Over a number of years now, Japanese developer, Rideon, has steadily built up a quality little property for itself in the Mercenaries tactics series. Mercenaries Blaze is the fifth in the series, and while it’s still not of the standard of the premium examples of the genre – the Disgaeas and God Wars – it’s a light, traditional example of a genre that is so immensely playable and enjoyable.
Just a few missions later your band has been recruited by a guy whose name I can’t remember, but he belongs to the ultranationalist faction (the game drives that point home far better than his name). He tasks your squad with hunting down foreigners that are summoning monsters to attack the cities. Now, you just know from the outset that there’s going to be a flip and the naïve squad leader is going to get real woke at some point, but dear cripes does Mercenaries Blaze not hold back in highlighting the kind of hell that minorities go through whenever conflict breaks out.
I approve of all of this. I approve of a story about a guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing and representing the interests of a nation that’s making hard decisions but is ultimately benign. That’s a poignant theme right now if ever there was one. I approve of the decision to have players do horrible things before they start to question the rhetoric they’ve been fed. Also poignant. The clear parallel between the ultranationalists and the west is poignant. Conceptually Mercenaries Blaze has its heart in the right place and isn’t shy about it.
The problem is that this is a difficult subject, and the writers aren’t exactly Academy Award-winning material. Mercenaries Blaze’s narrative issues are twofold: it’s trying to engage with a lot of high-impact themes with very few words (being that it was originally a mobile title) and that means that there are times it goes beyond being merely on the nose to become a downright caricature. It’s also filled with juvenile mannerisms and dialogue. It’s a little hard to take a racism-fuelled refugee crisis as seriously as it should be when characters are calling one another stupid-heads.
With that being said I did find the characters endearing and the game personable. Mercenaries Blaze benefits from some truly excellent character portrait art to help build the personality of those characters, but I did find myself fully invested in their plight and the broader scope of the narrative. Each new character that joins the team adds something to the mix too, so across the run-time there’s rarely a boring moment. The developers have even pulled back on the need to grind a bit, so the pacing issues that the earlier Mercenaries games ran into are less an issue here, and the story generally flows in a way that respects the player’s time.
The basic gameplay in Mercenaries Blaze remains the same as that of previous titles, and that is to say that the game is a thoroughly traditional take on the tactics JRPG formula. Each character has a specific class, and that class learns skills that can be used in battle. At certain points, there is the opportunity to promote the class to a higher-level class, which offers up another small tree of potential skills. The range of skills and classes in Mercenaries Blaze is much lower than in some other tactics JRPGs, but there’s just enough customisation and variety to give you a sense of control over how the party develops.
On the battlefield, the action is turn-based, and it’s exactly what anyone who has ever played a tactics JRPG would expect. There are also chests scattered around each battlefield, and they’re often in places that will make you think hard about how to reach them and which unit to space while the others are busily fighting the enemy. Loot that isn’t acquired by the time the last enemy is defeated is gone (why the team doesn’t just go and collect the loot post-battle is beyond me), so you’ll definitely want to plan around that challenge.
The AI is fairly weak, and it can be exploited, though to its credit it is more aggressive in Mercenaries Blaze than it has been some of the previous titles in the series, and those enemies won’t just sit and wait for you to turtle your way across the battlefield, picking them off one by one, as they have in games past. They also effectively gang up on characters in your party, rather than try to spread out the attacks, which can easily result in knock-outs if you’re too careless about how you throw characters into the fray.
Throw in the superior character portraits, art, and musical score and Mercenaries Blaze represents a confident step forward. Of course, it’s not of the standard of a Fire Emblem, Disgaea or God Wars, but for people that enjoy the core gameplay loop of the tactics JRPG – and it is a very compelling one – Mercenaries Blaze is a lean and effective example of it.