Expectations can be a funny thing. Try as we might to avoid it, there's a whole list of assumptions we make after seeing even a single screenshot of a game, hoping to fit it into a certain genre and quickly gauge the kind of experience we'll have. Buff, '80s-style action heroes toting huge guns in a jungle setting naturally brings all sorts of run and gun antics to mind, and a 2D perspective just solidifies this idea of simple, straightforward shooting. You know what they say about assumptions though...
Mercenary Kings: Reloaded takes cues from everything you might expect, with touches of Rambo, Contra, Metal Slug and more, tied into a plot of evil schemes and sinister terrorist groups. You'll venture through battle-torn cities, industrial complexes, and mystic temples with a serious arsenal of weapons at hand to clear out any and all resistance. Story takes a backseat, never threatening to become anything more than relative set-dressing, but the characters you meet on both sides of the conflict shine through as fun and charming in their own way. It's genre cliché at its finest; self-aware and more than willing to introduce giant snail robots to a tense, international conflict. All of this makes for the perfect backdrop for some quick, arcade action, but Mercenary Kings' ambition pushes beyond that, into a wholly different kind of gameplay cycle that will seem surprisingly familiar to some.
When setting out on a mission, you need to take the time to speak with everyone in your Hub area, choose the right gear, and upgrade your weapons and armour. It's important to select the right tools for the job, so once you feel prepared, you select a quest and venture to one of several different areas to explore. If there's a particular target for you to eliminate, their general location will be marked on the map, but missions may also simply involve clearing out smaller enemies, gathering resources, or setting up new camps. Bad guys both large and small drop loot upon death, so it's a good idea to horde these to invest in new weapons or sell for extra cash. Certain missions are considered 'urgent' and progress the story or unlock new areas, but for the most part you can choose from a variety of different objectives. Swap mercenaries for monsters, and we may already have a pretty solid Monster Hunter-esque title on Switch.
Even with this comparison in mind, the RPG elements are actually a pretty neat fit, adding statistics to your weapons, abilities, and damage. Rather than linear corridors, the levels are fairly large 2D environments which can be explored at your leisure, although keep in mind that there's a time limit for most missions. Running and gunning is still a partially viable option, but the pacing of this determined by your loadout and weight. Carry too much and you'll move slowly, but if you pack light then you can jump much higher, and speed things up significantly. There's a kind of expeditionary feel to navigating each area, getting familiar with the layout, and learning the quickest way to complete your objectives.
You're required to put more consideration into your equipment choices as well, with only four slots to avail of when choosing grenades, C4, or med-kits. While it's possible to pick these items up in the field, or even order in a supply drop from your allies, you'll need a free space to use them so it's a little trickier to come up with tactics on the fly. In general, if a mission advises that you might need to blow up a wall, or take down a difficult bad guy, then you're encouraged to prepare beforehand. Furthering the Monster Hunter comparison, you'll also unlock the ability to gather and cook ingredients in the kitchen, giving you a variety stat-boosts for one mission.
The loot system is based on finding different resources and using them to upgrade your maximum health with armour, add some unique abilities with experimental medicine, and purchase weapon parts, which are bought separately and then combined into a single, bizarre whole. You're free to attach pistols to mini-guns, or turn revolvers into snipers, but the reliability and effectiveness of these guns varies greatly, so it takes quite a bit of experimentation to find one that will work. It's possible to create multiple guns and save them as favourites, but this can be costly so grinding then begins to become an issue. What's frustrating in a game like this is that you want to have a powerful weapon immediately to capture that heroic Metal Slug feeling, but without any instant power-ups the need to experiment sometimes feels like it interrupts the fun. It isn't a particularly difficult game, even with the default pistol, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily satisfying either.
While the RPG aspects are initially surprising and enjoyable, it does turn monotonous once you make it to the second area and third areas and realise that not much has changed. Missions rarely give you unique scenarios or objectives to accomplish, and so the excitement mostly stems from unlocking new weapon parts to try out. The loot system and weapon crafting are a huge part of the game, but it pretty much removes traditional player skill from the equation, instead placing the emphasis on what kind of gun you've managed to create. There are a lot of numeric variables at play, so enemies have extremely generic AI in order to compensate, which is a shame given how frantic and aggressive the opposition could be in more pure run-and-gun titles. At times, they feel like static meat-shields which absorb damage until they just drop dead, and no amount of different ammo-types or unique weapons removes that niggling feeling. When there's a complex move-set to learn, or when bad guys really put up a fight, repetitious cycles like this can absolutely work, but that just isn't really the case here.
While playing solo, resource hunts in particular are a real slog, involving backtracking around the same areas and relying on random drops to help speed the item hunt along. Thankfully, the game becomes a lot more fun when you take advantage of a variety of co-op multiplayer options, both online and local. You can have a team of up to four players in total, and this really alleviates the boredom of certain missions when you have a whole crew along for the ride. You set this up at any time between missions, and matchmaking is fast and solid at finding players to jump in with. Just be conscious that missions can almost end too quickly in this way, which leaves little room for resource-grabbing.
This Reloaded edition packs in more weapons, more character choices and better performance than its original release in 2014. Unchanged, however, are the stunning pixel-art visuals which bring every environment and character to life with personality and detail. The team's previous work on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World had a similar style, and it works wonderfully here with enemies that feel chunky and really present in the environment. The fantasy setting of Mandragora Island, and the villainous CLAW group are right out of a Saturday morning cartoon, so the colourful style really sells this. Music has a chip-tune vibe as well, though it isn't particularly memorable despite how often the same tracks play. These fantastic aesthetics are thankfully anchored by a solid framerate and brief load times as well, though we experience some consistent slowdown during the helicopter ride into each mission. It doesn't really impact the game at all, but it is frustrating that it happens every single time.
Having Mercenary Kings on a portable console is a natural fit, giving you more time to casually try out new weapons, go over missions for specific loot, and kill time with something that isn't too taxing or intense. It's a fun experience, but it feels as though combining both genres hasn't yielded the desired results, rather it holds the game back from really capitalising on being a great arcade shooter or a great action-RPG. We'd say there's almost 20 hours of content here, and the strong performance in portable mode makes this a lot more palatable.
Mercenary Kings: Reloaded takes some serious steps to breathe new life into the gun-toting, fast-paced arcade shooter, resetting your expectations by adding RPG elements such as weapon crafting and loot drops into the mix. It's ambitious, but also sorely repetitious, lacking in mission variety and the kind of enemy AI needed to make the grind feel worthwhile. Blending genres has created a kind of mediocre middle ground, with the only truly exceptional aspect of the game being it's fantastic visual style. The vivid, gorgeous pixel art elevates the experience, as does the ability to jump into local or online co-op with ease, so if you're looking to temporarily swap your Bowgun for an AK-47, then this is definitely still worth a look.