Digital Homicide has gained themselves quite the reputation in a relatively short amount of time. Most of this infamy comes from Jim Sterling, a familiar name in the word of videogames. Through his Squirty Play videos, which are first-impressions videos where he simply delves headlong into the game, a broad audience was introduced to Digital Homicide’s…eh, work. And there it would have ended normally, but instead a heated and lengthy beef has developed between the developer and Jim Sterling resulting in legal threats, childish insults and much more. Sterling has sometimes gone a bit far, in fairness, but mostly he’s done nothing but correctly point out numerous thing while Digital Homicide has shown nothing short of a disdainful, abusive attitude coupled with an unwillingness to take criticism from reviewers or gamers. If you have some spare time, go and read up on the chain of events. It’s pretty funny. Especially the interview Digital Homicide did with Jim Sterling. Go on, have a listen. I’ll wait for you.
After watching the Slaughtering Grounds video from Jim Sterling which tackled the developer’s first title and then following the burgeoning story from there I was curious. Just how bad could these games really be? So, thinking that most games have some redeeming feature or another if you look hard enough I purchased the latest Digital Homicide release, their fifth game since October of last year.
To say that Medieval Mercs made a bad first impression is like saying Hitler was just a little bit miffed during World War II. It’s technically accurate, I suppose, but hardly does situation justice. It began with the main menu which looked like it had been tacked together in about 5-seconds, an opinion all but confirmed by the strangely sci-fi looking menu toward the right hand side of the screen. I mentally shrugged and clicked the play button, whereupon it looked suspiciously like the game had crashed. It actually hadn’t, but instead of a loading screen the whole game just freezes until the level finally loads in. Following the complete lack of a tutorial and a HUD that takes up a quarter of the screen I died pretty quickly since I didn’t defend the gate, which isn’t surprising since the game never bothered to tell me that was the goal. After staring at the most confusing upgrade/crafting/character selection screen known to mankind I proceeded to press the play button again, whereupon the game promptly forgot to load the enemies, so I just stood in front of my gate with a rather confused expression on my face.
All of this took about 5-minutes. It would have been less time than that but the game doesn’t load very fast sometimes. Over the years I’ve lost my patience for badly put together games and developed a rather cynical outlook. To put it bluntly, I don’t have the damn time for it anymore. Still, this is what I do, so heaving a sigh that would make a grammar nazi proud I powered into the game. And after many hours of play my time was rewarded gloriously with the knowledge that I was right; I should have never wasted my time, Medieval Mercs is bloody awful. Jim Sterling was raise. Praise God for Jim Fucking Stirling, son.
The gist is that Medieval Mercs is a side-scroller where your goal is to hack away at the oncoming hordes of evil in order to stop them destroying the gate you’re guarding, a gate to a village full of innocent people whose life expectancy will go down sharply if you fail. Except it doesn’t, instead failing to protect the people just damages your reputation a bit. To achieve your goal you simply swipe madly at the poorly designed and animated monsters trundling toward you, occasionally leaping and using special abilities which are mapped to the number keys, making them a little akward to reach mid-combat, and annoyingly there’s no way to remap them in-game, either. At least you can remap them from the Unity launcher.
The core of the game is combat, then, a fast-paced hack and slash fest, and that means it needs to feel responsive and accurate. Shame it’s neither of those things. The problems begin with the simple act of movement; usually a character moves when the correct button is held down, and stops when it’s released. Medieval Mercs, though, opts for something different; Here you tap the left or right movement key and the character will proceed to amble about two inches across the screen, whether you want him to move that far or not. The end result is always coming up a little short of the enemy or overshooting them completely, thus combat involves a lot of running backwards and forwards while hammering away at the attack key. Graceful it is not. Some variety is attempted by the inclusion of special abilities that power up as you land regular blows, but they all look and feel incredibly lackluster. Along the top of the screen you can purchase an instant health refill, a power boost and even power-up that instantly kills every deployed monster, all by spending coins earned by defeating certain creatures. It’s an interesting addition, but feels sort of tacked on On top of that we’ve got some dodgy hitboxes and zero sense of impact when striking enemies, leaving the combat feeling….well, crap. There’s no redeeming aspect to the fighting. The enemies are poor animated and drab to look at and there’s no finesse in the fighting, and awkward movement and imprecise hitboxes rob the game of even being a decent, dumb hack and slasher.
The interface is a jumbled mess that obviously had no thought put into its design, although design may be too lenient a term. The bottom of the screen is a deluge of information, which would at least be forgivable if most of it was actually needed. Your basic stats are irrelevant in the middle of defending the gate, as is the inventory since you can’t craft items during a mission and don’t have time to ever glance at it. Really, the only things you need are the map, which could have nicely placed along the top of the screen and elongated so you can get a better idea of where the enemies are coming from, the bar which indicates when your abilities are ready and your health. That’s it. Meanwhile an obvious piece of information in the form of how much damage the gate can take is missing entirely. I was left unsure whether I could go further afield to deal with enemies in case the gate could only take a single blow. Perhaps this was a design choice made to create a sense of tension, but if so it fails to do that and simply forces the player to stand next to the gate at all times. The screen between missions is far, far worse, a cacophony that attempts to jam the crafting screen, equipment screen, stat screen, character selection and more into a single wall of information.
The crafting system is basic fare, but at least its functional. Using diagrams and materials collected from bosses that appear you can toss together some new equipment for your chosen merc. Speaking of which there’s a total of three mercenaries to pick from, almost hinting at some sort of co-op mode which doesn’t exist. Oddly two of the mercs are locked until you hit the requisite level, leaving you to start with the angry little dwarf rather than as the wizard or the bow-wielding rogue. Crafted equipment sadly does not alter the aesthetic of your character, and actually getting it equipped can be a bit fiddly as you have to right-click on the item (something else the game never bothers to mention) and then hit the tiny equip button which only occasionally seems to want to work. Don’t worry, though, because the destroy item button just below it works just fine.
Meanwhile there were several more instances of enemies failing to actually turn up as per my initial five minutes with the game, leaving me standing gormlessly in front of the village gate. This problem is made even worse by the fact that there’s no way to quit back to the main menu during a level, instead you can only opt to exit the game entirely, sending you back to the Windows desktop (assuming you’re using Windows) with a determination to find some way of setting fire to a digital game so that you never have to look at it again. This issue occured three times in the span of a thirty-minute play session with the game. Other problems included the help menu not fitting on the screen correctly, and text failing to show up.
It’s ugly, too. The game suggests that you’ll be defending multiple villages throughout your career as a mercenary but you’ll only ever be treated to the same overly dark, drab, dull background time and time again. I found myself idly wondering if it actually was just the same village being pillaged repeatedly by a collection of random enemies too stupid to figure it out. Oh, yeah, the enemies. It’s a motley collection of foes, to be sure, sticking together regular human looking warriors with ogres, giant wolves and flying…uh, things that the developer didn’t even bother to animate properly judging by the way they actually look like they’re standing on the ground mid-flight. And like the background it’s too dark, so everything has a murky look, which may be for the best, really.
The music…well, it’s there. The main menu music is headache inducing crap, but the rest of it is serviceable, if incredibly limited.
Look, a lot of stuff can be forgiven with indie games. Poor graphics, bad sound, terrible voice acting, short run times and more are all forgivable sins because they often come down to a simple lack of funds. These are forgivable because indie games can often provide amazing writing, fantastic art styles or unique gameplay mechanics, aspects of the game that aren’t quite so constrained by budget but rather are a direct result of the developer’s talent. But Medieval Mercs doesn’t have any of that. There’s no story to enjoy, the art-style is a jumble of Unity store assets, by the look of it, that have been put together with no thought for the overall look of the game, and the gameplay is just terrible.
The good news is that it’s incredibly cheap. Now, price doesn’t affect my final verdict on a game. It never has, because what is viewed as good value for money is entirely personal, so I tend to simply try to figure out if it’s a good game or a bad game, and let you, dear reader, if the price seems reasonable. But the low price-tag of about £2 had to be mentioned, because at least if you have some morbid sense of curiosity to experience this game, almost as a perfect lesson in what not to do, then it won’t break the bank. For the cost of a sandwich from the local shop you can pick this up on Steam.
Don’t even bother, though, it’s as simple as that. Medieval Mercs may cost just £2 or so, but it’s still a travesty of a game from start to finish, and if for whatever reason you find it on your computer and, God forbid, you can’t get a refund you must rip out your hard-drive and set fire to it. I don’t care what personal documents and incriminating photos are stored on the drive, BURN IT WITH FIRE!