As a long-time gamer, it has been painful to see the trajectory of Konami in recent years. The Japanese stalwart has struggled to find its footing this generation, particularly following their acrimonious divorce from Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima. Their output has either been defined by re-releases and baffling spin-offs in the years since. Contra: Rogue Corps belongs in the latter category. It’s been close to a decade since we’ve last seen the franchise, but there’s definitely still an audience out there.
In the wide-ranging and convoluted timeline of the series, Rogue Corps takes place a few years following the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars. Despite humanity beating back the alien menace, things have only gotten worse. A location known as the Damned City has risen from the ashes, and there’s little that can be done by traditional forces. Enter the titular squad, which is made up of some unlikely teammates: modified soldier Kaiser, parasite-infected assassin Ms. Harakiri, turncoat alien The Gentleman, and Hungry Beast, a super-smart panda bear. They may not be the heroes anyone wanted, but they’re the only ones who can save the day.
If you couldn’t tell by the make-up of the team, Contra doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even in the more serious cutscenes, there’s usually a joke ready to undercut the mood. Konami seems to be going for a schlocky, 80’s action movie vibe — a solid goal, but one the team doesn’t pull off. The humor is sophomoric at best, and cringe-worthy most of the time; everything about it just seems so try-hard. I wish it wasn’t — after all, what other game lets you kill aliens with a panda — but that’s unfortunately how it is.
Rather than utilizing a side-scrolling perspective the series’ is arguably known for, Contra: Rogue Corps is an isometric shooter. After you select a member of the team, you’ll be dropped off into a zone in the Damned City, abundant with aliens to slaughter and loot to be plundered. There are other reasons for making these treks, such as finding key subjects, but you’re mostly tasked with clearing out enemy forces. There are a handful of boss battles to tackle too, but due to camera issues or sheer length, they aren’t that fun.
This is not the first time Contra has gone the isometric route, but it’s definitely the least enjoyable — 2004’s Neo Contra was able to make the jump successfully. Rogue Corps, however, suffers from sluggish movement and awkward aiming mechanics. No matter which hero you use, the movement speed feels completely off. Aiming your weapon is incredibly finicky as well. When it comes to crowd control, it’s not bad, but when you need to focus on a single target, it’s a real pain. A useful dash mechanic helps to pick up the pace, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the shortcomings.
The biggest sin Rogue Corps commits, however, is the fact that all weapons have a cool-down meter. You can only fire each one for so long before it overheats and needs to recharge. Frankly, this is unacceptable in a Contra game. Did the studio forget what exactly the series was known for? Intense firefights with bullets flying from both sides? I kind of get the idea behind it, which is to make you think strategically, but it feels completely out of place here. I’m getting mad just thinking about it.
Honestly, Rogue Corps is filled with similarly baffling design decisions. There are a ton of missions for you to tackle, but most of them reuse similar goals and level layouts — it makes the campaign feel padded with unnecessary fat. You can’t pause mid-mission, either, I guess due to the fact that the game is supposed to be played online. Even playing solo, though, you still can’t take a break. The clock will keep running, and if time runs out, you have to repeat the entire thing again. And then there’s the fact that not only does couch co-op not cover the main missions, but it also needs to be unlocked. Why can’t I do the campaign with a friend next to me? Why do I have to do these tedious side-missions instead? Why, why, why?
There is online play in Contra: Rogue Corps, and I would have loved to have been able to talk about it. However, I’ve yet to find someone online to play with, which is definitely concerning. Unlike couch co-op, playing online at least lets you tackle the campaign with other players. There’s also a PvP mode that would have been fun to test out. It sounds almost like soccer? With Contra aesthetics glued on top of it? It would have provided a nice distraction from the rest of the title at least. Hopefully, I’ll find another soul to test this stuff out with in the future.
One of Rogue Corps‘ few saving graces is the weapon/body upgrade system. Whether it’s through killing enemies or smashing crates, you’ll come across collectible items or gold to purchase new ones. You can then use what you have on hand to improve base weapons, develop new ones, or implant cybernetic body parts. It’s an interesting system that is decently enjoyable to mess around. It’s far from perfect, though, as you will need to grind a ton in order to get the best stuff on the market.
Even if it had been released during the last console generation, Contra would still be considered unpleasant to look at. The character designs are a mixed bag, with some interesting looks (Harakiri, Hungry Beast) mixed with some really ugly ones. The enemies are even uglier and more gruesome. There are only a few types too, and most of them are just recycled with minor changes to color palettes and weapon types. The most unsightly parts, though, come from the level design. Muddy textures, boring layouts and limited variety make each level a drag to play through. The series has never really struggled in the art department, so this effort is particularly disheartening.
I know I’m being hard on Contra: Rogue Corps, and yes, it doesn’t make a very good time. However, I don’t necessarily think it’s a complete waste. The upgrade system is an interesting tweak on the series’ formula, and the gameplay, while clumsy and bland, isn’t broken. That being said, this is a very bad Contra game. There’s almost no personality. It’s quite hideous, and it suffers from a smattering of terrible design decisions. It does little to assuage my concerns that Konami doesn’t really know (or care about) what it’s doing at this point. After being stuck on the sidelines for so long, this iconic franchise really deserved better.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Konami.
Although it may be a very bad Contra entry, Rogue Corps isn't a total wash. The upgrade system provides decent customization, and the gameplay is serviceable, but far from extraordinary. It's just not what you want from the long-buried franchise.