaint is that the Minus Button (used to pull up your level map to locate mission objectives) is so close to the left joystick on the Joycon Controller that it was difficult to get to at times. You use your map a lot in Mercenary Kings: Reloaded, so this was an issue I was constantly dealing with in Portable Mode.
Mercenary Kings: Reloaded also offers up to 4-player co-op, locally or online. I tested out the local co-op with another person on the same Switch in Docked Mode, and even with only two players, Mercenary Kings splits the screen four ways, making the top two spots your gameplay windows and the bottom two spots your respective map windows. Co-op worked well and was engaging, but also has its frustrating moments, such as sending you back to a first aid building earlier in the level so you have to fight to catch up with your partner(s), only to be left with a quarter of your health when you do reach them. If you have a group of experienced people to play with, this won’t be so much of a problem, but it’s something to consider if you decide to play online.
I loved my time with Mercenary Kings: Reloaded Edition, but I suspect there are some who would be discouraged by the game’s repetitive gameplay and its occasional vagueness on how to complete mission objectives. With that being said, I highly recommend giving the game a shot, because it’s one of the coolest games to release on the Switch yet. Its gorgeous pixel art and brilliant soundtrack mixed with a solid gameplay loop provide an alluring and inviting addition to anyone’s Switch library. From the gruesome 16-bit violence to the voice samples that sound like they were pulled directly from the NeoGeo classics, I found myself smiling quite a bit while playing this charming platformer. But wait, there’s more! Mercenary Kings: Reloaded comes with content the original game didn’t have, including extra characters, new items and crafting recipes, and the ability to control one of the most glorious enemies in the game. With more than 20 hours of content on offer, there’s no doubt that Mercenary Kings: Reloaded is worth its asking price.
- Sensational soundtrack
- Beautiful pixel art
- Addictive gameplay
- Forces you to play the same levels multiple times
- Weighty controls won't be for everyone