Version tested PlayStation 4
Can a game be too generous? In the case of Mercenary Kings, a retro-flavoured action game that mashes up Metal Slug's run-and-gun carnage with Terraria's foraging and crafting, the answer might well be yes.
This is a game with a supremely entertaining core that then gets spread far too thinly over 100 missions that sprawl across repetitive maps, until what was once sprightly and fun becomes stodgy and frustrating. It is, at least, the sort of bloat that comes from passionate indie developers with more ideas than they know what to do with, rather than the weary, box-ticking feature creep that soaks into big franchises that have outstayed their welcome.
The concept is arcade-simple. You are the Mercenary Kings: awesome warriors brought back from the dead with bionic abilities in order to rid a tropical island of the evil CLAW, a fiendish madman so ruthless that caps lock keys apparently jam in his presence.
After a short tutorial stage which explains the basics of how you get around, you find yourself in your base camp, where you'll return between missions. It's here you get to restock on health items and explosives, and also where you'll get your support team to install new bionic powers and create new weapons. The resources for this are harvested in the field, either from the obligatory destructible crates or dropped by defeated enemies. You start with a simple pistol, but once you've completed a few rescue operations you'll have access to characters who can craft customisable new guns, as well as knives.
There are the expected array of gun types, but you're free to make and swap parts from each to create hybrid weapons of your own choosing. Want a shotgun with the fire rate of an SMG? Or an assault rifle that shoots rockets? You can build those, and that's just using the initial basic array of parts. The more you rank up, the more cool things you can mix and match. You can also create ammo that delivers different status effects, such as incendiary, caustic and electric, provided you can find the right loot.
To get that loot you'll need to undertake missions, and it's here that Mercenary Kings both soars and stumbles. Missions have a variety of objectives, but the most common are rescue missions where you must find and free prisoners (by shooting them, rather bizarrely), gathering missions where you have to find certain amounts of crafting materials and hunt or capture missions where you'll have to find certain enemy types or defeat bosses. All involve jumping and climbing, platform-style, around reasonably large and complex maps where doorways, zip wires and ladders connect lots of separate areas.
You have a jump, the height and distance of which is determined by the weight of your gun, along with a duck-and-roll move which allows you to avoid damage from incoming fire. In terms of control, that's pretty much it. Simple and effective.
At first, it's a joy. The graphics are gorgeous, evoking the Super Nintendo era but using HD to add fine details that would never have been possible in the 1990s. Mercenary Kings comes from developers who worked on Ubisoft's Scott Pilgrim game, and that same art style has been carried across.
Gunplay is chunky and satisfying, with enemy types that range from simple stand-and-shoot soldiers to snipers, pike-wielding brutes and guys with metal shields and revolvers. There are also giant robot snails, because video games. There's a pleasing physicality to the shooting, with meaty feedback and cartoonishly gory results. The first time you swap your basic pistol for a crafted weapon with more oomph is a tactile pleasure.
What's missing is true freedom with regard to shooting. Never mind the full 360-degree sweep of a twin-stick game, in Mercenary Kings' retro world you can only aim in four directions, and many are the times when you'd kill for a simple diagonal. Enemies get to shoot at angles, but it's apparently beyond your cyborg limbs to perform such a feat.
For the first few ranks at least, the game's breezy and colourful tone, coupled with the solid, old-school arcade action, makes for a buoyant romp. Each time you return, laden down with wood, steel, leather and other materials, you know that you'll be heading out again soon with something even cooler to play with. Progression feels tangible and rewarding.
Or it does at first. With 100 missions sprawling ahead of you, that progress soon seems to slow down. Mission types don't vary enough and the same maps are reused too many times. Their maze-like design means that failure often comes not from defeat in combat but from having the seemingly generous mission timers run out as you trudge back and forth, trying to locate one missing prisoner, enemy or item. The game's map sometimes shows you where to go, but often doesn't, and since enemies respawn almost as soon as they're off-screen and health items are rare, exploration becomes a grind rather than a treat. In a game where almost every objective requires a lot of exploration, that's a problem.
Mercenary Kings is both a brilliant modern riff on classic arcade games and a frustrating chore
Local and online co-op helps somewhat, and is pretty much essential for some of the later missions, but even here the game's broad pleasures rub unpleasantly against silly restrictions. Play a public game and you'll be matched with players either far above or far below your current level. In one of my first games, I found myself sharing the map with someone who was much further ahead, and since they selected the mission - in my game, no less - I was forced to suffer through a challenge I had no hope of surviving. Once a mission has been selected, there's seemingly no way to change it without playing it through.
That friction ultimately defines Mercenary Kings, a game that is both a brilliant modern riff on classic arcade games and a frustrating chore. The in-the-moment enjoyment of the finely tuned combat and platforming is held back by gameplay driven by backtracking and repetition across maps that go from confusing to predictable, spending only a short time in that sweet spot where you know how to get around a location but have yet to grow sick of the sight of it.
You'll constantly wish the annoyances would recede so you can wallow in the good stuff - because the good stuff is really good. It's just not enough to lighten what is ultimately a heavy and time-consuming experience. If I could freeze time for that moment, a few hours in, where everything fits into place and Mercenary Kings is my new favourite game, I would. We're so conditioned to equate quantity with quality in gaming that it feels counter-intuitive to criticise an otherwise great game for offering too much, but Mercenary Kings would be twice the game if it were only half the size.
7 / 10