Sunday 10 January 2016

REVIEW: FansToys FT-13 Mercenary

Outside of the official TakaraTomy Masterpiece line, there's not much that is greeted with quite the amount of excitement that a new FansToys' release seems to generate. However, it's perhaps also true that many of their recent reveals have also brought at least some element of controversy, with even their most ardent fans claiming that figures like their upcoming Spotter have somehow 'dropped the ball' (which is very much not the case, as you will hopefully know from my review of that figure). Despite almost unanimous praise for the first in their line of Masterpiece-styled Insecticon homages, Grenadier, the sophomore effort has been met with its own share of concern, particularly around the design of the face.

So, have FansToys finally gone and done what everyone was worried about and dropped the ball for arguably the first time, or have they crafted another figure that is a welcome and worthy part of their increasingly large line-up? The answer to this question is perhaps not as surprising as some may think, but let's give this new figure a good old once over anyway.

Before we get started, I should of course comment that the figure I have in hand is a test shot, and is subject to change before final release. I'll also add that some of the tolerances etc. likely be different to the final product, too. With that said, let's get to it!

This being a test shot, I wasn't provided with the full packaging and instructions with the figure, so I can't comment on this aspect. However, if you're at all familiar with FansToys recent releases then you will of course expect this figure to eventually be released in an attractive black box with some awesome artwork, containing a polystyrene inner casing that instantly recalls memories of Transformers figure from days of yore.

All accessories; I wasn't expecting two guns, which is nice!

What we have for analysis today is the figure itself and a small baggy of accessories, including two guns, both identical in design save for one being purple and the other being silver chrome, a spare chest piece as a translucent alternative to the default opaque yellow option, and an alternate set of bug legs.

A couple of people have already asked me if this figure will come with either an alternate robot mode face, or a stock of the small purple energon cubes that came with Grenadier. Neither of these things were included with the set I was sent, and whilst I haven't seen any evidence of an alternate face on-line, I'd be surprised if they don't include a few energon cubes to match the previous release.

Owners of Grenadier, will of course know that he comes with two versions of the bug legs - the pre-installed versions being a set of super-articulated and more 'lifelike' insect-like legs, and the alternate versions being less articulated but more reminiscent of the original Generation 1 toy and cartoon. Whilst Mercenary will very likely follow Grenadier's lead in this respect, the test shot that I hold in hand arrived with the G1 legs pre-installed. I'll admit that this is preference anyway (purely because I like the G1 look!), so a lot of this review will be done with that set installed, but of course I'll swap them out and show you the difference.

Though this figure will undoubtedly come packaged in robot mode, I've chosen to start with the insect mode for the purposes of this review. I'll also start by saying that I was a little underwhelmed by this mode from pictures that I had seen, but right off the bat I've reversed that opinion during the few days I've had him in hand!

Though I'm sure that some fans who're perhaps less familiar with the original series of Transformers might look at this release and think it's nothing short of bizarre, for anyone who was following the line in the 1980s this is clearly a homage of Shrapnel in his stag beetle mode, and looks every bit as it should. There's no mistaking the style and design of the G1 Insecticons, and Mercenary does an ample job of recalling that.

Ah, nostalgia!

A little heavy on the 1980s. Which is no bad thing!

It's a very attractive mode, helped by beautiful shades of purple and yellow offset against a deep, smooth matt black, which is really very pleasing to the eye. It has a way of catching and absorbing the light that is really quite nice, and if you already own Grenadier then you will know what to expect (though more on the comparisons between the two later). The purple is also quite stunning, with a similar matt effect on the side portions (AKA, the bits that clearly become the arms!), and a shiny, almost flaked look to the two sections at the back that will become the robot feet. There's also some welcome dark blue and yellow painted highlights, which really help to make the figure pop.

Lovely colours and nice finish

Then of course, there's the silver chrome. Wow. Chrome may not be everyone's first choice, but personally I really like it, and it looks absolutely stunning on Mercenary here. FansToys have reserved the use of chrome to just the mandibles, and it works really well, catching the light in a way that can't help but make you take notice. Beautiful.

A rarely attempted bird's eye shot

Bling bling!

Aside from good looks, there's also a quality and premium feel to be had here. Owners of Grenadier frequently comment about that figure's impressive 'heft', due to the use and application of diecast. I'm sure those same fans will be elated to hear that Mercenary is much the same, and whilst I'm going to stop short of getting the scales out, I'd say he's quite comparable in weight to his comrade.

Heavier than he looks

Overall this is quite a tidy insect mode, with little obvious robot mode kibble. A scrutinised side view reveals perhaps just a tiny bit too of the robot forearms hidden underneath, but you really would have to go looking for it. Otherwise everything is nicely and neatly packaged away, and the proportions are also exactly what one would hope for. Again, this is Shrapnel, and no mistake.

Let me see those hands...

Looks good from every angle

Bug butt

One point to note that is that Mercenary is capable of storing away at least one of his guns whilst in this mode. It can very simply peg into a hole on the underneath of his insect body, and then pops out the front just underneath his head, presumably ready to attack unsuspecting foes! It's a neat little touch, even if not one that was required, and is certainly more subtle that the weapons storage on Grenadier!

Way better than Grenadier's weapon storage

Articulation-wise, there's some play value to be had here, although perhaps only about as much as could realistically be expected. Both the mandibles have a good range of side-to-side motion, and the G1 bug legs all have at least one point of articulation (with the front set of legs even having two!) that allow for some movement and a little posing. To be fair, I think that's really all anyone who chooses the G1 legs option would be looking for!

Stop eating the carpet!

Of course, you also have the option of the more articulated set of legs, which is something I know a lot of fans will prefer. Changing the legs either way requires a small Phillips-head screwdriver, and although it's not the most fiddly thing in the world, it does leave me wishing that FansToys would explore other options for this sort of parts-swapping other than requiring the use of screws. To my mind, it prevents the figure from feeling like a high-end collectable, and strays more into the territory of customising or kitbashing, at least for my liking (especially if you're as ham-fisted with these things as I am!). Either way, a quick once over and you'll be left with an entirely new set of legs and certainly a lot more posing options with Mercenary in his insect mode!

The more articulated legs. Now with silver gun installed too

Creepy. There's definitely something about the articulated legs that is the stuff of nightmares. Perhaps that's quite appropriate for a figure of this nature! I will comment here though and say that neither set of legs is entirely perfect, in my opinion, and perhaps this represents my single real nitpick with the figure in this mode. The articulated legs somehow never quite look natural on the body, the highly poseable and semi-realistic aesthetic being at odds with the retro G1-styling of the rest of the figure. Equally, the G1 legs do their best to evoke the nostalgia factor for those looking for more of a 1980s kick, but the light grey plastic looks a little odd and never really matches the chrome mandibles or other parts of the design. They also slightly fail the cartoon-accuracy test for those who like to scrutinise their screenshots. Still, it really is a nitpick, and to be fair the G1 legs have significantly grown on me during time in hand; I certainly like them a lot more than I thought I would, and they're by no means 'bad', as I had feared they might be!

Articulated legs

G1 bug legs

Besides, whichever set of legs you choose, there's undeniably a lot of fun to be had here, and Mercenary really comes into his own when paired with his comrade in arms, Grenadier! In fact, I'd argue that seeing them together makes me appreciate each figure even more! Some of you may know that although I did really like him, I wasn't as in love with Grenadier as perhaps many fans were. Well, I'll eat my hat and admit that I'm really very taken with him now, as there's something about lining him up alongside Mercenary that just works, and makes me very excited for Forager, their upcoming rendition of the third and final Insecticon, Kickback. They look great together!

Bad bugs for life

They match really well

Double bug butt!

"Breach their defences!"

"Delicious! Eh, Shrapnel?"

Compared with the grey-chested Grenadier, both with the articulated legs

This pic was not supposed to look dodgy

Perhaps the other obvious comparison that needs to be made in this mode is to another company's rendition of the same character. Many fans will be aware that Badcube released their own version of faux-Masterpiece Insecticons in 2015, both as a 'value pack' containing all three characters (though with no chrome or diecast), and a collector edition of each character separately (with chrome and diecast). For comparison's sake, it's the 'value pack' version of Claymore, their own version of Shrapnel, that I have in hand.

FansToys on the left, Badcube on the right

So, where to start? Well, I know that a lot of the FansToys-faithful crowd will have concluded this debate before it even began, although in truth it's not quite the one horse race that some would expect. There's a lot to like about both figures.

The most obvious point is that both figures are almost exactly the same size, and generally both do a good job at evoking the intended character in this mode. When holding them in hand, of course the first thing that strikes is the weight difference, with Mercenary's generous amount of diecast making him considerably heavier than Claymore (though again, the collector edition of Badcube's figure is also part metal). Mercenary also takes advantage of that beautiful chrome, whereas this is another factor that Badcube have relegated to their collector edition version.

I do prefer the position of the mandibles on FansToys' version (left)

I'd argue that Mercenary is a fair bit 'cleaner', mostly in terms of the way the robot mode arms fold away and store as part of the insect mode, whereas Claymore's arms are certainly more visible. I also prefer the way that Mercenary's mandibles are positioned higher up on either side of his insect head. So far, several points to FansToys, although I must comment that I significantly prefer the insect legs on Badcube's version. Their solution of one piece for either set of legs is far more elegant and simple, not to mention arguably more cartoon accurate. The colour of the plastic is better, in my opinion, too.

We'll save the rest of the comparisons for the robot mode, but suffice it to say there's a lot to like about Mercenary in his insect form, whether compared to other company's efforts or not.

I'll admit I've been quite critical of Grenadier's transformation. The way the bug legs essentially fold up and just sit on his back always felt a little... undercooked, for my liking, and I fully expected to have similar muted feelings about Mercenary's. Turns out that there's a bit more to it that you'd expect, and whilst not complicated, it is actually quite inventive and at least a couple of steps are very creative indeed.

True, the bug legs basically do just fold up out of the way, but they actually form a relatively tidy, if noticeable backpack (and yes, this is true whichever set of legs you're using, although the articulated legs are rather fiddly!). Elsewhere, most of the transformation is as you might expect, with the robot mode legs folding down and the feet popping out. Extending the legs requires quite a bit of force, and perhaps for this reason reminds me somewhat of the equivalent transformation step on Quakewave - owners of that figure will no doubt understand what I mean!

Never seen robot forearms transform like this!

Now the real problem with needing so more force is that it puts a lot of pressure on the waist section, especially because one has no choice put to grip the figure by the upper and lower halves and essentially pull them apart. This created a definite problem on my test shot version, as the screw holding the waist piece in place was simply not up to the task, and consequently the figure ended up in two. Ouch. Sadly, this didn't happen just once, either, and required removing more screws and taking apart the entire top half in order to re-attach everything.

I can imagine that some readers are understandably a little alarmed at this, but do let me remind you that this is a test shot, and this sort of thing is precisely the reason for review copies. I do also know that the previous reviewer to handle this figure (Liam over at the rather magnificent Toybox Soapbox) had the same issue, so it may just be this particular copy.

(EDIT: It's since been confirmed by a FansToys source that this issue will be fixed for production.)

Issues aside, there're some particularly clever steps here, and I'm a big fan of how the arms pop out from the sides of the insect body, and especially how the forearms fold together. I've never quite seen anything like it on a Transformer, and it did take me a minute to figure out without instructions.

Shrapnel's robot mode has always been quite immediately identifiable by the insect mandibles forming rather large & protruding antlers, and the first thing you will notice about Mercenary is that he does an absolutely bang up job at recreating this. The silver chrome is so deliciously striking and prominent here that it really catches your eye even from a distance, and makes this guy pop. However, look past the bling, and you'll see that there's a lot else to be liked going on here.

Instantly recognisable robot mode

No denying that's Shrapnel


This is a very handsome robot mode, all things told. The lovely matt black carries over nicely from the bug mode, and the striking paints apps are all neatly located to add some interest here. The purple arms and shiny purple feet are also much more prominent now, and really look great. There's also some really nice detail to be seen here, despite the overall sculpt being quite smooth and not at all 'overdone'.

Nicely proportioned and surprisingly well put together, Mercenary feels immediately fun and poseable when fiddled with for the first time. Again, I was initially quite critical of his predecessor, Grenadier, for how kibbly I thought his backpack was. I won't lie and say that I didn't have similar concerns for Mercenary, particularly as some early photos made it look like the kibble was even more pronounced! However, whilst it is still quite evident, the backpack here is quite tidy, as I say, and nowhere near what I had feared. Whether you're using the articulated or G1 bug legs, everything folds away about as neatly as might be expected, and I have to say that Mercenary cuts a fine form overall. If anything, he's even made me appreciate Grenadier a lot more, although more on that shortly!

With G1 bug legs

With G1 bug legs

With G1 bug legs

With articulated legs

With articulated legs

With articulated legs

A common criticism of this figure thus far has been the face. For whatever reason, FansToys seem to have earned themselves a reputation for having varying success with face sculpts (although personally, I think they've absolutely nailed characters like Swoop!), and Mercenary has been no exception, with several unflattering photos being shared over previous months. Fortunately, I can only say that there really is nothing to worry about here - Mercenary has a fine visage, nicely evoking the intended character, with a gorgeous red visor to boot. I would say that perhaps this guy would have benefitted from a slight smirk, perhaps even on a second, alternate face (as Badcube have chosen to do with their version), but the face we have is still very good.

I will say that the two pieces of silver chrome that form a 'collar' either side of this head are rather cumbersome, though. The problem is really that they don't move out of the way very much, and so especially hinder his face, particularly if you want to turn it to the side. It is sort of cartoon accurate, although even in the cartoon they were attached to the 'antlers' and moved further out of the way. If anything, it's more reminiscent of the G1 toy, which may have been what FansToys were going for. Regardless, it's not a massive problem by any means, but does restrict a few poses only on the basis of the character not being able to realistically 'see' where you're pointing his head!

That's about as much head rotation as you'll get

I have to say though that I was very impressed with how articulated this guy is overall. I realise it's quite commonplace these days, but I really did find Mercenary very dynamic and easy to put into a striking pose. It helps that he's mostly very well-balanced, with his feet and a large portion of his lower legs being diecast, although I will add that he has the occasional habit of falling backwards if you're not careful!

Very poseable

Working from the top down, he has a good degree of head rotation (despite his 'view' being encumbered) as the neck is a ball joint. Both the 'antlers' can also be moved from side-to-side, as in insect mode, and posed however you like (they don't lock into one position). The arms feature two points of articulation at the shoulders, giving them an impressive range of motion, a bicep swivel, as well as double-jointed elbows and wrist swivel. The waist rotates 360 degrees for transformation. Both hips have a good range of motion, and the upper thighs also have a swivel joint. The knees have a decent bend and there's a good amount of ankle tilt, allowing for some dynamic poses. All of this allows for some great stances.

Yep, he looks the business

This being a test shot, there is some expectation of loose tolerances and the like, and I have to comment at this stage that some of the various joints on my copy are rather floppy, particularly the waist and the right 'antler' which only just manages to stay in place. I do think that this is mostly down to the figure having been taken apart and put back together several times over to deal with the aforementioned waist issue; in truth this copy never quite felt the same after the first fix attempt, despite how much I have tried to tighten the screws. Still, I have no doubt FansToys will work on this for release, especially as the quality control on their other recent figures has been excellent.

Elsewhere, the hands feature the usual one point of articulation with the fingers as one moulded piece, same as you find on most smaller figures (such as the Masterpiece carbots). They feature the almost expected slot in each palm, into which fits a corresponding tab on the side of his gun handle, although I did find that the gun was a little loose in his grip, and would frequently move around during posing. I will add at this stage that it's a really nice touch to have two guns included with this set, both cartoon-accurate purple and toy-accurate chrome; of course you can just have him wielding both at once!

Two guns!

Just try and not make 'pew pew' noises!

As if having two guns and two sets of legs wasn't enough, Mercenary also features an alternate option for the yellow chest piece. Whilst the default opaque yellow option is undeniably cartoon accurate, the translucent piece ably brings back memories of the original Sharpnel toy from 1985. The see-through yellow plastic was such a key feature of the original Insecticons, and I have to say that seeing it in place here really tugs the nostalgia strings. I'm normally all in for a cartoon look, but I have ended up leaving the translucent piece on the test shot copy whilst it's in my company, as it really is quite beautiful. The detailing underneath the chest piece is also a nice touch. I did initially think that neither chest piece quite fit properly, but it turns out this was just pure user error on my part - you have to ensure that the shoulders are sufficiently pushed upwards during transformation to allow for clearance of the tab that holds the chest piece in place. Then it all fits securely and looks fantastic!

What are you staring at?

With the translucent chest piece installed

It looks amazing!

And so we move onto the obvious comparisons. First up, let's have a look at him next to his teammate, Grenadier. Well, perhaps as expected they go very well together, and I can only say that seeing them side by side has made me appreciate each figure that much more. They certainly look like part of a team!

With purple Grenadier

With both Grenadiers!

It is worth commenting that there are some slight inconsistencies between the two, as some fans had feared, although it's really not as obvious as it might seem. Firstly, the yellow on their chests is very subtly different, but I had to hold it up to a stark light to really notice this; I truly don't think it will be a major problem to the naked eye, and supposedly FansToys will correct this for the final release anyway. There's also a variance in the purple used between Mercenary and the purple-chested Grenadier. This figure has quite a matt finish, whereas Grenadier is of course quite shiny. Again though, I truly didn't find this to be a problem, as despite a varying shade the style of the colour being different is enough to make sense of it. The key thing is that the matt black ties them together nicely.

But which Grenadier is better? Not even Mercenary knows!

It's fair to say that both Mercenary and Grenadier also look absolutely fantastic when placed next to both official TakaraTomy Masterpiece figures and FansToys other releases. FansToys are doing an amazing job at fleshing out the ranks, and it's exciting to think how far we've come!

With FansToys Quakewave

With Masterpiece Soundwave, Frenzy & Rumble

With Masterpiece Thundercracker & Skywarp

With X-Transbots Apollyon

With Unite Warriors Devastator

Then of course, there's the comparison with the other Masterpiece-esque Insecticons, from Badcube. Ultimately, comparisons like this are often in the eye of the beholder, but it's fair to say that though there are some differences between the two versions of Shrapnel, there's also a lot of similarities too. Many will talk about the exaggerated proportions of Badcube's attempt, but in reality they don't appear that different in hand. Badcube's definitely handles the back kibble situation a lot more elegantly, although I would say that Mercenary has the 'cleaner' robot mode overall.

FansToys on the left, Badcube on the right

For my money? Well, many will know that I am a big fan of the Badcube set, and so I likely went into this comparison with an expectation in mind of how this would go ... but I have to now admit that I'm surprised with the result. Whilst I have no intention of parting ways with Badcube's version, I must admit that Mercenary just about inches it, for me. I honestly didn't think I would be saying that, but he's really won me over in hand, and issues with the test shot aside, feels like he will be an impressive purchase. I will add that I would still heartily recommend the Badcube value pack as well, though; no bad purchase to be made either way, in truth. Of course it remains to be seem how the upcoming MMC versions turn out, as well.

With Badcube Hypno (on the right)

With Badcube Kickbutt (middle); let's see how FansToys Forager goes!

So there you have it. I have to sum up by saying that I ended up liking Mercenary's robot mode a lot more than I thought I would. It really is quite stunning!

Thus concludes our look at the latest chapter in FansToys' ongoing mission to fill out our Masterpiece Transformers' ranks. I have to say that I came into reviewing Mercenary feeling a little less excited than with a typical FansToys' release, but I've come out the other end truly looking forward to receiving my own copy of this figure when he's released.

Of course, there's a few issues with the test shot version that I have that I truly hope will be ironed out by the time this figures makes it to production, but if the quality control is anything like we have seen with Grenadier, then fingers crossed we have nothing to worry about.

(EDIT: It's since been confirmed by a FansToys source that this issue will indeed be fixed for production.)

Ultimately, Mercenary is fun, nicely designed, poseable and looks great with your other figures. What else were you really expecting from FansToys, anyway?

What's HOT?
Excellent build quality and overall a great design, Mercenary is a fantastic figure. The chrome is really lovely and I know plenty of folks will love the weighty diecast.

What's NOT?
It's a little irritating that the head can't better see past the mandibles in robot mode. The waist piece is an unfortunate design, although fingers crossed this will be sorted.

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