Space Mercenary Defense Force review

By experimenting with different themes, developers have opened the gates for new ideas within the Vampire Survivors inspired auto-shooting genre. Earlier this month we had Gladiator’s Arena – with its bloody Roman coliseum battles – and now we’re voyaging into deep space to battle squishy aliens and gelatinous creatures using lasers, gun turrets, and…exploding birthday cakes. Suffice to say, this isn’t a game that takes itself seriously – and it’s all the better for it.

The concept should be familiar by now. You’re dropped into a rectangular arena and must survive for twenty minutes against increasingly challenging waves of enemies. Shooting is handled automatically, putting a focus on avoiding enemies and projectiles while mopping up XP tokens. Upon levelling up – something that occurs every thirty seconds or so here – you’re able to choose an upgrade, with the idea being to balance offence and defence. At the end of the run, whether you’re successful or not, you’re able to invest in permanent upgrades that’ll help on the next attempt, such as increased damage and faster movement speed.

Space Mercenary Defense Force review

It quickly becomes apparent that there are subtle twists present. You’re in control of a spacecraft that has a limited amount of weapon slots. Four is the default, with other unlockable craft having as many as six and as few as two – with turret damage and HP adjusting to compensate. Not only must you think tactically about where to place weapons – rear firing arsenal may be more beneficial than front facing – but the slot location also varies from craft to craft. One, for instance, only has slots that face diagonally. Curiously, the first upgrades doled out upon levelling up will always include slotable weapons, allowing you to form a ‘build’ early on and then spend the rest of the run upgrading your selections.

Levelling up also gives a few surprise choices, including a trio of gambling-based games: a slot machine, a coin toss, and a prize wheel. You may get lucky and earn a wealth of XP tokens, or end up with nothing. When you’re low on health, gambling for HP can be a make-or-break deal, adding a welcome sense of risk/reward. Random events are another distraction, including not just optional challenges but also natural occurrences such as electrical storms and gas clouds.  

Boss battles feature too, appearing every five minutes or so. During battle a red barrier confides the fight to a single screen. Bosses always appear in the same order, and as such, it’s possible to learn their attack patterns quickly. Seasoned gamers should be able to blitz them with ease. That said, weapon slot placement can make things tricky, especially if you don’t have a forward facing rapidly firing weapon equipped. Getting up close and personal might be the only way to secure a victory.  

Space Mercenary Defense Force review

The weapons themselves are pleasingly varied, and as mentioned in the opening paragraph, sometimes comical too. In addition to exploding birthday cakes, there are ionising banana skins and a mouse cursor that drags enemies away. The majority though are typically sci-fi themed, including searing lasers, exploding balls of space wreckage, micro missiles, a flame thrower, and auto turrets. Each can be upgraded a dozen times over, decreasing their spawn rates and so forth. Health is mostly gained by playing a gambling game, although there is a vampiric leash that’ll drain the lifeforce of enemies. Over time, you’ll likely gravitate towards certain weapons more than others.

The developers of Space Mercenary Defense Force clearly have a firm understanding of what makes an auto-shooter tick, ergo what made Vampire Survivors so addictive. The waves are manageable, never overwhelming, and difficultly spikes are non-existent. The first ten minutes are forgiving, then more projectile lobbers appear, followed by larger enemy types and eventually a sizeable final boss. Movement feels responsive; you may need to invest in one or two speed boosts, but it’s never a focal point of the upgrade path. The fast rate levelling up rate makes it very compelling, and there are always XP tokens and other bonuses to loop around and collect, giving an incentive to keep moving and never dwell in a single area. While it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to unlock every spacecraft available – and there is perhaps a bit of bloat here – it’s still likely you’ll want to purchase two or three to experiment with.

Space Mercenary Defense Force review

Unlike a few other Vampire Survivors clones we’ve played recently, this isn’t a one-run-and-done affair either, designed for repeat runs. It has modifiers to unlock that boost the amount of permanent upgrade tokens to earn, along with a turbo mode that increases gameplay speed by 50%. While it’s pretty generous with trophies/achievements initially, you’ll need to invest time into unlocking them all, especially the handful based on completing runs with modifiers.

Most of Space Mercenary Defense Force’s shortcomings relate to its presentation. It’s pleasing to see that enemies are animated instead of merely bouncing up and down, but there’s a slight inconsistency to the artwork – spacecraft are chunky and pixilated while the backdrops are nicely drawn. Think along the lines of a weird clash of 8-bit and 16-bit sprites. More detrimental is that the upgrade menu features white text on a grey background, making it hard to read. The visual shortcomings are, however, excusable considering the £4.49 price tag – it offers a lot of auto-shooting bangs for very few bucks. And as Atari taught us in the early ‘80s, it’s better to have excellent gameplay over good looks.

Tom Paradise’s Space Mercenary Defense Force is out May 1st on consoles. Published by eastasiasoft. It first launched on PC in 2023.