Release Date: Sept. 23, 2019Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDeveloper: ToylogicPublisher: KonamiGenre: Run and gun
Contra: Rogue Corps is not good. This is a game that not only actively ignores everything that has made the Contra series great over the last 30 years but almost every tenet of good game design in 2019.
Rogue Corps is supposedly a sequel to Contra III: The Alien Wars. I say “supposedly” because other than the references to The Alien Wars in the opening cinematic, you’d be hard pressed to find any other connection to the Contra series. The game takes place in “The Damned City,” which, like most of the profanity laden script, sounds like it was taken from a ‘90s middle schooler’s Contra fan fiction. Anyway, this mysterious Damned City drives almost all who enter it insane and acts as an excuse to have as little variety as possible in level design.
Do you love the classic 2D run and gun action of almost every previous Contra game? Great, because you’ll find none of that here. Rogue Corps is a twin stick shooter with a top-down isometric view. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, and the controls are actually competent for the most part, but odd design choices keep the gameplay from being much fun.
While ammo is unlimited, each weapon can overheat and requires a few seconds to cool down during which you’re unable to attack, often with dozens of enemies bearing down on you. At least there’s a dodge button that temporarily makes you invincible and sends weaker baddies flying. But levels (which rarely have much graphical variety) can be lengthy and full of bullet sponge enemies with no checkpoints. And you can’t actually pause the game even when you’re playing single player offline. None of this should be too much of a challenge though, as Contra’s trademark difficulty isn’t present for most missions aside from the occasional annoying difficulty spike.
Rogue Corps features four playable characters, which is nice (especially for online co-op), but since all of the characters can equip the same weapons as you progress through the game, they don’t end up playing too differently from one another. Each character does have a screen-clearing super move that can be triggered when you find ammo for it, but that also means watching the exact same animation over and over again.
There’s some variety in playable characters at least. The gun-toting Kaiser is your typical Contra protagonist, while Ms. Harakiri inexplicably has an alien living in her stomach, so she kind of resembles Krang from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. At least one of these playable characters is a giant cyborg panda named Hungry Beast, which is about as creative as Rogue Corps gets. The Gentleman is a posh alien bug who might make you giggle once or twice.
The main enemies in Rogue Corps are “fiends,” bloody red zombies inexplicably carrying shovels, and you’ll kill a lot of them in your playtime. Thousands. They’re regularly joined by flying brains, chainsaw-wielding fiends, and obese cybernetic monstrosities so close to the demons in the Doom games that Bethesda’s lawyers might already be drafting the cease and desist letters. Even the first giant boss you encounter looks exactly like the revenants in id’s esteemed first-person shooter series. But at least that boss provides some variety in the experience.
It can’t be stated enough: Rogue Corps is a very repetitive (and boring) game. You go through lengthy missions that are inexplicably timed (yet running up against the clock is rarely an issue) and just point and shoot until the level is over. Sometimes you need to kill everything. Other times you just need to make it to the end of the level (while also killing everything in your path). Very rarely, the game switches to “shooting gallery” mode which just gives you the ability to point exactly where you want to shoot things, but usually there’s really no point to this. And if you liked the different guns you could pick up in the middle of levels in old Contra games, I have great news for you: that’s only possible like once every three missions, and only then for about ten seconds at a time.
One of Rogue Corps‘ few good ideas is that you upgrade your character by transplanting new organs you find on the battlefield into their body. You can transplant these organs for free, or pay extra to have better surgeons perform the surgery, hopefully altering your stats for the better. But even this is hampered by a broken in-game economy. I rarely made more than a few hundred gold in each mission, while most surgeries cost several thousand gold. Weapons are similarly priced, and while upgrading weapons is optional, upgrades raise the grade of weapons while dramatically lowering their stats.
This is a game made for grinding missions repeatedly in multiplayer, but that is so fundamentally unenjoyable that few gamers will bother. Konami tapped Nobuya Nakazato, the director of the much better Contra games The Alien Wars, Hard Corps, and Shattered Soldier, to oversee Rogue Corps, which is hard to believe after playing the disappointing final product.
At times, I felt like I was playing low budget Gauntlet with guns. When Rogue Corps regularly trapped me in enclosed arenas to fight off waves of enemies, it felt like a Smash TV follow up. But I never actually felt like I was playing a Contra game. Even the music, which usually fades well into the background, is completely forgettable and doesn’t even touch on the history of the Contra series.
But even judged independently of the weighty Contra name, Rogue Corps is a disappointment that younger gamers unfamiliar with the series are likely to find incredibly dated. Meanwhile, older Contra fans are going to absolutely hate it. Contra deserves better than this.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.