By Josh Speer / October 23rd, 2019
CONTRA: ROGUE CORPS is one of those games that people love to hate. And I’m not saying everybody is wrong that’s reviewed it so far, nor am I saying I necessarily know better. What I am saying is that whenever I see something which the aggregate tells me is irrevocably horrible, I tend to want to disprove the consensus. Or at least offer an alternate viewpoint. After all, I’ve actually been excited for CONTRA: ROGUE CORPS since I saw the surprising trailer unveiled way back at E3 2019. I may have been the only journalist woohooing and raising my fist in appreciation, and for a simple reason – I’m a fan of the CONTRA series. Yes, it’s generally hard as nails and beyond brutal, but it’s one of those series I grew up playing. Sure it’s not very intellectually stimulating or terribly deep, but sometimes you just need an excuse to blow away alien scum. So seeing as how I finally started playing my preorder copy of the game, let’s see if it scratched that violent itch.
First things first, I will concede that ROGUE CORPS is a messy title. Not just visually, but in terms of the precision of how the game and its systems work. I’m not saying that to be cruel, but sadly it’s just a fact. Having said that, I still found myself enjoying the basic loop of the gameplay. Picking a character, going through missions, beating bosses, getting rewarded with items, then using said items to upgrade my character. Now if you’re an old fan of the series, most of that probably stood out to you. Usually you don’t have progressive upgrades in CONTRA games, you just fight from level to level. And while I respect developer Toylogic for being ambitious and taking chances with the title, I couldn’t help but come to a conclusion as I played – ROGUE CORPS isn’t truly a CONTRA game. Again, not a slight, just a fact. In a way, ROGUE CORPS is a mishmash of various games wearing a CONTRA suit. In many ways, it reminded me of a mix of Gauntlet, Smash TV and DOOM. Which in a way isn’t that surprising after I researched other projects developed by Toylogic. One that particularly stood out was Kid Icarus: Uprising. That’s another great example of using the window dressing of the series, but totally reinventing how it sounds and plays. And much like Kid Icarus: Uprising, ROGUE CORPS fires many shots that miss the mark, as well as some that hit dead center.
The game starts with a surprisingly epic introduction, illustrated in a comic book style. It tries to encapsulate the entire history of the CONTRA games, showing how the aliens invaded and were beaten back. Or so we thought. Turns out, they left a present deep in the Earth’s core, and it suddenly erupts into a living nightmare called Damned City. This twisted location is so dangerous that most humans go mad just stepping foot there, and that serves as the excuse for our eclectic team of heroes, the titular ROGUE CORPS (or I guess technically Jaegers, according to the intro). Whatever their name, this fearsome foursome is the strangest band of heroes found in any CONTRA game. There’s team leader Kaiser, who looks like the cybernetic caveman ancestor of Bill Rizer. Then there’s Ms. Harakiri, who somehow got fused with an alien parasite that she stabs to gain temporary power boosts. Then there’s Gentleman, a hideous insectoid alien that is apparently on the side of the angels. And then there’s my favorite, Hungry Beast (HB for short), a giant mecha panda with a scientist’s brain in his noggin. Though you’d be hard pressed to call the heroes from other CONTRA games normal, this bunch makes them look boring by comparison. Oh and there’s one more character named Lily, she’s your pilot as well as the narrator of the story.
Now, as I said earlier, the basic gameplay is fine, with some provisos. It plays like a twin-stick shooter in a quasi 3D environment. I’m used to CONTRA being a 2D platformer, so this was a bit of a learning curve, but thankfully my recent addiction to the twin-stick genre helped my immersion. As you run around blasting hordes of foes, you have a couple things that help. One are the special skills unique to each character, which can be activated at any time, and then have to cool down before using again. Kaiser’s skill adds spreadshot bullets to his attacks, Harakiri gets stronger, Gentleman throws black holes that scoop up small foes and HB lays down several turrets which both shoot foes and deflect bullets. I like that amount of diversity, and it goes a long way to making the game feel fresh. Each character plays a little differently, dictated both by their size and movement speed as well as their primary and secondary weapons. I much preferred Kaiser and HB, since their machine guns pushed back foes, while Gentleman and Harakiri fired a laser that cut through enemies, but didn’t repel them.
I also appreciate how whenever you use a missile attack to clear the screen, the animation changes depending on your character. Kaiser rides the missile like in Dr. Strangelove, for example. Then there’s also Finishing Moves, which can only be used against nigh unkillable gold enemies. To stop them, you have to shoot and dodge attacks to dizzy them, then get close and press A to watch the blood flow. These are spectacularly violent sequences, and I only have two issues with them. First, enemies don’t stop moving just cause you’re murdering one of their buddies, and crowd up close and personal. This means you have to immediately dodge away once the sequence is over. The other problem is sometimes the animation doesn’t play properly, and instead you just see your character pose slightly before the attack activates.
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