Tribute Games’ old school sidescroller Mercenary Kings is something of a Kickstarter success story, having reached Steam and the PlayStation 4 courtesy of a crowdfunding drive a couple of years ago. Produced by a chunk of the team behind the brilliant Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, this next-gen escapade maintains the same pixelated art-style as its predecessor, but this time clads its cast in army clothing. A combination of Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Metal Slug, the release certainly has its heart in the right place – but is it a match made in retro heaven?

You begin your 16-bit adventure by choosing between two characters: King and his opposite Empress. Both of these stars are skilled mercenaries, but don’t play any differently – it’s more of a sprite swap. Their mission is simple: take down the evil CLAW Corporation before they conquer the world. It’s a fairly straightforward plot that’s only really present to give some context to your actions, but the dialogue throughout is witty and engaging, which helps to make up for the lack of any meaningful story.

Let’s be honest, though, what really matters in releases of this ilk is the gameplay. Your basic abilities include jump, crouch, roll, and the option to shoot in four different directions. Unfortunately, these don’t always feel as tight as you may like – with the jumping in particular prompting problems as you leap between platforms. It’s pivotal in fast-paced affairs such as this one that you never feel like the inputs have let you down, but there’ll be occasions where you’ll fail to make it over a spike-filled gap purely because of the unresponsive controls.

By no means is the game broken, but just keep in mind that you will experience some misfires which can lead to real frustrations – especially early on. Still, one particularly interesting game mechanic requires you to time your reload just right. Much like in Xbox 360 exclusive Gears of War, stopping a moving marker in the green when you replenish your bullets will result in a swifter animation and enhanced damage, while landing in the red will cause your character to take an age when swapping out their magazine.

It takes a bit of time to get used to, but fortunately you’re not thrust into difficult situations right away. The game is well paced, and you’ll start off by completing simple objectives like gathering materials and completing simple extraction missions, which serve as great practice for the encounters that you’ll experience later on in the adventure. More challenging enemies are also introduced as you progress, with simple grunts eventually paving the way for mechs. You’ll learn throughout the campaign how to best dispose of them, meaning that you’ll be prepared by the end.

Sadly, there’s just not enough variety among the antagonists. You’ll fight the same adversaries multiple times, and this tedium is only really relinquished by the excellent boss fights. As is traditional for the medium, these typically comprise bigger foes who will take more effort to bring down. There’ll be multiple spots on the map where a boss can appear from, and so you must follow it around the world until you finally get a chance to do some damage and put it out of its misery.

However, while you’ll spend a chunk of the title on assignment, a lot of the leg work is actually done at a home base. This is where the magic happens, as you’ll be able to participate in banter before you begin a mission. Between the weapons girl, captain, and even the man that flies you into battle, there are a ton of different characters to chat to, and this injects each individual with some personality. It never really approaches Mass Effect levels of background story, but it’s an appreciated addition nonetheless.

Home base is also important because it’s where the title’s crafting system can be found. When you’re out during a mission, you’ll find plenty of loot that ranges from wood to silicon, which can be used to create new weapon parts. As you gather these materials, you’ll be able to construct increasingly extravagant firearms, which is reminiscent of the reward loop in a game like Monster Hunter, as you’re frequently undertaking missions to find the resources required to build better gear. There’s absolutely loads to customise, too, which is not only addictive, but allows you to tailor the experience to your personal play style.

It presents a structural problem, though, as finding rare loot is pivotal to upgrading your character – but time limits mean that you rarely have the opportunity to go out in search of said uncommon objects. At the beginning of each mission, you’re given a primary objective – rescue, rendezvous, or neutralise – along with some optional side-quests, but completing these within the 10 to 20 minute allowance while also gathering up resources proves tricky. You can replay any stage, but we’d have preferred the option to explore more first time.

Nevertheless, if you don’t feel like going loot hunting alone, you can always grab up to three other online friends to play with you. The title includes both local and online multiplayer, so if you’re having trouble completing a particular mission, recruiting others to fight by your side will make it both easier and arguably more fun. The netcode is solid, but we personally feel that the title’s at its best when you’re huddled around a single television screen with real-life pals, all barking commands at each other while you play.

Whether you enjoy it alone or with accomplices, the release does have a few nifty features that are exclusive to the PlayStation 4 version. For starters, clicking the DualShock 4's touchpad brings up the world map, which you can then scroll by using the uber-responsive panel. Moreover, each time that you reload, a sound will be emitted from the controller, which adds a nice sense of place to the experience. Both additions are gimmicky and arguably unnecessary, but it’s nice to see the developer at least attempt to make use of the PS4’s unique attributes.

Conclusion

Initial control issues detract from Mercenary Kings’ old school ambitions a little, but this is still an enjoyable romp that comes wrapped in a charming pixelated package. The ability to customise your weapons and armour is what sets this release apart, allowing you to inject the kind of personality into the action that its predecessors lack. The mission time limits seem unnecessary, but look past them and you’ll find plenty of fun here – especially if you recruit three real-life soldiers to share the frantic foray with.