Space Mercenary Defense Force – PS5 Review

Space Mercenary Defense Force is a survivors-like from UK dev, Tom Paradise, and is published by the super-prolific eastasiasoft.  We’ve reviewed a ton of these recently, including eastasiasoft’s own Stickman’s Arena which, like most of them, was kind of garbage.  So, what does this one bring to the party?

Well, the main clue is in the game’s title.  This one sees you flying around in space and blasting aliens rather than seeing you run about on foot.  We’ve seen that before from Geometry Survivor but it’s nice to see it again as every other game in the genre is pretty much a Vampire Survivors or Brotato clone.

You start off with the default ship and will find yourself floating above a planet in a small-ish arena (bigger than Brotato but way smaller than other games) and right away you’ll have enemy ships floating towards you with not much in the way of tactical pathfinding but with a lot of malicious intent.

As an auto-shooter (with no manual override), your ship with target the nearest enemy and, if you destroy them, a coin will be dropped which will help you level up.  Do this enough and you’ll max out that EXP level and will, as per tradition, be offered a choice of upgrades to either your basic turret weapon or defensive capabilities or, more interestingly, something from a selection of modules.  These are various weapons that you affix to one of your ship’s four module areas.

This is where you’ll need to learn the capabilities of the modules, figure out the best mix of four and the optimal places to position them.   And it’s also the game’s biggest strength as there’s real creativity on show with these modules.  Sure, you get the usual lasers, missiles and ‘melee’ weapons but you also get some properly mad stuff such as a mouse cursor that draws an old-school Windows 93 selection box around a group of enemies to destroy them or birthday cakes that explode after a short time.

Experimenting with all these is great fun but, as you’d expect, some are way more useful than others.  But we’re the sort of people that always pick the Garlic in Vampire Survivors, so we’re used to having a narrow tactical focus eventually, but whatever you pick will generally be useful.  But because you’ve only got four slots to play with, you’ll be committing to a build early on.  It works though and other ships can be unlocked that have more, or fewer, slots.

You level up pretty quickly along the game’s short-ish twenty minute runtime and so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to upgrade all your selections.  The game does things a little differently though, offering you a couple of upgrade choices at certain stages of a module’s path.  This isn’t immediately clear as the interface for the upgrade sections isn’t great (and are clearly better suited to a mouse-based interface) but you’ll get it over time.  There’s also a ‘Synergy’ for each module too and, again, this isn’t brilliantly explained.

Synergies are essentially the same as ‘Evolutions’ from Vampire Survivors and are achieved by picking a compatible module for the one being synergised.  There are a few downsides though.  Firstly, these Synergies don’t feel particularly powerful.  If you’ve played Vampire Survivors enough you’ll know the joy of evolving the Knife into the Thousand Edge, Santa Water into La Borra or the Pentagram into Gorgeous Moon.  Those are absolute gamechangers but you just don’t get enough bang for your buck with these.  Also, annoyingly, modules aren’t cross-compatible and so that means you’ll never evolve, sorry… synergise, all four modules and instead will only ever be able to do half of them.

That overall lack of upgrading satisfaction also extends to the game’s permanent upgrades.  Regardless of if you succeed or fail in a run, you’ll earn credits and these can be spent on those upgrades.  They extend to seven areas of gameplay such as upgrades to your turret OR modules (yep, you can’t have both), random bonus drops (such as coins, slot machines and spinning wheels that can earn you money, health or area damage), temporary effects when you pick up EXP coins, area-of-effect beacons and others.  The thing is, none of these feel like a big leap forward.  The improved damage output one will definitely help you to get into the later parts of the run but they won’t carry.

On one hand that’s kind of disappointing because you miss out on the sweet, sweet upgrading dopamine that Vampire Survivors and Brotato dished out.  But, there is an upside to all this and that is that your victories will need to be earned rather than just brute-forced.   One of the big issues with some recent releases in this genre is that you can pretty much beat them in one or two plays (Geometry Survivor for example) but we had to work a bit harder for our first successful run here.  And we were happy that the frequent boss appearances in the game didn’t create massive difficulty spikes (although the dual red/blue boss was a bit of a prick first time around).

Initially, we had some issues with bugs and, unfortunately, a post-release patch hasn’t fixed all of them.  The worst has been a recurring bug where sometimes the upgrade selection screen has refused to leave the screen, essentially ruining the whole run (see the above screenshot, that’s still got the game playing behind it).  We’ve had that a few times and so, as ever, we’re convinced this game got much playtesting during the porting process.  Thankfully, we were able to avoid that issue on the majority of our playthroughs though.

Unusually for eastasiasoft, the Platinum isn’t exactly a gimme here as you’ll have to complete the game three times, each time adding a modifier that’ll make things a little harder.  There are a lot more of those if you really want your money’s worth too as well as a lot of new ships (and skins) to buy.  That said, none of the other ships particularly improved the game and so we ended up going back to the default one after a while.

Visually the game is okay but has some limitations.  The chunky retro graphics are nice enough but things can get a bit lost because of the giant planet in the background.  Also, the use of parallax scrolling makes an already sluggish game feel even slower.  We wouldn’t normally invest in speed in these games but a couple of upgrades in that area definitely made things a bit more tolerable for us.

Overall, we found this game to be pretty satisfying.  People, indeed developers, get the wrong idea and think the import thing in this genre is getting the hordes moving or offering up dozens of weapons but the best games in the genre are about the difficulty curve and, for the most part, Space Mercenary Defense Force gets it about right.  What it lacks in dynamic upgrades, it makes up for with that steady difficulty and some fairly novel weapons and, as fans of the genre, we can’t help but like this game, even if it is still a little rough around the edges.

Space Mercenary Defense Force
7 Overall
+ Good difficulty curve
+ Some fun, original weapons
+ Smart gameplay mechanics
- Upgrades aren't all that powerful or dynamic
- Some run-ruining bugs still present
Space Mercenary Defense Force is the latest auto-shooting survivors-like to hit PSN and while it offers up a reasonably challenging, and original, take on the genre, it's not the most reliable game technically. We liked it but could have loved it if it was a bit more finished.

About Richie

Rich is the editor of PlayStation Country. He likes his games lemony and low-budget with a lot of charm. This isn't his photo. That'll be Rik Mayall.

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