Mercenary Kings PS4 review – crafty side-scrolling Tribute can be a Metal Slog

Mercenary Kings PS4

The retro movement in indie game development has caught its own tail. Its games no longer emulate the blockbusters of the early ’90s, but augment the timeless presentation of your most prized SNES cartridges with systems nobody was ready for in 1992. As it happens, some of us can barely hack them now.

Mercenary Kings PS4 review

Mercenary Kings is one such marriage of trial by fire arcade sensibilities and contemporary character-building. Tribute Games must be as sick of hearing it compared with Metal Slug as it is hearing, “It’s Borderlands meets Minecraft!” – but whack me with a pickaxe and force me to listen to wub-wub if there ain’t some truth in it.

Mercenary Kings PS4You’re a hunter-gatherer as much as a merc, scooping up lead, lithium and fox pelts like a weaponised magpie during challenging Contra-esque missions – materials vital for crafting new weapons, armour and character perks back at your base. There’s a long road of gear-gating ahead of you before you actually feel empowered and augmented, but hopping in on a stranger’s game and lusting after their corrosive laser pistol will certainly keep you in the scavenging mood.

Picking either King or Empress – the two surviving members of a once-proud gang of hired killers – you arrive on a tropical island (hanging one-armed from a chopper, natch) for a brief tutorial explaining the game’s mechanics. Diagonal shooting is out, weapon crafting and co-op are in. Easy.

Not easy. Alone or with other mercs, the opening hours are bewildering, often frustrating and very, very grindy. This isn’t a game that holds your hand and gives your hair a reassuring tousle when you don’t do that well – proficiency in the jungle, POW camps and research labs of Mercenary Kings comes from trial and error and oh so many deaths.

You’re a hunter-gatherer as much as a merc, scooping up lead, lithium and fox pelts like a weaponised magpie”

Mercenary Kings PS4That’s very in-keeping with the games that inspired its sumptuous art style. When pixels last looked this good, game manuals were mandatory reading and final levels were Valhalla. Some of its challenges are more modern, though – in particular, every mission is designed for co-op play, to the extent that certain bosses are near-impossible to beat alone. Fine if you have three mates online at the time – otherwise you’re forced into starting a public game where you’re at the mercy of internet geniuses who are just as happy standing still and yelling, “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” via in-game chat as they are actually playing. You guys.

Persevere and Mercenary Kings redically improves; returning to areas that used to crush you with an unstoppable gun you built piece-by-piece, your regular quartet splitting up through its multi-pathed expanse, then returning to base (still hanging one-armed from a chopper, natch) is pure retro nectar. Just keep this endgame glory in mind when pressing through the chore-like opening.

Our Score

Score: 7