Welcome to my new side-project: The Ethical Gamer. As a hardened Social Justice Warrior (Tank spec) who just hit Level 47, who also happens to be a person who spends an inordinate amount of time on video games and has purchased a large number of Humble Bundles leading to an expansive Steam library, I figured I might as well jam these two facets of my life together somehow. That somehow, as it turns out, is reviews of video games from a social justice perspective.
What could possibly go wrong?
First up, Mercenary Kings. A game that, by all rights, I should absolutely adore, but I’m finding a major struggle just to bring myself to play any more.
The game is an indie by Tribute Games, the dev team that cranked out the fun retro beatemup Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The art style is identical — right down to the ridiculously prevalent and ridiculously prominent bouncing pixel breasts on every female character. It seems that even when a character sprite is roughy 15×20 pixels, a third of those are still going to be devoted to male gaze fanservice. Not that Empress (the female lead) has it much better when drawn in full — she’s a strangely proportioned snake lady with no room for internal organs, like something straight out of the fever dreams of a young boy who got his anatomy lessons from Escher Girls.
The gameplay itself is a slightly less-tight feeling Contra or Metal Slug. You move a bit slower, and you have a pause when landing or right before jumping that means dodging bullets requires a good deal of precision play, especially given that you can barely affect your jump in mid-air. You can customize your guns, and can carry two types of ancillary items at a time. In ten hours of gameplay, the formula has honestly not changed much, and I’ve played and replayed the same areas dozens of times across all the missions — each mission starts you in a different place and your objective varies greatly to give an impression of uniqueness, but you’ll find yourself memorizing stages pretty quickly, because they’re reused repeatedly.
That samey-ness feeling sadly extends to the bosses — I’ve encountered three bosses thus far, one of which I’ve fought ten times in different forms. It’s gotten such that, even with the extra trick or two it gains in subsequent encounters, I’m finding myself dreading fighting it again just for sheer boredom. These boss fights have a set and distinctive pattern to them, such that they all sorta feel like the Toad Man fight in Megaman 4. Once you know it, you could almost do it in your sleep, and the only real question is whether you’ve got an appropriate gun loadout for it.
One neat thing is that in amongst the hundreds of hostages you’ll have to rescue over the course of the game, some Kickstarter backers who donated at a particular reward tier got inserted as hostage NPCs. One of them is Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time. I admit it was pretty neat getting to rescue him, especially as recognizeable as the sprite is. I actually laughed out loud when I realized it was him.
Considering that the game is supposed to appeal to retro players like me, though, I’m gravely disappointed in how much of a grind it feels. You gather some junk, you hunt some specific bad guys, you fight a boss that you first have to find in amongst one of four spawn points who runs away halfway through (unless you’ve got some serious guns early on) and you have to chase it down to another spawn point at random. And you do it again, and again, and again. I’ve been to a total of four distinct areas not counting the “Hunting Grounds” or the camp, and I’m frankly tired of it already.
But that’s not to say that you might not find the panoply of gun options to be enough to entice you to keep playing — splattering bad guys with a trombone shotgun or Megaman’s Megabuster “Peashooter” has its appeal. The plot is a means to an end, and even if there was a SHOCKING TWIST at the end that I haven’t gotten to, I doubt it would be anything really very shocking. Even the graphics — lovely and vibrant though they are — suffer from being reused over and over again even within the scope of a single area.
It all really just feels padded-out, hoping to ride high on the memories of the 8-bit-kids-cum-adults for whom repetitive gameplay was a necessity of the genre thanks to memory limitations, to be brutally honest. It might have done with options for stealth, or better options for travelling long distances repeatedly — really, anything to break up the monotony of “explore the same map repeatedly looking for things that are unique to this mission, and shoot everything you see”. And don’t even get me started on the fact that the only verb you have at your disposal, aside from “run”, “jump” and the very rare “explode”, is “shoot”, which is used even to free hostages at a distance — somehow you shoot the ropes off them I guess? Even “stab” just operates like a very short range “shoot”.
My verdict: good for a bunch of rounds, has a few bursts of novelty, but don’t expect it to stay fresh-feeling for very long. As a game in a Humble Bundle, worth the cash. You’ll never 100% the trophies unless you kickstarted it, though, because one is locked to backers — so leave your completionist tendencies at the door.