WELL FUCKING STOP THAT SHIT, YA GODDAMN NINNY!
(read: Yes, you ARE a ninny.)
Whatchu thinkin' 'bout Contra for, anyway? As you can clearly see, the name of this game is Hard Corps: Uprising. I only see one "C" in this here game's title, and the damn thing don't look on fire to me!
See? (C? GET IT, HUH? HUH? OH YEAH!)
Now don't you feel like a big ol' dummy?
Really though, why would anyone think that this is a Contra game? I mean sure, there was a game called Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, but it's been proven 'round these parts that most people don't even know what that is. And sure, the main antagonist in that game was named Bahamut, much like the main protagonist of this game is named Bahamut, and there's a scientist named Mandrake, but really, that could happen ANYWHERE! Those names are as common as "Joe" and "Bubba Beebl," so there's no reason to think there may be any connection here! It's all just one big fat coincidence!
Here, go ahead and have a look at this video proving that Hard Corps: Uprising isn't a Contra game so we don't have that dark cloud hanging over this review the entire time, okay?
Alright, so we're all clear on this, then. Ya hear that, Konami? Get your fuckin' lawyers off my fuckin' tits and let me get back to my fuckin' job of yelling important opinions about videroo games on the fuckin' interbutts! You do your thing, I'll fuckin' do mine.
Hard Corps: Uprising is a collaboration project between Konami and Arc System Works, the latter of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame. In more recent years, Konami has been in the habit of farming out the production of Totally-Not-Contra-Games to other studios, earning a pretty respectable degree of success with efforts by WayForward and M2. Arc System Works seemed an odd pairing given their dedication to the fighting genre, however they're also known for being incredibly over the top while being unbelievably stylish about it. Two things that fit well when you pair them up with a series that really isn't Contra, guys seriously.
At first, the explosive and in your face Japanese Cartoon style may be quite staggering to take in. Really-Not-Contra games have never had a look quite this vivid and bright, save for Contra: Hard Corps' (which totally is a Contra game) 90's Japanese Cartoon character designs. Hard Corps: Uprising's look is all over the top Japanese Cartoons all the time, and with artist Daisuke Ishiwatari helming the game's visual presentation, folks familiar with Arc's other works know what they're getting into. The entire package is presented in stunning HD, which looks fantastic no matter the size of the screen you're playing on, so prepare thine eyes to be cut in half by just how sharp this game's visual presentation is.
The look holds up even once you're dropped into the action, with every hand-drawn main character and enemy boasting an almost unusual amount of detail and animation for sprites that are fairly tiny compared to sprites you'd see Arc's fighting games. Idle animations, spent bullet casings constantly streaming from your rifles, recovering from jumps, a wealth of unique deaths, and even walking and running cycles are incredibly fluid and add the perfect amount of liveliness to the on-screen action. Backgrounds look equally stunning, presented with a vast amount of color and details, mixing in just the right amount of 3D elements that really bring the battlefield to life and create a very consistent style throughout each of the game's eight stages. Not quite as impressive are the mechanical designs, which are all 3D polygon-based, and though they're by no means terribly designed or constructed, they don't seem to mesh well with many of the 2D elements, such as the hand-animated pilots controlling them, or the wide array of 2D explosions and effects that are constantly going off. Though it looks like nothing else in the So-Not-Contra series, Hard Corps: Uprising's overall visual design is as refreshing as it is well-executed, and even those opposed to the Japanese Cartoon style may find themselves won over by the incredible amount of character on display here.
With Daisuke Ishiwatari also involved in composing the game's soundtrack, those familiar will know what to expect. Chugging riffs, blast beat percussion, soaring guitar solos, a healthy mix of eastern influence, and harmonies out the ass that set very well with the carnage and high-speed action on screen. There's lots of great new material here that'll get crammed into your skull, as well as re-interpretations of Nope-Not-Contra favorites that'll be instantly recognizable and have you humming along within the first few familiar notes. There's also...an almost overwhelming amount of incidental voice samples from the main characters and enemies. It's all fairly cheesy stuff with enemies taunting you, death screams, cursing your name every chance they get, and the main characters spouting off winners like, "Aren't you supposed to go easy on a girl?" The big problem is that the samples play a bit too damn often, with EVERY enemy yelling something at you upon death, and in a game with as much cannon fodder as this one, it can become quite tiresome, and even distracting, after a while.
To go with its all-new aesthetics and presentation, Hard Corps also decides to get a little crazy and mix things up with the gameplay. Sure, you'll still be doing much of what you'd expect in a Contra-ja-nai game. Blastin' fools, shooting weapons out of capsules that float by overhead (all of which stack three times), and finding no shortage of malicious boss fights, but Arc manages to leave their own mark on the formula, creating what may likely be the fastest and most chaotic entry in the This-Isn't-Contra brand yet.
Most of the new features are centered around defense and mobility, and inject just the right amount of freshness into a formula that has been admittedly showing its age for quite a while. You now have the ability to reflect nearly every "small" projectile and laser in the game with a well-timed button press, and some characters can receive upgrades that make them invincible in specific situations. Other additions are focused around mobility. These come in the form of a ground dash that'll get you from point A to point B much faster than normal walking, a double jump to provide just a bit more oomph to clear those tricky pits or tall enemies you don't wanna fart with, and an air dash that'll let you glide over enemy fire or get to the other side of the screen with ease. All this fancy dashing around can also be used in conjunction with the "action button" to activate other maneuvers such as a super tackle that will knock crates and explodable barrels into your foes, as well as ambushing and vaulting, which let you side-step enemies, obstacles, and projectiles while invincible. Learning these new tricks is essential, but they're easy enough to learn if you just fiddle around with learning the timing a bit.
The only real problem here is that the moves themselves aren't documented very well in the in-game "How-To Play" instructions, nor any menus in which they appear. The information is either way too vague to understand or missing entirely, so it'd be a good idea to look them up or ask a certified expert (read: me) before trying them out in a for really-reals play session.
But before you decide to get in there and commence with the blasting of said fools, you're gonna have to hold yer horses for a sec and decide how you wanna play Hard Corps. The game offers two play modes: Arcade Mode and Rising Mode. Arcade Mode is a fairly "standardized" way of playing through the game where characters have a pre-set number of lives, health, and attributes that affect their movement and air speed, and you're always forced to start playing from Stage 1. Aside from bragging rights however, there's not much reason to play through this mode unless you want some hideously sore thumbs thanks to the lack of any real rapid fire options other than never losing a Machinegun, and its inclusion seems a tad redundant when you consider the versatility of Rising Mode.
Rising Mode is a new idea for the Absolutely-Not-Contra series in which each character starts off with less than their default Arcade Mode attributes and abilities. In this mode however, you accrue "Corps Points" or "CP" to spend as you murderize your way through the game. These points can then be spent to deck out your characters with upgrades to their health, rate of fire, number of starting lives, speed, jumping abilities, and make each special weapon pick-up always count as the second and third-tier versions. It should be noted that you can turn any of these abilities off at any time as well, even eliminating the lifebar altogether to create that "authentic Absolutely-Not-Contra" experience. Obviously, this type of powering up can lead to many portions of the game (but not all, believe you me) becoming piss-easy, as you're allowed to grind out stages over and over again for points. The flip side to that is that it's still a good bit of fun leveling up characters with your friends, and it provides good practice, since you can begin a new game starting with any stage you've already beaten. Many times while playing through the game, I'd find myself two or three million CP short of a new ability I wanted, and the fact that the game is downright fun on a bun made it easy to wanna pick the gamepad back up and roll through some of my favorite stages again. It's cheap replay value, but it works.
What makes Hard Corps: Uprising such a fun game is its stage variety and suitably epic (I fucking hate that word) boss battles. Every stage is packed with fun and challenging new twists that keep the gameplay interesting, and it's extremely rare that you'll be asked to do too much of the same thing (aside from the aforementioned blasting of fools) more than once. Stage 1's fairly straightforward run through an enemy-infested desert is about the most normal thing you'll encounter, and when compared to the crazy shit the later stages offer, almost seems unimpressive. After that, you'll be running for your life through the death traps of an old abandoned temple, cruising down the highway at break-neck speed on a hoverboard while dealing with the worst rush hour traffic imaginable, and chasing down your main antagonists through a series of fiery collapsing buildings, all while fending off swarms of enemy troops. Shit, there's even stealth and escort missions in Stage 5 that may seem entirely out of place, but work really well due to the stealth not being entirely required, and the escort job being fairly easy.
As mentioned before, each stage of the game is peppered with many multi-part boss encounters, each one more devious than the last, and ready to remove your face with whatever implements they have at their disposal. The number of times you have to knock each boss down almost seems absurd at times, but that's really just a calling card for these kinds of games, and victory is as simple as learning patterns and where to be so specific attacks won't work you over.
Prior to tackling Hard Corps: Uprising, it'd be a good idea for you to take time some quiet evening, just the two of you, to sit down with your shit to just let it know that on no uncertain terms it's going to get perpetually wrecked. Badly. The game pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to knocking you around, and there are no difficulty options to speak of, so no retreating to Easy mode for you little pansies out there.
Every stage and boss will seem impossible at first, but can all be overcome with the right amount of practice. You're given a pretty gracious hitbox, with attacks and enemies needing to be fairly deep inside your character sprite in order to register a hit, and even having a lifebar speaks volumes to how insane the designers knew this game would be. There are still moments in the game that can seem quite bullshitty, however. Weapon Capsules don't seem like they appear even close to often enough considering that all weapons can stack three times, and the little fuckers almost always pop up smack-dab in the middle of the worst situations possible, and in Stage 4 they can fall to the ground right under your hoverboard, making them completely unobtainable. The final two stages of the game also focus entirely too much on climbing around on walls and ceilings, and even with a maxed out life gauge in Rising Mode, one hit is enough to knock you off a wall and send you plummeting into the pit below. But like any good action platformer, it's all in perseverance, skill, and the ability to memorize things. You will get good at the game, snagging those hard to get power-ups and toppling behemoth-like bosses without taking a hit, but it's going to take dedication and a lot of patience.
Of course, one of the most important parts of any Totally-Not-Contra game would be the co-op. Yes sir, there's nothing finer when you're 100% in tune with someone blasting the shit out of any and everything that moves, covering one another's back, and taking down hulking bosses with surgical precision. It's a beautiful sight to behold and an even more exciting thing to be a part of. Hard Corps: Uprising nails most of the fundamentals, being as easy to pick up and play as any other For-Really-Reals-Not-Contra title. Nothing's easier to explain than jump, shoot, and dash buttons to get someone moving, and there's a considerable amount of action going on at all times, so there'll never be instances where one person has to do all the work (unless you're playing with decoy octopus...HEY OH!)
Speaking of getting to play with people who are poopsky at videroogames, since Hard Corps is on the "big boy consoles" now, we have the benefit of online multiplayer! Its inclusion could have easily been a disaster of sloppy netcode, but it turns out to be one of the most responsive and lag-free experiences I've had in online gaming, save for one or two games that simply needed a connection restart to get going. I've almost exclusively played this game online, with a good chunk of the 35 hours I've sank into it being with other people from around the world, and as much as I fucking hate people and hate playing online games, this should be quite the testament to the job done with this game's network mode.
Hard Corps: Uprising's co-op content doesn't come without quite a few nigh game-breaking caveats however, which almost solely come courtesy of the game's level design and engine mechanics. Mind you, I don't think the level design in the game is bad at all. In fact, just to be blunt, I think the level design in Hard Corps: Uprising is fantastic. The problem is that it's clear the basis of the engine and many parts of the game, particularly those toward the end, were not built with two players in mind.
If you can't find our player characters, don't worry, we couldn't either!
This becomes an issue as early as Stage 2's final boss and continues to sprinkle small bits of irritation throughout the duration of the game, and really piles it on at the end. Where most modern games tend to zoom out, providing a better picture of what's going on when the distance between players becomes too great, Hard Corps sticks to old traditions of locking the screen when one player is lagging behind, and killing anybody unfortunate enough to be "scrolled off" the bottom of the screen. Not zooming out also provides huge problems when dealing with certain bosses, specifically the Stage 5 mid-boss, where it's possible to actually end up with BOTH players off screen fumbling around, with only vague player indicator icons as their guide.
Even more frustrating is the game's respawn system. Not only can it sometimes resurrect a fallen player up so high that the camera just snaps to them and scrolls the other player off the bottom of the screen, but sometimes it'll just spawn you on top of platforms that are already in the process of falling, or into places where you really have no other option than eating another death to recover. The game is already chaotic enough, but when shit like this happens, it can be impossible to recover from the frustration, and with the final two stages being almost entirely built around one-hit pit deaths, most may lose the nerve to continue trying long before their Credits count hits zero.
REJOICE! FUN TIME HAS ARRIVED!
When the engine isn't threatening to ruin all of your online friendships forever, the actual stage designs are there to lend a helping hand with their lack of optimization for a second player being there. The most stand-out examples appear in Stage 3, which takes place in a temple full of death traps and Mario'esque platforming. Since all characters move at varying speeds, sets of moving spiked walls that the players must traverse, and an Indiana Jones-inspired boulder chase setpiece almost feel completely unfair. The slower player is always going to end up getting the screen snagged and both players eating it hard, and it won't always be their fault.
Bahamut naturally moves slower than Krystal, so while she's chugging on through, he's still 1/2 a screen behind. Even if she does manage to make it to the lower level drop-off point, she's going to die because the screen can't scroll down. Stages 7 and 8 are absolutely nightmarish trying to coordinate, even when you're in the same room with someone. The combination of character speed differentials and the lack of appropriate framing make me dread the final two stages every time I play the game with someone.
Add the fact that the game is hugely prone to crashing online between stages and continues, (SUPER HINT: DON'T CONFIRM UNTIL THE SAVE ICON DISAPPEARS!) and you've got a game that's a tad hard to recommend for its multiplayer portion. It's insanely fun when things go right, and even sometimes when they don't, but there's too much that can go wrong to ruin the experience that some fine-tuning and play testing probably could have easily fixed. I'd have been more than happy to wait another few months for these kinks to get worked out rather than paying $15 for a game that doesn't feel like it was completely tested or optimized.
At least it's not a total wash, as the single player portion of the game is almost devoid of these game-breaking oversights, and despite being a Stop-Saying-It's-Contra-It's-Really-Not game, there's still a shitton of fun to be had by one's lonesome. There's still a wonderfully rewarding feeling one gets when they finally learn to best a boss without taking a hit, or figuring out some of the tricky level layouts and enemy placements that are nothing short of devilish. There's also the satisfaction one can gain from regularly leveling up their characters in Rising Mode, which even at your pinnacle, can still see you getting your shit wrecked on a regular basis. The game remains super challenging, yet fun, and it's really unfortunate that it's not often that feeling carries over to the multiplayer.
There's a little bit of everything in Hard Corps: Uprising to satisfy anyone looking for a solid tough as nails platformer. It's got some great visuals, bitchin' tunes, and enough chaotic action to keep those thumbs nice and blistered for a good long while, but you'll probably enjoy the bulk of that time alone. You'll have fun in multiplayer too, and as stated the online performance is spot-on, but that'll likely be equaled by how much you wanna strangle whoever's idea it was to cling so tightly to old conventions that simply don't work now. There's a lot of promise here, and Arc System Works' ideas breathe new life into a genre that's become a bit stagnant with tradition over the years, but with a little more polish and a bit more time in the oven, a Hard Corps: Uprising 2 could easily be the "great" game that this one fell just a tad short of being.