In a time where titles such as Project X Zone, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and the upcoming Fire Emblem Fates are renowned for spicing up the turn-based strategy genre, Mercenaries Saga 2: Order of the Silver Eagle opts for keeping the original recipe intact. The result is a game that may give the impression of being as formulaic as any white bread out there, but what it lacks in originality it makes up in performance. Simply put, Mercenaries Saga 2 may be the best white bread on the shelf.
The game tells the story of Claude, Captain of the mercenary group that serves the crown of the kingdom under the name of the titular 'Order of the Silver Eagle'. During a hunting trip, the prince of the kingdom and his escorts are ambushed by a legion of bandits, and Claude commands the prince to flee as he tries to hold off the assailants in an effort to protect the future heir of the crown. The Order of the Silver Eagle manages to defeat the bandits, only to realize that the prince has been badly poisoned by a rogue assassin.
Bearing with the responsibility of the prince's well-being in his hands, Claude and his group of mercenaries depart on a journey that takes them across the country in search of an antidote strong enough to cure the prince's illness.
Despite the prologue being intriguing, the story is overall pretty bland. The main issue regarding the development of the events of Mercenaries Saga 2 revolves around the generic writing and the lacklustre cast of characters. Claude is as insipid as a boiled egg without salt, and most of the members of the mercenary team fall into the same category, with only a handful of them being fun on occasion. The game rarely delves deep into their back-story and intentions, and even when it does, they lack the personality to spark any kind of interest from the player. They just exist as ways to progress the story or to introduce a new gameplay mechanic, similar to how Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. treated its colourful cast of characters.
Same can be said about the enemies; sure there are a few surprises - especially towards the second half of the game - but the main antagonist is as inventive as a pantomime villain. These issues aren't deal-breakers, but the heroes and villains are the bread and butter of any RPG title - simply put, they are what separates a good game from a great one.
Where Mercenary Sage 2 truly shines is in the gameplay department. The first few levels are designed to introduce the basics of the game, from attacking and defending to mastering and exploiting the different types of terrain. It's a well-designed formula that encourages players to figure out how the game works, but there's a caveat - unskilled players may need to grind out levels every now and then, especially when the difficulty scales up exponentially. One thing that should be mentioned is that there's no permadeath; even when a unit is downed in the battle, they can be brought back with the use of items or special skills.
The gameplay of Mercenaries Saga 2 takes a lot of cues from classics of the genre. Comparable to the Tactics Ogre franchise and, by extension, the sublime Final Fantasy Tactics series, the action is presented in an isometric view of a gridded battlefield where the player takes turns between attacking and performing support actions - there's also the option to chose which direction to face in the case the character doesn't take any action in the turn, an important consideration as enemies can cause more damage if they attack from behind.
New recruits join the team, adding variety to the options available - knights, archers, priests and even a gun-slinging pirate - but unlike Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, there's not a lot of freedom to evolve the members of the team. Each one has a fixed skill tree, meaning a thief cannot become a priest, and vice-versa. The character progress system bears resemblance to games like Diablo, where the player spends skill points to unlock and level up skills at his/her own will, and once a group of conditions are met, a new class is unlocked in the skill tree.
To further enhance the customization options, there's a trading feature in which puzzle pieces found in the maps can be exchanged for special weapons and items. There's also a crafting menu where players can infuse existing weapons with elements, status effects and more.
Visually the game gets the job done; super-deformed models of the character roam the battlefield, and anime portraits represent them whenever a dialogue box pops up. Menus are simple and easy to navigate, although most of the stats are abbreviated - to experts of the genre this may not be an issue, but newcomers may need to explore the in-game help guide to figure out what each stat means.
The game does take a few hits when it comes to the presentation, and odd choices flood certain aspects of the game. Most of these issues arise in the transition from Japanese to English: Dialogue boxes with only a monosyllable, confusing names for some of the skills, and overlapping text in some of the menus. While not completely cringe-worthy, some of the choices stick out like a sore thumb.
Last but not least, the audio department leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the tracks in the game use an uninteresting arrangement of horns and strings while the compositions are short, generic and repetitive. To deepen the issue, there's only a handful of tracks in the game. Sound effects also suffer the same fate of the music - they lack crispness and substance, don't have the impact they should and in many cases feel tacked on.
Mercenaries Saga 2: Order of the Silver Eagle is a surprisingly good Tactical RPG. The overall presentation of the game and the music can be quite forgettable, but the gameplay and the simple yet effective graphics get the job done. The battles are engaging and the degree of variety shown in the maps keeps things fresh. Furthermore, a few twists in the otherwise unremarkable story bump the game enough to make it a worthy member of this often overlooked genre. The main campaign, clocking in at 20 hours approximately, is arguably the perfect length for a portable title and the inclusion of a New Game+ mode gives Mercenaries Saga 2 an extra pair of legs for those daring enough to retrace their steps on a second and more challenging adventure. It may not quite reach the heights of the titles that clearly inspired it, but this is well worth a look for fans of the genre - especially at this bargain-basement price.