Metal Slug Tactics roguishly reinvents turn-based run-and-gun

I’ve lost way too much time to the Metal Slug series over the years, that most ubiquitous of Neo Geo arcade shooters. Classic Contra-adjacent run-and-gun shooters; loud, dumb and gorgeously animated. So how on earth does that translate to a turn-based tactics game? After playing a few rounds of the surprisingly beefy demo, the answer is ‘impressively well’, a few rough edges aside.

Developed by Lekir Studio (best known for the goth horror roguelike Rogue Lords) Metal Slug Tactics does an admirable job adapting the run-and-gun formula to a turn-based isometric battlefield. Not surprisingly, this one’s a bit of a roguelike too. Or roguelite, or however you want to define a snappy, run-based game where you gradually unlock more goodies and features over time.

Each run, you pick a trio of characters, each with an unlimited ammo primary weapon, a limited-ammo heavy weapon, and a special ability. Then you fight through a series of regions (one in the demo, at least four in the full game), each one a short handful of fights followed by a boss battle. 

While the battle maps and objectives are hand-made rather than procedurally generated, your route through each region is unpredictable, as are enemy spawns. Mission rewards and the perks available on levelling up are also somewhat randomised, helping keep things fresh even in the demo.

Enemy attacks come frequently and everything has a 100% chance to hit.

Fights are quick, often five turns or shorter, with simple but varied objectives: Clear all enemies, assassinate several targets while reinforcements constantly spawn, or escape to the other end of the battlefield. It feels like a series of action setpieces, further capturing that Metal Slug feel by forcing constant movement, mimicking run-and-gun aggression. 

Enemy attacks come frequently and everything has a 100% chance to hit. Hoofing it to the limit of your character’s movement range gives them a temporary ‘dodge’ buff, which reduces all incoming damage. Stack that with ending your turn behind cover tiles (handily highlighted in blue) and you can often reduce several hits down to almost nothing, or even no-sell damage entirely.

(Image credit: Gamera Games)

Given that health recharges fully after each fight and KO’d squaddies are revived for free, it’s often safer to charge headlong into a group of enemies than hunker down. Every system plays into encouraging this kind of measured recklessness, like movement generating Adrenaline, the resource used to activate special abilities. 

Not only is it okay to have enemies shoot at your squad, but if you make the right move, it’s good to take damage. Even if two of your squad are dead and a third is at death’s door, completing an objective ensures there’s nothing lost come the start of the next fight. Plus, if you overextend, you can spend extra lives (one of two limited resources, with heavy weapon ammo being the other) to revive them on the spot.

(Image credit: Gamera Games)

Recklessness is so encouraged that taking damage in creative ways feels like a key part of Metal Slug Tactics. One scenario in the demo has you trying to survive five turns while being bombarded by an artillery tower. At turn start it picks two of your squad to be targeted, and at the end of your turn, they take a direct hit no matter where they stand. If you move quickly and get behind cover for the full defensive bonus, they’ll shrug it off, but the cover will probably break, forcing them to keep dashing from point to point. Of course, you can also just run into the middle of a swarm of enemies and have the blast damage them as well.

It’s perfectly viable to catch your own teammates in a grenade or shotgun blast if the numbers work in your favour, and not having to worry about healing or revives between fights feels like a huge relief after so many roguelikes where taking a single bad hit can kneecap you for an entire run. 

There is room for subtlety, though, and that’s where the Sync system comes in. If you take a shot at an enemy while a teammate is in position to hit with their (free) primary weapon, then they’ll take that shot as a free bonus action. Stack up right, and you can hit enemies with all three characters a turn. Instant death for grunts, and so powerful that bosses can only have one sync shot hit them per turn.

It’s fast, messy knockabout tactics.

In short, it’s fast, messy knockabout tactics. Forgiving if you’re willing to burn lives, but with room for a lot of precision and skill once you understand the mechanics. It feels like Metal Slug. Sounds the part, too, and looks… near enough. Aesthetically, the screenshots and trailer speak for themselves—this is a great-looking game, and while it doesn’t quite nail the aesthetic of SNK’s gorgeous sprite-work (the shading looks a tiny bit off), it comes shockingly close. Every character bounces and wiggles excitedly when left idle, and battle animations are full of exaggerated motion and stretchy, squashy smear frames.

There’s a surprising amount of meat on the demo’s bones too. My first successful run took around an hour, but completing that unlocked close-combat specialist Tarma, the option to spend currency to expand the upgrades pool and a second difficulty level, which bumps up the tier of enemies encountered but bumps up the rewards and vehicle spawns (such as the titular Metal Slug tank) to help deal with the tougher bad guys.

A tactical battle

(Image credit: Gamera Games)

While a good time already, the demo does have a few wrinkles. Though it’s mostly arcade-authentic, the UI looks a little sterile and overly clean in places, and some bigger bits of pixel-art (such as the title screen) look a little underbaked. I also bumped into a couple bugs where the UI refused to respond, forcing me to quit and re-open the game. Thematically, it could also raise eyebrows to see so many scimitar-swinging Arab stereotypes in the demo, with the promise of masked jungle cultists in loincloths coming in the full game. Granted these are all enemies lifted straight from the arcade originals, but might sit poorly with a 2024 audience.

Without a release date pinned down, the technical issues have plenty of potential to get fixed, at the very least, and I’m eager to see the other environments and enemy types. Metal Slug Tactics launches later this year, with the demo available on Steam now, and has my seal of approval.

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