Breaking combat is Mercenaries Saga 3’s charm

The 3DS has proven to be a welcoming home for tactical role-playing games. Still, though, there’s room for a franchise like Mercenaries Saga to carve out a nostalgic niche, providing the sort of grind that leaves doors wide open to exploiting the games’ systems. Mercenaries Saga 3, thankfully, doubles down on that feel.

Developed by Rideon and brought West by Circle, Mercenaries Saga 3 is a game that doesn’t hide its low-budget feel. It certainly looks nice at times, especially with its pixel-art environments, but it doesn’t cover up the seams around its menus and presentation in the way you’d expect from something like Fire Emblem. It also has a few localization issues, like overlapping interface elements and stilted conversation.

Thankfully, its appeal is in its battle puzzles, presenting well-paced maps and letting the character customization drive its interesting decisions. Characters each have skill and class trees that only occasionally overlap, meaning the directions you choose and the moves you choose to enhance are more than just slightly differentiating your sword dudes. When you’re able to get more units than you can field on a map, then you have to decide which is least useful. Unlike many tactical games, Mercenaries Saga 3 hands you new recruits at levels above what you’d need to beat the previous map, so it’s always enticing to jump to the new compatriot over staying with your previous group. That said, there’s a second unit-specific currency earned through play used to unlock new character abilities, and a higher-level friend may still not be able to do what your carefully-crafted fighters can manage.

There’s a decent level of quality-of-life improvement done to the series over the years since its mobile-game beginnings, as you can skip right through the talking that really isn’t very good and get directly to oft-needed menu functions without much trouble. The no-frills approach works well for the sort of audience that knows the first thing to do in Fire Emblem is turn off the battle animations, as Rideon wastes no time with such silliness.

As good as the combat is in Mercenaries Saga 3, so much of the appeal lies in breaking the balance through careful character creation and gratuitous grinding. There’s a selection of gradually-unlocked side missions based on the existing campaign maps, all optional but not the generic fare you’d expect. The game throws waves of the same weird enemy at you to work on your magical resistance preparedness or just give more time to a unit that otherwise shows up once in a corner of a bigger battle. It returns to city maps to make you really use the rooftops and challenges your patience and constitution with a pack of foes that regenerate their own health. You can, of course, play these as many times as you want, but the campaign’s difficulty lines up well with taking on each map once or twice as it unlocks and returning to the story just as that gets monotonous.

Mercenaries Saga 3 is available on the 3DS eShop for a paltry $5.99, and its predecessor, Mercenaries Saga 2, can be grabbed for even less. These games aren’t really sequential, so feel free to jump straight into the most recent installment.

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