Mercenary Kings is a $15 loveletter to the mid-'90s shoot 'em up. As one of up to four interchangeable mercenaries you'll wade through a jungle rescuing prisoners, lobbing an unlimited supply of bullets at an unlimited supply of foes, and hoarding assorted odds and ends to craft new and improved implements of destruction. Why? Because reasons.
The game is the brainchild of developer Tribute Games, and is currently available as an early-access release on Steam. The run-and-gun gameplay and fantastic spritework are clearly reminiscent of the legendary Metal Slug series, but the developers have driven the action in a decidedly different direction.
You'll be approaching the game's levels through distinct missions: rescue a few POWs, take out a particular kind of enemy, track down a boss, or perhaps hoard some raw materials to spruce up your warcamp. Each mission has a set time limit and you'll need to roam the map, wading through enemies while completing objectives. The pace remain fast and chaotic but it's less Metal Slug or Contra, and more Mega Man dashed with a Metroidvania's exploratory bent.
It's also really, really good. The combat captures the spirit of classic side-scrolling shooters rather well, and introduces new twists to boot. An active reload mechanic (lifted wholesale from the Gears of War series, admittedly) creates a distinct sort of rhythm, requiring you to time your reload just right to boost your damage and avoid jamming your gun, which leaves you completely vulnerable.
Crafting is a bit simplistic, but allows you to create powerful weapons out of the junk enemies drop and adds an entirely new dimension to the levels and gameplay--provided you're willing to put the time in roaming levels and collecting odds and ends. Up to four players can get in on the action on a single PC (let's hope you have enough controllers), or over the internet. The game's animations are also fantastic, and lend a great deal of life and polish to what technically isn't a finished product.
Yes, as an early access game there's still plenty of work to be done. The levels feel varied, but you'll spend the bulk of your time running and gunning through the same jungle terrain, which gets a bit stale. There are currently about 60 missions, but many are variations of the same general idea (kill X, rescue Y, or gather Z). The single, endlessly looping music track can become a bit grating on the nerves, and the general lack of documentation or guides can make piecing together what you're supposed to be doing a bit bothersome. The game is also expressly designed to be played with an Xbox 360 controller--even if one isn't connected, you'll prompted to press start buttons and shown controller inputs, left to puzzle out the keyboard analogues on your own.
The $15 price tag gives me pause. There's certainly a full game here, and much of the work that's left to be done seems to be in the polish department. Still, even fifteen bucks is a bit of a premium price on Steam, and folks who aren't fans of the run and gun genre might find the action a bit on the shallow side. I'm a Metal Slug devotee and adore crafting, so this was a no brainer--like-minded souls won't regret showing their support.