Contra: Rogue Corps is just one of those games. It’s the type of game I know I’ll look back on fondly a few years from now, and encourage anyone to pick it up out of the bargain bin it’s inevitably destined for. It’s a messy, scattershot package with lots of issues that’ll deter those demanding a perfect experience. However, there’s something clever with heaps of charm and originality lying below that mess.
Rogue Corps is the long-awaited return of the Contra franchise, and the first mainline entry since 2007’s wonderful, but punishing Contra 4 . Taking place in the wake of the Alien Wars, the game follows a band of mercenaries exploring the depths of Damned City – a warzone overrun by aliens that’s driven many an unfortunate soul past the brink of insanity. These four mercenaries find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy involving shady corporations, science gone awry, and aliens. Lots and lots of ugly aliens.
Dare To Be Stupid
Rogue Corps' story beats are absurd beyond belief, its characters a ragtag assortment of dirtbags, and its humor a special kind of warped and tasteless that’s refreshing in 2019. There’s an organic silliness to this game that’s rare in an industry where Nathan Drake’s wisecracks and whatever garbage Claptrap has to say passes as comedy. It feels effortless in its attempts at humor, and uncaring about how often its characters punctuate their sentences with F-Bombs. Speaking as somebody who finds most video game humor to be painful beyond redemption, Rogue Corps made me crack up numerous times during my playthrough. That’s rare, and something that shouldn’t be written off.
Also, Rogue Corps has one of my absolute favorite characters in a game this year - a sultry assassin with a sentient alien living on her stomach that she silences by stabbing it. Her name? Miss Harakiri. Get it? Good. Moving on.
Shoot ‘Em Up, Down, And All Around
Unlike the Contra that most know and love, Rogue Corps isn’t a 2D side-scroller. Instead, players will find themselves blasting through a hybrid of twin-stick and bullet hell shooters, with a bit of 3D platforming thrown in for good measure. While this is a bit of a controversial decision, it mostly pays off. Once it really gets going after its slow and repetitious early game content, it’s a fun and compelling game with loads to uncover.
There’s a nice, deliberate, tactile feel to the whole experience – one that comes with a bit of patience and experimentation. While all the different systems seem disjointed at first, they click into place with a few hours of putting your nose right up to the grindstone. Through trial and error, the game eases the player into what it wants: constant dodging, deliberate shooting, and a keen awareness of their surroundings. The closest comparison one could make is a less polished, but still engaging Binding of Isaac .
This isn’t to say every gameplay decision here is a good one. There are numerous questionable design choices that dull the flavor of this greasy cheeseburger of a game. For one, you can’t pause – a symptom of ToyLogic’s bizarre decision to structure this thing like Monster Hunter . This gets to be irksome when levels run for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. Also frustrating is the lack of checkpoints – when you die, the level’s over, and you’ve lost thirty minutes of your life. Your character’s experience points still go up, which is nice, but for a game that’s this long in the tooth, it can feel really discouraging to lose all your progress.
Loot ‘Em Up
is that it’s a loot shooter with every single trapping of that genre. Big ol’ numbers popping off enemies, different colors of weapons and armor to denote rarity, repeatable missions to grind experience, a hub area to cycle through your loot… it’s all here. Should it have gone that route? Debatable. Am I glad it? Surprisingly, yeah.
The thing is, as somebody who’s playing Borderlands 3 in conjunction with this game, I must admit that Rogue Corps is actually a bit more enjoyable in this department. There’s just enough loot in this thing that it feels diverse, but not too much to the point of feeling like you have to sift through ten tons of garbage to get one half-decent thing. Plus, most of the weapons feel very different, so switching it up means that you’re learning how to use something new each time. And, on a personal note, the weapons are just fun. My go-to loadout has been a giant buzzsaw hula hoop and a Gatling gun. The game encourages experimentation versus specialization, and that’s pretty neat.
“Experimentation” is also a great way to describe Rogue Corps ’ armor system. Players scavenge different body parts and vital organs, then get into a dirty tent and solicit one of three back-alley doctors to slice them open and stuff them with new giblets. The thing is that a player can absolutely ruin a good piece of gear by gambling it away, as some of the doctors allow you to risk damaging loot for the potential of better stat buffs. There’s a lot going on, a lot of different ways to kit a character out, and a lot of room to mess around with what you like best.
So, while Rogue Corps might not be as mechanically polished as a Borderlands or a Destiny , it has stuff going on with it that makes it more engaging than either of those games from a single-player perspective.
The only downside here is that the game is not very pretty. It has a wonderful art direction, with character and monster designs that are delightful in their campiness and absurdity. There’s also a nice diversity of environments present, from lush overgrown cities to grungy alleyways to oceansides lit up by dreamy, orange sunsets.
The problem is that none of this is complemented by the graphical horsepower of the game, especially on the Switch. Textures are muddy and edges are jagged, to the point that it looks like an upscaled, late-stage Wii game in some levels. While, for me, that’s part of this game’s charm – it feels like a relic of a bygone era – the fact remains that this is a forty-dollar video game put out by a AAA publisher in 2019. It’s not a good look, and it sure ain't good-looking. The Switch has the capacity to output better visuals, as evidenced by numerous games at this point, and Konami should've done better.
Not to mention, the less said about the music, the better. Some tracks are fine, but it’s all mostly forgettable, and the audio mastering is so poor that you can barely hear the music over gunshots, one-liners, and enemy screeching.
Konami Is (Kinda) Back
After years of pining for Konami to make a new game that isn’t or soccer, and after over a decade of waiting for a new Contra title, I have to say that I’m pleased with Contra: Rogue Corps . Sure, it’s nothing like the old games, but if franchises kept doing the same thing for decades, we’d never get stuff like or . Rogue Corps isn’t anywhere nearly as good or revolutionary as those, no, but it’s a bold game that isn’t afraid to steer the series in an interesting new direction. I’m all for new takes on old classics, and that’s very much what Rogue Corps is.
While Contra: Rogue Corps is not one of the year’s best, nor is it worth full price for most people, it will likely be one of my personal favorites of 2019 when all is said and done. Its campy fun, solid mechanics, and addictive loot loop shouldn't be written off because of technical imperfections.
3.5 Out Of 5 Stars
A Switch copy of Contra: Rogue Corps was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Contra: Rogue Corps is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.