Mechs & Mercs: Black Talons

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The first game to represent beautiful Portugal on this list is an RTS, which we don’t often review on this site. But I just rewatched the Gundam movies, so I was pretty hyped to take command of some big, stompy robots and lay the smack down on puny soldiers. While Mechs & Mercs wasn’t entirely my thing, I do have to commend it for some of its unique design choices.

Broken alliance

The story to Mechs & Mercs is more ambitious than you’d think from a small indie game. Taking place somewhere in the far future, we are told the story of a United Space Federation that has fallen apart after a devastating war. One of the more powerful members of this fallen federation has now become independent and has seized the opportunity to strongarm neighboring systems in a bid to expand its territory. When a cozy agricultural planet falls under attack, they immediately reach out to all nearby mercenary companies. Including the Black Talons.

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After leading your men into the system to lend aid (and collect a heavy paycheck), you find that the planet has already fallen into enemy hands. Furthermore, the occupying forces now blockade the space-jump thingy you need in order to leave and have started hunting down all those who heeded the planet’s call for aid. Thus you side with one of several factions fighting to retake the planet, both to make some good money and to save your own skin.

While I was pleasantly surprised by the story, it’s a bit of a bother that you don’t have an easy resource to learn more about the factions you are asked to side with. You are constantly given missions to bring harm to one on behalf of another, which alters your relationships and pushes you into befriending some at the cost of making enemies out of others. For such weighty decisions, it would be nice if you could read a bit and figure out who you’d want to support, to begin with. 

Story score: 7.5/10

Pathfinding, my oldest enemy

The game is a real-time strategy in which you take command of several mercenary units. Each one falls under a category, such as the faster assault troops or the building-creating engineers, as well as a weight class, which defines how much armor they have to soak up bullets with. As typical for the genre, you can simply click on a unit and click where they need to move, or drag a box around them to command several at once.

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This being an indie game, the first thing that struck me is that it all plays a little loose. Units sometimes take wildly illogical paths to their destinations and gunfights with enemies take a long time to resolve as both parties chip away at health bars. Cover only works sometimes and one annoying problem I noticed early on is that enemies always have more range than your turrets, so placing defenses was just a massive waste of time. On the flipside, the game does have some mechanics that are strange in the good sense.

Engineer units are weak, but they can be valuable allies thanks to their ability to hack consoles to turn turrets and bridges against their owners. I also liked exploring the maps and taking over resource depots and landing zones, which allow you to call in reinforcements or replenish existing units. The mission variety is also good and you can pick up additional side-missions for cash and influence with factions.

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A novel feature is that each unit is unique and levels up through combat or using special actions relating to its class, like calling in artillery or building stuff. Leveling up grants you points which you can spend on immediate stat improvements or on a skill tree that improves various other skills. You can give a heavy unit increased resistance to make them a true tank for your army or give a recon unit high accuracy, penetration, and crit chance to turn them into sneaky assassins.

This does mean that their survival is important, kinda like a soldier in X-Com. If they die, all that customization is thrown to the wind and you need to recruit fresh troops from The Paladin, your command ship. At the ship you can also customize the loadout, accept missions, purchase mechs and select their pilots, or just read up on the planets if you want to. However, here too the game has its weird quirks, as your time on The Paladin is limited. From the Command Center you can select missions, but each one is timed and will disappear forever if you don’t accept it in time and get a team in the dropship to launch the mission. If you run out of time for a story mission, you’ll be immediately forced to start it and have to drop whatever else you wanted to do.

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And for me, these were all interesting features that just made it all too tense for me. I dreaded the idea of losing units, because I am not the most conservative player in RTS games. You probably want me playing something like the Warhammer Orks or Tyranids, because my troops are not build to last out there. The fear of showing up to later levels without sufficiently-experienced troops combined with all those looming timers that pressure you to rush prep work didn’t sit well with me. Experienced RTS fans, however, are likely to enjoy these odd features.

Gameplay score: 6/10

Murder around the planet

Visually the game is fine, if a little unexciting. The introduction video makes a point out of mentioning that you are going to an agriculture-heavy planet, but once you get there you’ll have a variety of levels to tackle, which doesn’t really make the most use out of that premise. In fact, the tutorial level takes place in a pretty boring factory stage, and you’ll be in more than a handful of industrial zones before the end of it.

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At the same time, there are also jungles, snowy regions, and even some beach-side levels to visit, all presented from an isometric viewpoint for maximum clarity. There are a few details that could be better, like the font size is kind of tiny and your mission support is often drowned out by the music, but these are small complaints. It’s serviceable and fits the science fiction setting well.

Presentation score: 6/10

Verdict

The Good:

  • A fun setup for the story.
  • Each unit has a face and can be customized.
  • Good mission variety in both objectives and locales.

The Bad:

  • Lacks some ease-of-use functions common in modern RTS.
  • Squads sometimes struggle with pathfinding.
  • Timers and the risk of losing units are stressful.

65/100

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