It would be easy to dismiss Hard Corps: Uprising. After all, it wasn't developed by Konami, it's a download-only release, and it certainly doesn't look like a Contra title. What's immediately noticeable is that developer Arc System Works has brought their experience with retina-searing visuals, as seen in the Guilty Gear series, to the fore by eschewing the series' traditional earth tone palette and cyborgs and aliens for bright environments and anime-styled characters in weird costumes. I can only assume that that's going to be an automatic no-no for a lot of series veterans, but I can only say that not giving Uprising a fair shake would be a real shame.
To be sure, Uprising isn't Contra proper. While it exists within the same universe and is a prequel to 1994's Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, Uprising represents a brand-new branch in the franchise. What that means for gamers and fans is that, while the core mechanics will be familiar to most, with eight-way directional shooting and light platforming elements, it does break from the traditional formula in many respects. It's in these differences where Uprising truly shines, and for those who put in the time, it offers an addictive formula refined for replayability.
In addition to local and online co-op multiplayer, Uprising features Arcade Mode and Rising Mode. Now, while it would seem natural to jump right into Arcade Mode, I would advise against that. The reason is because Arc Systems introduced a number of minor (life bar) and major (upgradeable abilities) additions that, while succeeding in reinvigorated the series, aren't clearly explained and are limited in Arcade Mode. In fact, jumping in right away will likely result in a negative impression due to the game seeming sluggish and the controls a little off. It's through Rising Mode, where points are earned and spent on persistent upgrades, that the new mechanics areare—haphazardly—introduced and your skills honed.
As rebels Bahamut and Krystal, you will fight through six themed stages—jungle, ruins, futuristic city, etc.—in an effort to overthrow the Commonwealth. Each staged is packed with the rhythmic enemy and projectile patterns the series has used from the beginning, which allows for a trajectory of frustration followed by satisfaction as the areas' formulas are learned, adapted to, and eventually bested. Levels are not only layered with hidden loot and a surprising amount of paths, but each of the new abilities really open up how areas can be approached and encourage experimentation. Aside from a double jump and dash, which can be combined for a mid-air dash, the characters can also purchase abilities to reflect projectiles, evade incoming enemies, as well as launch over and bust through obstacles. Since the help menu doesn't really help in how to use these—it's all about the timing and distance when using the action button during a dash—repeating earlier levels to earn a higher score and try out new moves also has the benefit of allowing for practice in a well-traversed area. Every time I picked up a new move, I immediately went back to the first two levels to try them out, over and over. Regardless of how many times I went through them, they felt fresh all over again. The subtleties involved in when and how to use the moves add so much to the experience, and offer such a genuine sense of satisfaction when successfully pulled off, that I had a hard time tearing myself away from the game.
Abilities aren't the only upgrades, either. Characters can also purchase health bar extensions, additional lives, automatic weapon bumps (going up two levels instead of one per power-up), and a host of other improvements. The weapon upgrades can be particularly satisfying, as once-tedious and difficult bosses become mincemeat in the face of a freshly scored level three machinegun. But like its predecessors, weapons are a one-hit affair: a single shot will take out the gun and any upgrades. Similarly, the health bar isn't always a sure thing as some enemies can deplete an upgraded bar with a single blow. The ability to swap guns does help, allowing you to switch to the standard gun or an inferior one shortly before being hit, which saves the preferred weapon for later use. None of this ruins the challenge, though, because even after millions of credits have been spent on beefing up the characters, there will still be plenty of hair-pulling moments.
Rising Mode also features one other replay incentive, a combo bar. Successful shots build the meter up while enemy deaths increase the point modifier. Having the bar constantly drain keeps the pace brisk, which works well with the dash-centric design. While many players won't pay much mind to maximizing their modifiers, it's a nice addition for score junkies.
However, like many things, the combo meter is removed from Arcade Mode. Instead of customized characters, Arcade only allows for the selection of the characters and their preferred uniform color. This is really replaying the game—literally, the levels you unlock in Rising are not unlocked in Arcade—with pre-defined parameters, such as a three-segment health bar and set dash moves. Since the game operates under the assumption that you already know how to do all of the special moves, there is no additional help for newcomers to know just how and when to reflect a shot or leap over an obstacle. That is why it is crucial to spend some time in Rising, otherwise the game is too limited due to the design taking into account moves that you simply won't be doing. But once you have the hang of things, going back in Arcade is a blast, armed as you are with experience but feeling a bit more pressure as you make do without the upgrades you've become accustomed to.
Aside from the unhelpful help section, and the random so-so segment, the only sticking points I had with Uprising were the poorly placed checkpoints and muffled character audio. In many games, a checkpoint set a ways back is useful for building up strength, earning coins, or grabbing power-ups, but that's not the case here as power-ups are often found shortly before the fight but a few screens of enemies. For instance, dying in the second boss fight doesn't send you back to the screen before the encounter, but to the very beginning of that area. That means having to repeat a third of the level before finally getting to the boss, which often has the unfortunate side effect of making an exciting session somewhat tedious. And lastly, the audio, like the graphics, is largely well done, but characters have repetitive "Arggh!" cries that sound muffled and are distinctly inferior in quality to the music and effects. A minor complaint, I know, but distracting nonetheless. But oh how many more I'd hear for better checkpoints.
Hard Corps: Uprising is a slow burn that just isn't interested in convincing you to like it, which will no doubt be a problem for some. However, I can only suggest that you stick with it and go through the incredibly addictive Rising Mode before tackling Arcade to get a true handle on the new moves and upgrades. Purists might recoil at the idea of upgradeable health bars and purchasable continues, but the challenge presented definitely warrants them and Arcade Mode has no problem testing your fortitude. If you go in with open mind and a healthy supply of patience, you'll be amply rewarded. Twelve hundred MS Points well spent.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)