Fresh takes on old ideas can still thrill, but they fail to impress when developers adhere too closely to a template. Mercenary Kings, a 2D platform/shooter hybrid that often plays like classic Mega Man games, avoids such a fate by taking on the appearance of a bloodier Metal Slug and mixing that with item crafting and objectives that more closely resemble newer fare such as Monster Hunter. It's an unusual mix that occasionally works well, but only if you give it the chance it might not immediately seem to deserve.
The adventure begins once you pick a mercenary: either Empress or King, who recently perished in a catastrophic battle against a military organization called CLAW. Both heroes are now alive thanks to experimental science made possible by the Mandragora Project (named after the lush jungle island where the research lab was built). Their enemies hope to use that same precious knowledge not to save lives, but to usher in a horrifying new world that makes the current population superfluous. There are some surprisingly dark themes, offset by cartoony artwork and a fast-paced soundtrack that keep it all from becoming depressing.
As your chosen hero, you must complete numerous timed missions for your superior. They almost always take place in sprawling action stages that feature a primary directive--infiltrate, sabotage, capture, neutralize, rendezvous, or gather--along with optional conditions you can satisfy for additional rewards. Despite the stated differences, you're usually just expected to shoot everything that moves until you bring down a boss or grab a key item. There are over 100 stages, arranged in a tiered system by rank and taking place within a limited number of unique areas. A paltry ten core missions walk you along the path to the closing credits, but you might spend 40 or 50 hours navigating overly similar corridors and engaging palette-swapped adversaries in order to access those additional ranks, story missions, and resources. It's a shame there aren't more visually unique environs and enemy units.
A typical stage offers you 15 to 30 minutes to do your damage, but you rarely need that much time. You can bring only a limited number of supplies with you from camp, and you generally need to fill up half your space with C4 or shock bombs, so the real challenge is resource management. You can call in support crates a couple of times per stage, but it's best to save those for emergency situations, such as when you need still more explosives to blast through arbitrary barriers that sometimes await you. For health recovery, you should instead seek out the infirmaries that serve as checkpoints and safe zones. You recuperate while you wait. As you improve your armor, the time required to fill a drained life meter extends past a full minute. There's no option to considerably speed up the pace, either, even if you're prepared to occupy one of your two precious passive ability slots with a regenerative skill.
A paltry 10 core missions walk you along the path to the closing credits, but you spend much of the 40 or 50 hours navigating overly similar corridors and engaging palette-swapped adversaries.
The good news is that when you're playing well and have learned how stages and enemies function, it's relatively easy to go long stretches without taking damage, provided you're patient. Early on, you can almost always avoid enemy shots by simply ducking, or you can deflect them with a well-timed thrust of your chosen blade. A lot of maps also feature showdowns with minibosses or your primary target, but it's easy to learn and predict their attack patterns. Things only get difficult if you let yourself hurry, because then it's common to make costly mistakes.
Mercenary Kings becomes more manageable as you progress. When you first start playing, there's a lot to keep track of, and you might not even realize you have some of the resources you do. The developers don't spend much time introducing you to the basics, which is nice because it allows you to jump right in and start causing mayhem in the name of justice, but you need to pay close attention to the various systems at play. If you don't, you're in for a miserable time and probably missing about half of the game's appeal.
The hardest element to overlook is the gun crafting, which provides ample incentive for you to keep completing missions, though it's convoluted. Every enemy may drop a valuable component, such as copper or leather or something rarer, and those goodies let you piece together a slew of weapons. There are machine guns, shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, and more. Optional barrels, scopes, magazines, and stocks affect attack power, range, and even potential for elemental damage. Those can be mixed and matched, if you find complementary parts, and the process is rewarding. It's amazing how much different the same areas feel when you're blazing through them while firing homing missiles, versus taking a more measured approach. The downside is that the stronger you are, the slower you move. If you're overly encumbered, movement is exasperatingly sluggish. There's always a trade-off in Mercenary Kings.
Even the promising multiplayer mode has unfortunate drawbacks. Unless you're playing with a friend, it's difficult to know what to expect. You could easily meet someone who doesn't understand the game like you do, which is frustrating if he or she then shoots a captive you were supposed to free or exterminates a boss the mission clearly calls for you to capture. Voice chat isn’t supported, which could have allowed some much-needed communication. Instead, there are text phrases you can select with your controller, though no option for "Don’t kill him, you idiot!" Additionally, cohorts who fall in combat must resume play from the last checkpoint unless you brought along an adrenaline needle instead of something more useful. In theory, having an ally by your side means you still come out ahead, but not if he's unwittingly sabotaging your efforts and grabbing all of the loot.
Technical issues provide another annoyance. Even when you're playing alone, the game sometimes lags. You might be jumping along a series of ledges over a spike-lined pit, and suddenly the game glitches for a crucial second. Or you're fighting a boss and the action pauses, only to resume an instant later as you're taking damage. It doesn't happen persistently, but it's irritating when it does. Then there are the load times. Simply booting up the game takes long enough that you might wonder if your system has frozen. You wait 30 seconds or more as most missions load, and then again when they conclude. If you're frequently entering and exiting missions, it's downright tedious.
Mercenary Kings pays homage to a hodgepodge of classic games hailing from an era when bits were the digital currency. Charming art design, an infectious soundtrack, and compelling weapon crafting supplement the standard action, but too much recycled content, irritating technical issues, and occasionally confounding design prevent the project from ever surpassing its inspiration. The result appeals to an old-school sensibility, but you'll need to overcome some unfortunate obstacles to see the appeal.